Tag Archives: Opeth

It’s Prog Jim, but no pale imitation

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Some fine rock albums have been released this year: Pixies’ Indie Cindy; The Arcade Fire’s Reflektor; Elbow’s The Take Off And Landing Of Everything; Mex’s Dr Jekyll & Mrs Hyde; Bushman Bros. Condensation Fear (of which more later) and Mastodon’s Once More ‘Round The Sun. I’m tempted, on first impression to say that Opeth’s just-released Pale Communion has earned its place on the top of this distinguished pile… and then some.

Much of previous album Hertitage (2011) sounded like Opeth were trying to be a different band: out with the metal, in with acoustic, jazz-folk meanderings. If their previous ‘departure’ album, Damnation was merely Opeth without the loud bits, that album pointed the way down stranger paths, often veering miles away from anything resembling rock. If you’re not familiar, imagine Talk Talk‘s Spirit Of Eden meets Nick Drake. Even when metal did occasionally rear its head and holler – as on Slither – it sat uneasily amongst the other brooding, wandering compositions. Being an homage to metal of yore, and the – then – recently-departed Ronnie Dio in particular, it exposed a little of trad metal’s roots in the R’n’B scene which was a proving ground for Dio and his contemporaries. It’s perhaps noteworthy that this is something that Scandinavian ‘extreme’ metallers have, historically, eschewed doing; especially whilst labouring under the moniker ‘black’. But if the album had soul – and even the harshest of prog/metal critics must surely acknowledge that singer, Mikael Åkerfeldt possesses a spine-tinglingly soulful set of pipes, when resisting the temptation to growl like Cookie Monster – it was rather of the ‘tortured’ variety.

So it surely comes as a surprise to come across a track like Goblin, five tracks into PC: as if relocating a Dirty Harry car chase to ’70s Stockholm streets in winter, Opeth have never sounded so groovy. There’s an element of homage/pastiche (most writers have reached immediately for the song’s Italian namesake – I’d also venture Barrett Martin‘s Tuatara soundtrack collective, and also the instrumental breaks featured on the last Steven Wilson album) but not a whiff of ripe Gorgonzola. And PC is full of such statements of intent.

Opener, Eternal Rains Will Come has the feel of fellow Swedes, Katatonia when they dial back on the metal, replete with sweet melancholy, albeit pushing the ‘prog’ further than they’ve yet dared. It’s three minutes before we hear any vocals: a knotty, stuttering instrumental section giving way around the two minute mark to some characteristic Åkerfeldt clean guitar melodies. Heritage also began with a three-minute instrumental but they have little else in common: this song – and album – are a very different proposition, despite my initial impression formed from hearing trailer single, Cusp Of Eternity. The latter – and second track on PC – would have fitted fairly comfortably on their previous release. Most everything else, not so much.

If Steven Wilson once purloined a little of Opeth‘s metal grit when he first hooked up with the band back in 2000, then River suggests Åkerfeldt has called in the debt: the two writers evidently share a certain melodic sensibility, but Opeth have never so closely approximated the bittersweet tone and structural development of a Wilson/PT piece. The harmonies are beautiful.

Voice of Treason‘s stabbing strings and twinkling Rhodes piano recall Apollo 440‘s most Stealth Sonic exploits at the start, before taking off on a thrilling crescendo that finally gives way to a few bars of quiet, almost spiritual reflection. This fades into final track, Faith In Others: also a cinematic, string-drenched piece it’s surely Åkerfeldt‘s best ballad to date. It’s a fitting closer that reminds me, in its emotional maturity and expert mastery of tension and release rather than style, of Marillion‘s latterday balladic excursions; such as Sounds That Can’t Be Made.

And yet, all musical reference points aside, the tone, melodies and arrangements are unmistakably Opeth. If Heritage represented Åkerfeldt‘s time in the wilderness, ruminating and expanding his musical mind in all directions; PC sees him digging deep, consolidating all that he has loved and absorbed over 3-plus decades as a music fan and bringing it to bear in the evolution of his own style.

Where Heritage was sparse, this is lush; and whilst the former’s twinkling, intriguing subtleties are still there, they here serve to augment rather than carry the songs. Åkerfeldt told it true: this album is very much about melody, but it also resurrects and reimagines what was great, dynamically about the band’s latter metal recordings; keyboards, strings and drums lending much of the weight once provided by guitar parts. Yoakim Svarlberg (keys) and Martin ‘Axe’ Axenrot (drums/percussion) really excel thruout; and on reflection I realise – as I suspect many fans will – that it was that dynamic range and richness, as opposed to the metal per se that was missed on Heritage. I’ve grown to appreciate and enjoy, if not really love the latter; but this… this is something else. If you’re an Opeth fan of old who lost the faith over the last couple releases I urge you reconsider. PC is stunning from start to finish – or as near as damn. To date, Blackwater Park has been my gold-standard Opeth release (honorable mentions for Ghost Reveries and Deliverance: silver and bronze) but with this album the band have crested a new peak of creativity.

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Metal health (2): Gender edition

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Following on from Metal Is Gay, another enlightening and welcome article from  Terrorizer staff addressing sexism within the metal community

On the one hand, I applaud Yardley for his, at least partial, honesty and willingness to confront – after a fashion – said sexism. I Blogged the article on homophobia he references (above) in a recent mbg post: as a longtime metal fan and occasional reader of Terrorizer it’s heartening to see exponents of that community addressing the bigotry – sexism, homophobia, anti-Semitism etc – that are all too often glossed-over within a scene (extreme metal) that, musically at least, champions progressiveness and originality.
Aaaaand, yet, his article throws the elephant, the big contradiction into sharp relief: if Yardley is passingly familiar with the feminist position, enough to be gender-critical, just why does he still embrace the ‘Trans* identity? Stop short of owning up to being a fetishist, or at least jaded by the putative demands of masculinity. Or maybe he doesn’t see it that way? Maybe Trans* means something else to him? Which loo does he use, I wonder, in any case?
Still glad (GLAAD?) he wrote this piece, though. It’s noteworthy that whilst the definition of Trans* (Gender questioning/queer) grows ever broader to the point of near-meaninglessness; that the ideological criteria for inner-circle membership continue be confined by good ol’ boys club values of masculine entitlement and fear.

(This post is based on a comment I posted on GenderTrender; your one-stop-shop for gender-critical analysis and discussion in a hostile, narrow-minded media).

An extreme metal injection at this point seems apposite: Baying Of The Hounds fits the bill, I think….

Cusp of release… almost.

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In case you missed the memo, Opeth are due a new album in a couple months and are now trailing it with Cusp of Eternity, track two from Pale Communion:

The full tracklist is as follows (see Prog magazine for more)

  1. Eternal Rains Will Come
  2. Cusp of Eternity
  3. Moon Above, Sun Below
  4. Elysian Woes
  5. Goblin
  6. River
  7. Voice of Treason
  8. Faith in Others

On this song alone, it’s hard to ascertain if Mikæl Åkerfeldt and co have made good on their promise of a record both, ‘more melodic’ and ‘darker and heavier’ than Heritage. In the vein of The Devil’s Orchard which trailed the latter, it purveys a slightly streamlined, sanded-down version of the classic Opeth sound – rich in characteristically-sombre melody, albeit shorn of the ‘Marmite’ growls – which walks a fine line between satisfying long-time fans and signposting a sound with broader rock appeal. On the strength of …Orchard, critics might have been forgiven for concluding Opeth had recorded their ‘Black Album‘, The reality turned out somewhat differently, as we now know: Heritage may be markedly less brutal, yet every bit as challenging for that: tracks like I Feel The Dark and Famine were never likely to trouble daytime radio listeners’ ears, never mind set fists-a-pumping in stadiums.

To my ears Cusp… would have sat quite comfortably on Heritage, had it been recorded at the time. Sure, the guitars are a little crunchier-sounding but the song is still recognisably a member of the same extended family of songs sired by Åkerfeldt and Steven Wilson during that fruitful period from 2010-12 which also includes Storm Corrosion and Grace For Drowning. One might even look back as far as 2008 and Mellotron Heart for signs that times were a-changing in camp Opeth. If that moody, idiosyncratic prog rock niche is your thing, Pale Communion is likely to be more music to your ears: Opeth fans of yore, yearning for a return to throat – and ear – shredding growls are liable to be further disappointed.

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As mentioned in my previous post, 2014 heralds the release of Pixies’ first LP in over two decades, and I can’t pretend I’m not excited. A few tracks osmosised via 6Music and thru the hubbub of my works kitchen aside, I’ve assiduously avoided hearing anything from the new record, though: I haven’t even dragged the download of EP3 that came bundled with my advance purchase of the all-singing, all-dancing special edition out of the download box into my media library.

Why? The closing clause in this Steven Hyden article for Grantland, sums it up neatly enough ‘…because my [anticipated] disappointment in what they’ve become has more to do with me than with them.’ The same might be said of the second Star Wars trilogy, or my assessment – see also my previous post – of the last Opeth album. Hot on the heels of the realization that George Lucas/Pixies/Opeth are not the same people today that they were when they recorded their most treasured artifacts comes the secondary one that we are not the same people either. This makes for a complicated, fragmented relationship with our favoured artists’ ever-expanding catalogs of work, tainted by nostalgia and changing expectations.

When Hyden writes ‘I would guess that before the Pixies’ reunion in 2004 (and the subsequent run of endless tours in the decade since), the majority of the group’s fans had never seen them live. Much of the Pixies’ fan base got into the band after it broke up in 1993.’ he could be writing about me, or as good as: I ‘discovered’ the Pixies around the time Trompe Le Monde was released.

‘If all that mattered were the music, I wouldn’t even bother writing about Indie Cindy. It is thoroughly pedestrian, exceptionally unexceptional, and spectacularly slight. But I am writing about Indie Cindy, and the reason is, it is the first full-length album by the Pixies since 1991’s Trompe le Monde. Like that, Indie Cindy suddenly seems important. If lifestyle reporting didn’t exist, Indie Cindy would have virtually no reason to exist, either…

…Curiously, the baggage that justifies Indie Cindy’s existence also ensures it will be regarded as being much worse than it actually is. Judged solely as a self-released MOR rock record made by musicians in their late forties and early fifties who haven’t worked together in a creative fashion for nearly a quarter century, Indie Cindy is merely inoffensive. But as a Pixies record, it’s easily the worst entry in a celebrated discography. The more you love the other Pixies LPs, the less you’ll be able to tolerate Indie Cindy.’

This pretty much sums up my feelings re Heritage as I was writing yesterday, and it was this realization that prompted me to listen to it again mid review and soften my verdict. The music hadn’t changed but my relationship to it had, along with my way of listening and my apprehension of myself.

I’m sure I will tolerate Indie Cindy well enough, but I never became a fan by merely tolerating my favourite bands.In my 20s it seemed that they reached out and grabbed me: these days it seems like the job of reaching out is mine, and on occasion I feel a great reluctance to do so, for fear of falling out of love? Teachable moment is the popular vernacular, I believe.

Truth is I don’t really expect Pixies to ever sound as vital as this again:

Just as I don’t ever expect Opeth to record anything as vital as this now:

So really there’s nothing to be disappointed about, is there? And no shortage new music to be heard for what it is. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, as they say…

 

Dark Eternal Might

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Opeth have been, over the past decade-and-a-half, one of the most consistently interesting exponents of heavy rock music. Within the broad genre of extreme metal – itself a challenging, exciting and ever evolving scene – they’ve nonetheless stood out for some time, with a run of albums from Blackwater Park (2000) thru to Watershed (2008) that remain unbeatable. If Heritage (2011) fell a little short of that high watermark (to my ears anyway) it wasn’t for lack of ambition; rather that the band’s decision to scale back on the brutality and channel their love of smokey, retro psychedelia and acid folk robbed the songs of the light/dark dynamics that appealed to me in the first place. Much of that record I found initially discordant, meandering and forgettable. And Mikael Åkerfeldt‘s Death growls, which upon my introduction to the band back in the early 2000’s I had found impenetrable and initially off-putting, I found myself missing a great deal; and whilst his ‘clean’ singing voice is also a beautiful thing, woody and melancholic, he seemed to have misplaced his knack for writing memorable melodies and compelling song structures too.

As it happens, my appreciation for that album has grown over time: there are echoes of latter-day Talk Talk and Scott Walker in its subtle twists and turns; its complex, off-kilter rhythms that repeat listening has teased out. It’s actually a fine record in many ways, if one that – perversely, given the significant reduction in metal extremity – remains their most ‘difficult’ listen. So it was with some relief that I read in a recent interview that the upcoming (June 16th) release of Pale Communion marks a return to a ‘more melodic’ style, to quote Åkerfeldt, who elaborated ‘…I spent a lot of time on vocal lines’.  It also has ‘…a darker and heavier overall vibe than its predecessor’ according to Prog Magazine. Good news all round, then.

Read Greg Kennelty of Metal Injection‘s track-by-track-taster of Pale Communion here

(Though, as with the Åkerfeldt/Åkersson interview below, the album title and track-listing  had yet to be finalized at the time of publication).

Feel free to amuse yourself guessing which song titles correspond to the descriptions above.

Eternal Rains Will Come
Cusp of Eternity
Moon Above, Sun Below
Elysian Woes
Goblin
River
Voice of Treason
Faith in Others

P.s. whilst perusing the Metal Injection page, I chanced upon Mastodon‘s latest single release, High Road

This sounds fantastic! Effortlessly combining the bowel-stirring sludginess of their early albums with the instant hook of last album The Hunter without sacrificing the harmonic complexity and nuance of Blood Mountain and Crack The Skye. The Atlantans are a canny and ambitious lot, for sure. If the rest of the album is up to this standard our ears are in for a treat this summer. In the meantime I’m expecting Indy Cindy (Pixies‘ first new album in 20 years) to land on my doorstep in just over a week. Happy days 🙂

 

Roadrunner Records’ Forgotten Gems

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Roadrunner Records’ Forgotten Gems.

Sad news – has there been a more important label in terms of investing in raising the profile of quality hard rock/metal acts? Fear Factory, Dream Theater, Opeth, Porcupine Tree and Slipknot to name a few personal favourites.

 

😦