Review by Xephyr for Opeth - Blackwater Park (2001)
The Exalted Bridge To The Forlorn Mire
When someone starts seriously to dig into listening and discussing music there are always certain albums that occupy a certain place that can never really be replaced or revised. Most of these albums come early in the discovery process, with an arbitrary encounter with something that sounds new and exciting making the person's ears perk up and challenge what they think music is or can be. These sorts of albums cause peoples' tastes in music to manifest and mold around the ideas the music presents, giving them an understanding of what they themselves value and enjoy about music. While Opeth may not be on the same level of revolutionary musical accomplishment as Renaissance composers or Jazz legends, within my own musical bubble they are second to none and Blackwater Park was the album that genuinely sparked my curiosity in all things music, specifically Metal. That being said, if you're looking for an unbiased analysis of Opeth, turn away now since I honestly can't provide that, at least for this album in particular. What I can hopefully provide is some amount of reliable insight on why Blackwater Park has been able to maintain such a high amount of reverence to me for over ten years and in the face of over a thousand other Metal releases.
The world of Death Metal can be a gruesome one, with each iteration of the style seemingly becoming more extreme and guttural than the last in order to prove that the final realms of extremity have not yet been achieved. The deep, growled vocals reached inhuman and demonic levels, the guitar tones and chug rhythms extended to abysmal levels, and the overall performances became absolutely crushing in the most disgusting of ways. For some this seems like the natural progression of the genre, but bands like Opeth decided to veer off this course and do something a bit more dynamic when they released their debut album Orchid in 1995. Opeth's initial songwriting relied on very few traditional Death Metal qualities, with growled vocals, double-bass forward drumming, erratic transitions, and certain guitar tones being the few aspects that made them still technically fall into the realm of Death Metal. Orchid challenged these Death Metal ideals of ever-increasing aggressiveness by adding in many different Progressive Metal, Rock, and Folk influences with their use of acoustic guitar, cleaner vocals, extended track lengths, and more complex songwriting overall. Orchid's release in 1995 alongside Death's Symbolic represented a fork in the road for Death Metal with both of these albums leaning towards a more technical and progressive performance rather than banking on raw aggression. Opeth were still plenty heavy on Orchid, with their dueling, layered guitars that threw down some serious riffing, which would become a staple of their sound for years to come. After going much more progressive on their followup Morningrise in 1996, Opeth settled into a groove with 1998's My Arms, Your Hearse and, more importantly in regards to Blackwater Park, 1999's Still Life. Still Life saw Opeth begin to master the layered and atmospheric sound that's so prevalent on Blackwater Park, fulling committing to their trademark 6/8 versus 4/4 time signatures and smooth but dark Progressive Death Metal style. The making of Still Life is an interesting one, with Mikael Åkerfeldt and the band recording the entire album with little to no preparation or prior songwriting apart from a few riffs over the course of a few weeks. Since the band enjoyed Still Life so much, they decided to try and replicate the magic by putting themselves through similar working conditions for their next album, which they would title Blackwater Park.
In many ways Blackwater Park is a virtuosic continuation of Still Life's formula which, while legendary in the realm of Progressive Death Metal, was admittedly somewhat bland after a while. Still Life's riffs and ideas throughout the album were extremely similar to one another, with each song having only minor differences as the concept album unfolded. Blackwater Park decided to up the ante and take the use of the smooth 6/8 riffing with acoustic flairs and give it more depth, variety, and substance comparatively. Tracks like the opening "The Leper Affinity" and the closer "Blackwater Park" have digging, hefty riffs with more aggressive attacks while "The Drapery Falls" is slower, more repetitive and mesmerizing. "Harvest" and "Patterns In the Ivy" round out and complete the album with their fully acoustic soundscapes to create a varied but still cohesive album thanks to the reoccurring, ever-present themes in the album like the long drones of the lead guitar, the acoustic flourishes, and the constant 6/8 and 4/4 time signature shifts. All of these aspects come together to create Blackwater Park's signature atmosphere, which is a marvelous mix of despondency and pain layered with hints of beauty and reflection. Åkerfeldt's dual-natured vocals also help to solidify this atmosphere, with him swapping between his aggressive but insanely melodic growls and superbly clean singing on almost every song. Growling, harsh vocals in Metal are often used to keep up with the aggressiveness of the rest of the band and while Opeth does utilize them, they are some of the clearest and most pleasing I’ve ever heard. Åkerfeldt shows that he is a competent vocalist on “Harvest” and he is able to carry that over into his growls, performing them with incredible range, diversity, and articulateness.
This atmosphere is augmented and stretched in a variety of ways throughout the album, with each piece contributing its own distinct layer to the whole package. The way that Opeth layers its melodies and instrumentation is unrivaled, with riffs and flourishes coming and going constantly in the background as the main riff pounds away. The verse after the guitar solo in "The Leper Affinity" sets up this use of layering perfectly in the beginning of the album, with acoustic plucking giving way to huge chords with a dual guitar solo which eventually transitions into yet another layered riff with the lead guitar playing those signature hold notes. The entire Blackwater Park package comes together in such a unique and complex way while still keeping the heaviness to an acceptable degree. There are so many different parts and small, distinct melodies to pick out of tracks like "Bleak" and "Blackwater Park" that the album, even after all these years, hasn't gotten stagnant or dull. Each layer that Opeth creates has its place in the mix of this album, with the hammering double bass never overpowering other sections and the bass having an incredible amount of clarity as it takes the lead during the acoustic sections but is never missing during the heavy sections. These two elements have such a full and resonant sound which help to maintain the forlorn atmosphere during the softer parts of "Harvest" and "The Funeral Portrait", especially since the bass melodies are, for the most part, completely separate from the guitar melodies, creating that very progressive feel that just adds another layer of everything else. It peeks out of the mix just enough in parts like the repetitive end of "The Drapery Falls" to create some awesome sounding moments that are just so clean compared to other bands that attempt to use a more prominent bass. The drums follow suit in being written in a very smart and comprehensive way, incorporating all sorts of different 6/8 and 4/4 elements to keep the listener guessing as Opeth moves from one riff or idea to the next. The way the drum is able to accent these two different time signatures in slightly different ways with the use of different snare and cymbal rhythms throughout all the tracks is how Blackwater Park is able to have so many amazingly distinct grooves and riffs that never seem to grow old. "Bleak" and "Blackwater Park" are the only two songs that attempt to have a straight 4/4 time signature for their entire runtime and they only slightly succeed because of the various and offbeat song structures Opeth uses.
What really makes Blackwater Park stand out for me in the face of earlier Opeth releases are the many, many riffs that the album has, with tracks like "The Leper Affinity" and "Blackwater Park" having three or more main riffs that they end up transitioning or building up to. Song length is normally a huge problem with heavier Progressive Metal, with songs becoming tiresome to listen to because of either repetitiveness or detached from themselves, especially when they reach the ten minute mark. Opeth are masters of maintaining the listener's interest on Blackwater Park thanks to its inherent dual nature between progressive acoustic musings and aggressive metal riffing. Although there is quite a bit of repetition throughout the album, especially on tracks like "The Drapery Falls" and "Dirge For November", it's never repetitive enough for the listener to not want to come back for more afterwards. Each section, new idea, or riff hangs around for just long enough for it to run its course, just to transition into the next section. There's always something new happening on Blackwater Park, whether its a brand new riff, an abrupt transition into an acoustic section, a subtle shift into a double bass pedal rhythm like at the end of "The Drapery Falls", or something layered so far behind everything else that you were only able to catch it after years of listening. Packing so many different riffs and concepts into each song allows them to have consistent forward momentum and to spotlight so many different aspects of their performance all in one album. The way Opeth are able to set up each riff or transition feels so natural and complete, nothing feels like it manifests from nothing as they let you get acquainted with each of the ideas they choose to use before blowing you away with how they expand upon that idea.
With as many ideas as Opeth crammed into Blackwater Park, the transitions between them all has to be immaculately tenacious for the tracks to hold up. Thankfully the transitions in here are some of the smoothest and most thought out that I've heard, with each song swapping from riff to riff, from acoustic section to metal section, and from harsh to clean vocals effortlessly. The transitions help to foreshadow and set up what's to come and then they fully deliver on those promises beautifully and sleekly. Waves of emotion and atmosphere swell in and out as solemn acoustic gives way to waves of distortion like on the opening of "The Drapery Falls", with that track being one of the finest examples of Opeth's atmosphere on Blackwater Park. Each transition offers something completely new and memorable while still keeping to the same themes that persist throughout the album. Even though "Blackwater Park" and "The Leper Affinity" have some of the most jarring transitions, Opeth still eases the listener into them with the use of drum fills, slow removal of certain aspects like double bass or lead guitar, or slow but powerful fades.
The use of acoustic guitar that is ever-present in Blackwater Park is the aspect that, to me, adds the most life and atmosphere to this release. Opeth don't shy away from using it, with each song having some form of it whether there is a folky acoustic break section or, like in "The Funeral Portrait", it is interwoven into the main riff. Although it seems like heresy to have so much acoustic guitar using in a frankly non-metal way in a Progressive Death Metal album, it all works in Blackwater Park's advantage since it helps to build so much of that forlorn, despondent atmosphere that I keep referring to. "Harvest" is the perfect example of this, which is a 6/8 ballad piece with entirely clean vocals placed after "The Leper Affinity" and "Bleak". It offers a respite from the aggression, much like the short "Patterns in the Ivy" does, but it exemplifies why the acoustic approach works so well for the album. The tone is sweet but sad, beautiful but solemn, and I think "Harvest" is why I've grown to love the duality between beauty and aggression in Metal so much. "Harvest" also shows incredible pacing knowledge, with the downward spiral from "The Leper Affinity", to "Bleak", to "Harvest", then back to the heavy but somber groove of "The Drapery Falls". Åkerfeldt's singing voice is on full display in "Harvest", showing he has the perfect voice for the style they've chosen to display. Although Opeth's lyrics can get a bit wordy and overblown, they manage to still feel sophisticated thanks to the longer, more complex words and sentence structure that Åkerfeldt chooses to use. Couple that with the fact that his growling is extremely comprehensible compared to other Death Metal vocalists and you have a formula that ends up working out in their favor. Most lyrics in Death or Progressive Metal can be word salad at times, and even though Opeth does tend to get a little too deep for their own good with their lyrics, they really do sell the emotional side of Blackwater Park. Even though it can be difficult to decipher the strange poetry on tracks like "The Drapery Falls" or "Blackwater Park", it still has a powerful and passionate aura to it that is inescapable for me.
The final piece of the puzzle that is Blackwater Park is the lead guitar, with its persistent, drawn out notes that litter the album in every single track. Even back in Orchid, Opeth had been using two guitars to incredible potential, and that full potential is realized on Blackwater Park. The way the lead guitar sings above the pounding riffs and drums in its dismal and bitter tone is one of my favorite sounds that I've ever heard in music, period. It's the element that is able to tie everything together and create the unparalleled sound and feeling that only Blackwater Park has been able to give me even after all these years. The way Opeth is able to use all of the aforementioned elements allows it to be a flawless culmination of everything I love about Metal and music in general still to this day. The incredible variety of riffs and transitions in "The Leper Affinity", the layered acoustic elements, groove, and clean vocal transition of "Bleak", the dismal allure of "Harvest", the memorizing monotony of "The Drapery Falls", the slow build and use of mellow lead guitar on "Dirge for November", the incredible heavy riff alongside the layered acoustic melodies on "The Funeral Portrait", the short but delicate interlude of "Patterns in the Ivy", and the culmination of "Blackwater Park" just makes this the perfect album for me. Every track has its place, every transition has its place, every note has its place. The variety and uniqueness that its able to achieve is rivaled but not matched by the rest of their discography.
Although my endless analysis of why Blackwater Park will always hold a special place in my musical experience seems to have had many important points, I think the most important is where this album sits in the history of Metal. While there have been countless attempts to make Heavy and Extreme Metal more accessible to the masses while not losing any sort of edge of complexity, not many have been able to achieve that. To me, Blackwater Park constructs the most structurally sound bridge possible between Metal and non-Metal without pandering or selling out to anyone. When I first listened to Blackwater Park I definitely wasn't a Metal fan, I even disliked it at the time because I didn't understand the concept of growled, harsh vocals. I remember going back and given it multiple chances until I finally came around to it, which marked the beginning of my descent into the depths of more disgusting Metal genres. It's combination of complex songwriting, crystal clean production, heavy but not too heavy riffing, use of incredible clean vocals, and addicting atmosphere allows it to incorporate the best of both worlds in a way that is both accessible for the uninitiated and rewarding existing fans. There's so much that this album and its composition choices did and is still doing to my listening habits and music bias to this day and while I could go on and on, there's only so much that can be said. Believe me when I say that I've tried to dethrone Blackwater Park at every turn, constantly challenging myself to think critically about whether I really enjoy it more than any other album I've heard thus far. It's stood the test of time and remains the album that I can sing the most praise about, which is obviously extremely evident. No other album that I've found is able to utilize so many Metal and non-Metal elements in a way that just makes sense and is immediately approachable and intelligible no matter what kind of prior musical experience the listener has, making it a despondent but stunning gateway into the muck and mire. It's just the best.