As I’ve gotten older I’ve developed an interesting relationship with Heavy Metal*. For quite some time in the 90’s I divorced myself from anything that would, in our current vernacular, be classified as heavy metal.

What the hell does that mean?

It means I’ve never lost my appetite for music that is ‘heavy’ – just for the stuff that is easily classifiable as belonging to the genre most associated with long hair, black t-shirts and the worn out formula:

IF {blast beets + palm muting} x {angry vocals / shredding guitar solos} = METAL

Certain bands never get old, but those are the ones that did it right and did it first. I grew up with Thrash and there are several bands/albums that will always have a place in my heart: Slayer, mid-career Suicidal Tendencies** , there are a few others but I’m blanking. Regardless though, bands like those I never gave up on, I just went through a period of time where I started to feel a little goofy listening to them. On the flipside of that are bands like Type-O Negative and Ministry, two bands I have been in love with since first hearing them and have never felt a disconnect, primarily because what they do is so transcendent of the genre(s) they get lumped in with by corporate marketing and high school cliques. The thing about type O, for example, is they’ve found their own voice. There is no real way to disregard them as simply being a ‘metal’ band – they have taken elements of that and other genres and made with it a wholly original body of work. Same with Ministry, only perhaps they have done the same thing multiple times, re-inventing themselves over and over again, thus ditching the band’s voice whenever they decide on a new one.

I’ve since matured enough to learn how to appreciate some of the stuff I drifted away from for a while, and there’s A TON of new stuff pooping up in the ‘metal-verse’ determined to do new things to it, but to this day I still have issues with most things that are routinely ‘metal’ for the sake of being considered as such.

So lately, as has been the tradition the last few years, when xmas time rolls around I suddenly become totally enraptured with heavy music and the icy atmospherics of one death/black/folk metal band in particular, Swedish Masters of Mayhem Opeth.

In keeping with the idea that some artists distill elements of a genre down into elemental particles and then work from the ground up to achieve a unique voice I would like to call upon any of you out there who might be familiar with this band to lend your voice to my praises of them. Over the last ten years death/black metal has become something of a huge thing, with plenty of fanboy picture-laden magazines on the racks highlighting this guys black&white face paint and that guys fang-shaven teeth much like twenty years ago hit parader*** and a host of other teeny mags highlighted nikki sux’s makeup and jani lane’s feathered hair. With that marketing explosion there are some good bands that have come up in the ranks of the brain-eating, people doing some interesting and genre-broadening things. Opeth is the greatest among them. There are so many elements at work within their sound. If I was going to try and list what I thought were congruent artists from the past that might have influenced them we’d have to go zipping all over the map – I hear the savage beauty of old Pestilence and the quiet night time reflections of Nick Drake. I hear Cynic’s celestial tones and experimental vocal approaches and Seals and Crofts Autumn-drenched chord structures. And yet even though I can trace the tendrils of those influences in Opeth’s music when I listen to them, especially their mid career albums Blackwater Park and Deliverance, I hear something I have never heard before. I hear the unique and powerful voice of a band that has elevated ‘metal’ beyond itself, into something that is, dare I say it, really quite beautiful.

Beautiful, that’s what Opeth comes down to for me. They are heavy as fuck when they want to be, but even in those moments most savage they retain a kind of dark beauty in their sound. Blackwater Park is invariably the best example of this, the entire album being a work of staggering atmosphere and beauty. But to get to that album there are four others before it, the earliest of which were just recently released as a nice 3-disc set, Opeth: The Candlelight Years. I just bought this earlier in the week and it’s all I’ve been listening to. It’s fascinating hearing these earlier albums, Orchid, the first, sounding a little bit more like traditional death metal, and the subsequent two building on that, moving the sound of the band ever forward towards the moment when they would figure out their exact formula and birth their own voice.

One of the things about Opeth that I love best is their song-structure. By Blackwater Park they have such a fluid means in which they weave the intricate tapestries of their songs that now it’s interesting to reverse engineer that with The Candlelight Years, going back and hearing the actual refining process. Take for example Black Rose Immortal – the fourth track on their second album, Morningrise. BRI is a roughly twenty-minute long song; length will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with Opeth’s work, but what is perhaps surprising is the less integrated, almost operatic way in which the multiple parts of the song start and stop. It’s not bad, no that is most definitely not what I’m trying to imply. But when I heard it I was so used to the deftness with which the band weave the layers of their songs together – to hear this is literally, I think, charming. It all makes sense, it’s just a little bit immature – not as in child-like but as in not-quite-yet-evolved. And there are other elements to these first three albums that might strike anyone more familiar with the behemoth these guys have become as a little less polished – it’s the sound of a young band that is hungry and so full of ideas they haven’t quite worked out how to put all of them together yet. But it’s a damn good time listening to them work it out, I will tell you that.

Hail Hail Opeth!!!


* Actually, does anyone even call it ‘Heavy Metal’ anymore? Now that I think about it I can’t remember the last time I heard heavy music referred to as anything other than simply ‘Metal’.

** Specifically Lights, Camera, Revolution – What an album!!! Rife with self-introspection, the veritable genesis of the diary-like topics of modern scream-o crap, but without sounding like whining teenagers. Mike Muir sounds threatening when he’s running on at the mouth about his various mental problems. Too bad shortly after that album psycho mike-o essentially turned into exactly what he was not and has beaten the same dead dog ever since…

*** I swear at some point hit parader changed its title to alternative press… really, am I mistaken or wasn’t ap a decent mag at one time in the 90’s?