Opeth - Still Life (1999)
An extraordinary concept album that covers the spectrum of emotions with both conviction and class.
Opeth’s third album, My Arms, Your Hearse, displayed a much more prevalent sense of focus and moderation than the first two, which is something I’d personally hoped for. Thankfully, they’d stick with this direction going forward, continuing to finetune all the best qualities of their style with each successive release. 1999’s Still Life album is considered by many to be their best work, and it’s hard to argue really. Like My Arms, Your Hearse, their fourth release is a concept album, but this time around the concept has far greater presence. But before I get into all that, it’s worth noting that Still Life was a first for Opeth for a couple of reasons, and probably had no right to be as good as it turned out to be. On paper it would appear that the line-up is unchanged from the last album, but it’s actually the first time Martin Mendez performed in the studio for the band. He was already part of the official line-up when My Arms, Your Hearse was recorded, yet he hadn’t been present long enough to learn the bass lines, which were performed by Mikael. It’s also the first album not to be released on Candlelight Records after Opeth signed with Peaceville prior to entering the studio. This move resulted after their friend Lee Barrett left Candlelight, and considering they’d fulfilled their three album contract and had no other ties to that label, decided to look elsewhere. Peaceville was the obvious choice given their great history in metal and their solid relationship with distributor Music For Nations.
Ignoring all these peripheral alterations, it’s the issues they faced with Studio Fredman that make Still Life’s almost flawless quality so astounding. After booking a timeslot in March 1999, things became complicated when the studio suddenly relocated. Not only did this force the recording to be postponed a month, it also meant that the members of Opeth had next to no rehearsal time whatsoever. When they finally entered the studio to lay down Still Life, they really had no idea whether any of the tracks were going to work as they’d never played them as a unit before. Mikael has since stated that he is endlessly amazed at just how good the album turned out to be given the less than ideal circumstances leading up to its creation. It wasn’t smooth sailing from this point onwards either, with the suitably moody artwork by Travis Smith taking an unexpectedly long time to complete, pushing the release date back by around three weeks. Even then Still Life didn’t get a release in the United States until February 2001 (nearly two years after its completion), when the band’s new distribution network failed to deliver the goods (literally). Somehow, despite everything seeming to conspire against the Swedes, they managed to produce the best album of their career to date, and one of the true masterpieces in metal music as a whole. That’s a big call I know, but there are numerous reasons why I make it, not least due to the comprehensive realization of the album concept.
It’s not difficult to pinpoint why Still Life is more effective when it comes to the concept than My Arms, Your Hearse. Firstly, whereas the lyrics of the preceding album were hard to fully delve into due to their decidedly poetic and vague arrangement, the story of Still Life is told in a clearer and more comprehensible format. Secondly, whereas the artwork of My Arms, Your Hearse seemed to have little connection to the concept, Smith’s artwork brings Still Life to…um…life, giving the listener something tangible to hold onto when experiencing the album. Finally, and I guess most importantly, Still Life’s tale of loss and loneliness is genuinely touching and engrossing. By the time epic opener The Moor has run its course, we share the anger and frustration that the unnamed outcast of the story so rightfully feels. We are told of his open rejection of the religious beliefs held by the town inhabitants, and how they subsequently beat, burned and covered him in mud, before banishing him forever. Fifteen years later the outcast returns with the intention of tracking down his lost lover Melinda. Godhead’s Lament describes how he watches her from afar, fearing that he will be detected, and doubting that he can make contact with her without attracting the religious authority of the town. Benighted perfectly conveys his longing for Melinda and how he desperately hopes that they might yet be together, despite her becoming a part of the controlling religious organisation since his banishment.
Things become desperate during Moonlapse Vertigo as the outcast realises how much danger he puts himself in just by being there, and that he has very little time to try to convince Melinda to come away with him. He steels himself to approach her, which takes place during the album’s centrepiece Face of Melinda. Confused, Melinda initially rejects him, and hides behind her religious beliefs. Disheartened yet not defeated, the outcast makes one more attempt to win her back and we learn that she does still love him, now as she always did. Unfortunately, before the reacquainted couple can leave, the outcast wakes to find they have been found out. Melinda has been taken away and her throat slit for her association with him, leaving him consumed by fury and a longing for vengeance. He goes on a rampage, killing numerous soldiers before finally being captured by the Council of the Cross. Final track White Cluster completes the tragic tale, with the outcast refusing to repent before being taken to the gallows to be hanged before a large gathering of townspeople. Still Life closes with the outcast having a vision of Melinda right before he is executed, suggesting that he will soon be reunited with her in death. It’s dramatic stuff for sure, and Opeth manage to convey the necessary spectrum of emotions through smoothly executed shifts in dynamics. They don’t merely match the music to the concept however, and Still Life contains seven enthralling and unforgettable tracks in their own right.
While the album functions far better as an all-encompassing package rather than individual parts, the first three tracks along with Face of Melinda are the highlights for me. The Moor’s gradual build-up in intensity brilliantly showcases Opeth’s range and sets the haunting tone that runs throughout the hour long running time. The acoustic sections have far more direction than found on early Opeth works and integrate seamlessly into the more metal facets of their music. Mikael’s vocals are as strong as ever, with deep growls flawlessly encapsulating the resentment and anger of the outcast, while his high quality clean vocals express the love and care he has for Melinda impeccably. Godhead’s Lament contains one of the very best Opeth riffs and its heaviness perfectly leads into the exquisite Benighted. It’s amazing that I would even consider a track that is technically a ballad to be the highlight of an album loosely associated with death metal, but Benighted is just so beautifully written and executed that I think I might have to. After the similarly brilliant Credence on My Arms, Your Hearse, it appeared Opeth could do just about anything they wanted without losing the high level of conviction and class that saturates their work. Still Life is yet another five star album by this amazing band and a “stuck on an island” type of experience for me personally. It’s one of those rare complete packages that you can lose yourself in entirely, which is something I happily do on regular occasions.
Most albums that are made tend to be a collection of songs, and each one tells a specific story. Each song can be about loving, fighting, forgiving, forgetting, and more. However, what if the *entire album* shares a story, similarly to a novel or movie. This is the concept album: where each song is essentially a piece of the puzzle, and the whole album is the finished story. This is not to be confused with albums that is basically one song split up into multiple parts, like Crimson by Edge of Sanity, Catch Thirtythree by Meshuggah, or the second half of Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence by Dream Theater. When a concept album is done right, the entire album can be an unforgettable music adventure (if the story is easy to follow). I always said that my three favorite concept albums are Metropolis Pt. 2: Scenes From a Memory by Dream Theater (1999), The Crimson Idol [The Crimson Idol] by W.A.S.P., and, the topic of this review, Still Life by Opeth.But first, let me share my thoughts about discovering a band that I now hold in a very special spot in my heart: Opeth. When I first started listening to metal, I was turned off by the roaring growls of the singers, but I often enjoyed the incredible instruments. In the next few years, I became more fascinated with loud vocals and long epics, so I immediately fell in love with Tool. Their albums blew me away, so I wanted to discover bands that had similar long lengths. After some searching, I found a band that had lots of heavy instruments while having great lyrics and a great progressive style, which was... Opeth (like I previously mentioned). This was the band that completely flipped my opinion on the growling, which this band does wonderfully, and the band also blends it with beautiful, clean singing moments. Being someone who rarely gives 5 star album ratings, I was very happy to give two of their albums the full honor, Blackwater Park (2001) and Still Life (1999). I am going to try and share my love for this album, and if you have read any other review I have written, they can get very long and have written equivalents of rambling. I am rusty to the aspect of reviewing, but here we go!
To me, Still Life is more than an album. Everything they attempted was nothing short of perfect, and this was far better than most albums released in the 1990s. With this being a concept album, this is even more impressive. This is not the first time that Opeth did a concept album, releasing My Arms, Your Hearse in 1998. This was another fantastic album, but the problem was that the story was hard to follow due to the extremely poetic lyrics. Still Life is easier to follow, and is a complete step up from the previous release. Looking back, Opeth's albums from 1996 to 2008 can be considered as one of the greatest streaks of all time. When I initially finished this album, I immediately considered it as the greatest death metal record of all time, and in the top 5 for greatest albums I have ever heard. Not only is the story interesting and easy to follow, but the instruments mix so well with the lyrics that are being sung. Just a pure masterpiece!
Briefly mentioning the story and tracks:
The Moor introduces us to an "outcast" (that will be the name I will be using for the rest of the review), and he returns to a castle that banished him for 15 years for being an atheist. When he came back, he wanted to find the love of his life that he had to leave behind, a woman named Melinda. This shows off the basic concept of the rest of the album: a quest for love! As a song, it is absolutely phenomenal. The first 2 minutes are a bit slower, but once it begins, it goes crazy. The growling and the instruments mixed with the lyrics show off the level of anger that the outcast has for the rest of the castle. I was shocked when I heard this song, and it was only the first track. The album got even better from here, and this was an incredible opening track!
In Godhead's Lament, the outcast has an internal debate on the consequences of going back. He has no other motive but to see Melinda, who somehow knows that he has returned. When he sees her from afar, he notices that she has become a nun in the castle, and he tries to stay in the village unnoticed. This is another unbelievable track that beautifully tells the story. The growling is present more often on this track, which was another fantastic addition, but when the clean moments are shown, it is just as powerful. The blending of screaming and singing are excellent, which is a pattern that Opeth has always done with their albums. The clean moments in the middle of the song are nothing short of excellent, and only being two tracks in, the album is slowly becoming a "how to" on making an absolutely phenomenal record.
When I first heard Benighted, I genuinely thought that it was the greatest ballad track I've ever heard. The pacing on this song, even with being the shortest song on the album (5:00), is fantastic. I believe that this was the second *entirely* acoustic song (not including interludes) that they have done (the first, I believe, was Credence, from My Arms, Your Hearse) and it set another blueprint for the other ballads that they would make, like the entire Damnation album from 2003 (if you want to get technical, To Bid You Farewell, off of Morningrise, can be considered that, as it was *mostly* acoustic. However, that had a heavy portion at around the 7 minute mark). For their first attempt, this was a record breaking home run. In contrast to most songs of the genre, this song is more "typical" than the other ones, meaning it has a true chorus that is repeated multiple times throughout. When the final lyrics are stated, it felt like an extra musical journey in itself, and that was, again, due to the pacing. In terms of the story, this is where the Outcast and Melinda finally meet in secret. He basically tells her that he is more in love with her than she can ever imagine, and tries to convince her to run away with him. He also tries to tell her that any positive opinion that she has for the castle is simply a result of being brainwashed, and should basically forget about anything involving the castle. It becomes even more clear that the outcast is willing to risk his own life to be with this woman, and she seems to have an element of confusion. The peaceful, ballad style really works with this moment of the story, as a secret meeting with a lover should not require heavy instruments and growling vocals. Again, this song is incredible.
Moonlapse Vertigo is another important addition to the story of the album. The outcast, knowing the risk of being killed on sight, decides to hide and camp out in the castle. Similarly to the second track on the album, Godhead's Lament, he has another internal debate with himself. He is aware that he is running out of time to make his grand move of getting Melinda and escaping. He also feels that the Council of the Cross knows that he is there, as it is directly stated in the lines: “The council of the cross / Must have sensed my coming”. All he wants is for her to be safe and to be together with her forever. As a song, this is yet another incredible track. The band attempts almost a 55/45 blend of clean singing and growling, and it is nothing short of beautiful. The melodic intro verses lead into a growling and epic second verse, and it works every time. Mikael Åkerfeldt, lead singer of the band, is one of the greatest of all time, and this song is one of many that show off his vocal range. He can hit fantastic clean singing moments, and can growl like some of the best death metal vocalists ever. The fluctuating volume of the instruments (whether it is playing softly or loudly) also adds a nice touch to make the listener even more invested in the story, as the outcast is going through a roller coaster of emotions at this point in the story. No matter how many times I listen to this song (which has been a lot), the ending 2 minutes really hit it out of the universe. The vocals are unbelievable, and the shear feeling that I got from listening to it can only be deemed as excellent. Just another perfect track from an already perfect album.
Face of Melinda beautifully describes Melinda as a quiet person, and also shows off another meeting between her and the outcast. When he originally learned that he had basically failed to win her over, she committed to a life as a nun, but the outcast never gave up on his quest for love. She, in a way, betrays her moral feelings by telling him that she loves him, which temporarily fills the emptiness left in the outcast’s heart. The song ends with possible foreshadowing of what is to come. It seems like the brightest spot in the story so far, as it seems like the outcast has gotten the news that he wanted: Melinda sharing the love! As a song, the first 4 minutes are some of the best ballad moments you will ever hear. The clean vocals make another appearance, and this time, it is for the whole song. This is amazing, as it perfectly describes the tone of the story at this point of time. The instrumentals make you feel like you want to get lost in the music, but also follow the story at the same time. As I continue to listen to this album, it gets harder and harder to pick a favorite song on the album… until…
Serenity Painted Death is absolutely unbelievable, fantastic, incredible, and perfect, and there are not enough positive adjectives to use in order to describe this masterpiece. Not only does the story climax with this track, but, looking back, is definitely my favorite song on the album (along with it being my favorite song of 1999), and one of the best that Opeth has ever done. In terms of the story, the outcast learns that Melinda was taken away, and she was later sentenced to be hung for being “unfaithful to the church.” This leads the outcast on an absolute rampage, killing all of the soldiers that are responsible, and later, killing every soldier that he sees before collapsing from exhaustion (similarly to when Kenny Omega collapsed from exhaustion to avoid Kazuchika Okada’s “rainmaker” finisher at NJPW Dominion 2017). By the end of the song, the outcast is taken away, and the Council of the Cross is deciding his fate. Words cannot describe how excellent this *sounds*. The attention to detail in this song is second to none, having a dominantly growling singing style to symbolize the rage that he has towards the castle. In typical melodic death metal fashion, the instrumentals sound like they are from another planet, and it truly shows how this is one of the most *complete* metal songs ever written. If you can only listen to one of these songs, choose this one. While it might be compared to jumping to chapter 15 in a 20 chapter book (or watching the third Johnny Gargano vs Tommaso Ciampa match before the other 2), the listener gets enough information from the lyrics to *still* get fully invested in the song. That is storytelling at it’s finest! Music can be much more than simple lyrics and power strumming to a stock computer beat, and this is one of the finest examples that can be found.
This emotional roller coaster concludes with White Cluster, where the outcast is waking up from what happened in the previous track: his rampage that led him to collapse. The Council of the Cross is trying to make him show some remorse, but he is as stubborn as me when someone tells me to give modern pop music a chance. He shows no remorse, which angers the Council. Due to everything, he is sentenced to be hung, and he is led to where it will happen. Right before he is about to hang, he feels a touch on his shoulder, and he sees that it was Melinda standing there. They were together for the last time, as they both were hung, when the permission was granted by the council. They joined each other's death, and will be together in the afterlife…. forever. The only part that I do not like about this song is that it ends, and it also means that the album is ending. In all seriousness, this is about as good as you would expect, which means that it is an absolute masterpiece. The first half of the song has clean vocals, with instrumentals that are a bit heavier than acoustic, but not as heavy as a typical death metal track. It still blended well with the story, and was great. The second half is basically a verse, chorus, and a progressive- style instrumental break. It almost sounds like a completely different song, but is still equally perfect. The solos are unreal, the drumming is stellar, and the rhythms are so great that you *truly* want to get lost in the music; similarly to a Tool song. This was an all time classic song that closed out an all time classic album.
For an extra bonus for this album: read the lyrics as you go along. Some may say that reading can be boring, but the lyrics mixed in with the outstanding sound of the album, can legitimately be called one of the greatest musical experiences of all time.
Long story short: music should not be this good. As a concept album: it is the greatest of all time. In contrast to the other 2 that I consider classics, The Crimson Idol by Wasp and Scenes From a Memory by Dream Theater, this has a story that is *easy* to follow, along with having instrumentals that not only sound incredible, but perfectly blend with the story they are trying to tell. As a death metal album: it is also the greatest of all time. The only death metal album, in my opinion, that comes close to this is Blackwater Park, also by Opeth. I prefer this one over the 2001 album mainly because of how well the story was told, along with me preferring the sound a bit more. In general, this is among some of the greatest albums I have ever heard for many reasons, it is a complete life changer, and it should be not only listened to by everyone, but it should be CONSUMED by everyone.
Long live Opeth!
My Arms Your Hearse might've been the first part of Opeth's perfect album streak, but this album is where their true balance of progressive and death metal really kicks off. Behold the absolute gem, Still Life!
However, it's not until their following album Blackwater Park where the band reaches the ultimate pinnacle of their discography. Still Life helped create the blueprints for its sequel that would shine them a light from the flame of fame. While both albums have a perfect cauldron of complex riffs, haunting acoustics, and overall, groove-ish prog-death metal, Still Life has slightly more replay value. You can definitely listen to this album so many times whenever you want.
The opening "The Moor" is one of Opeth's finest tracks and shows other progressive metal bands how to make a G****MN AWESOME OPENING TRACK!! After a mysterious two-minute intro, you'll be pulled into under 10 minutes of atmospheric complex progressive metal! I F***ING LOVE IT!!! "Godhead's Lament" has decent tonal patterns and similar rhythm structure. One of my personal highlights is the ballad "Benighted". The acoustic section carries out of your room into other worlds of mystical fantasy a bit like the Neverending Story. This helps tell the concept of Still Life in a formula of love and death. You can enjoy listening to both the music and the story.
"Moonlapse Vertigo" has nice contrast between beautiful blues-ish parts with clean singing and death metal sections with brutal screams. Another clean half-ballad "Face of Melinda" is another fan-classic. Some might call the acoustics weak but others call it a strong beautiful break from the extreme action with gripping vocals in the chorus, but it all builds up to a triumphant heavy bridge and ending riff. That's probably almost as beautiful as the similar structured "To Bid You Farewell" from Morningrise!
"Serenity Painted Death" is another killer track with some of the best harsh vocals I've ever heard, especially when they have their own chorus: "White face haggard grin, this serenity painted death, with a halo of bitter disease, black paragon in lingering breath" I definitely like the growl at the end of that last line. The song is so great that if they shorten it to half its length for the radio, I wouldn't be p*ssed off but still prefer the original length. The closing epic "White Cluster" has some of the band's highest potential in their sound. As awesome as the opener! That last song itself ends at around 9:20, but there's a bonus 40-second outro to cap the song length at slightly over 10 minutes.
Anyone looking for an album before Blackwater Park and its subsequent albums, look no further! Still Life is the album that truly defines the balance of their progressive death metal sound. Scr*w any impersonating f***ers and enjoy one of Opeth's most glorious masterpieces. This album's legacy is still alive!
Favorites: "The Moor", "Benighted", "Serenity Painted Death", "White Cluster"