Opeth’s fifth album shoots for the stratosphere, not only of metal, but of rock music in general. Most bands that attempt something so lofty are doomed to failure, but Opeth has been working up to this moment over four increasingly great albums. With the addition of ambient special effects by producer Steven Wilson (of Porcupine Tree and No-Man fame), Opeth’s complex arrangements occupy even more sonic space, an element that imbues the already stunning music with an extra emotional push. Misery has never sounded so good.
With an average track length of over 8 minutes, Blackwater Park demands a longer attention span than some listeners may be bothered to devote. It’s not that the album is slow; after a menacing 30-second fade-in, The Leper Affinity’s first blast of distorted guitar and punishing drums delivers a wave of extreme metal fury. Yet after a few satisfying minutes of thunderous force, the mood abruptly shifts from anger to gothic, poetic sadness. Acoustic guitars take over and Akerfeldt’s voice changes from a throaty roar to a warm and mellow near-croon. Shifts like these can be jarring and off-putting, but Opeth executes them with such grace and sensitivity that they seem inevitable. Both the heavy and light halves are possessed of the same dark mood, and together they make for a far more complex and interesting whole than they would otherwise. As The Leper Affinity glides to an elegant piano outro, listeners have already been to more places than most albums will ever take them – and there’s far more beauty to come.
The rest of the album follows a similar template. Bleak’s exotic lead riffs duel all the way into a warm chorus and fade out with frightening lo-fi guitar sounds courtesy of Wilson. Harvest is an all-acoustic piece, but again the mood is similar, with understated but effective guitar work. The Drapery Falls is perhaps the highlight of the record as it makes the most extreme shifts, going completely progressive toward the midsection and carrying a memorable melody through its entire run. Dirge for November begins with the most fragile, beautiful guitar fill of the album thus far before going into the thunderous body of the song, and ends the same way. The Funeral Portrait is a more rhythmic, propulsive, furious piece of riffery than anything since the beginning of the album, but toward the end its elegance comes out once again in some richly orchestrated vocal harmonies. Patterns in the Ivy is a stunning little interlude, with all the intimate power of Pink Moon-era Nick Drake, and engineered so expertly that the squeak of Akerfeldt’s guitar strings become a part of the music. Finally, we come to the eponymous, epic closer, which crushes with a superlative groove, frightens with a horror-movie midsection, returns to extreme metal force, and finally ends the album with an understated, lovely acoustic guitar bit. The serenity of the conclusion is magnificent, wrapping up all the force of the previous hour with grace.
Blackwater Park is almost certainly the best metal album of this decade to date, but it’s more than that. Stacked up with the best Led Zeppelin records, Blackwater Park holds its own. It’s seriously that good. If you listen to it with headphones on, extra nuances pop out and you just might swear you’ve never heard a better record. Any fan of rock music should not be without this. Highlight tracks (nearly arbitrary choices when all the material is this strong): The Leper Affinity, The Drapery Falls, Patterns in the Ivy.