After 2003’s Damnation introduced a seemingly kinder, gentler Opeth to the world, you might’ve thought Mikael Akerfeldt and Co. had gone soft. Well, if so, you would’ve thought wrong, because Opeth aren’t just back to metal with the new Ghost Reveries, they’re better at it than ever before. While I was a huge fan of theirs a few years ago, my interest had sort of wanted recently, even if I do still think they’ve released some great albums (most notably Still Life and Damnation). Here, though, they achieve a level of focus and intensity unprecedented in their catalogue. Ghost Reveries is, simply put, their most original, interesting, and brilliant album.
Ghost Reveries is also Opeth’s most aggressively proggy release to date-I don’t know about anyone else, but listening to this album I was struck by thoughts of Nevermore, Arch Enemy, Isis, and the Mars Volta, even though Opeth don’t actually sound like any of those bands-and therefore can take several listens to adequately get your head around. Not that your time won’t be well spent, though, as Ghost Reveries is a remarkable leap forward for a band that had already been long since marked as innovators. Opeth have been known since their beginnings for their wide range of emotions and their extensive alternation of sounds, but on previous albums the dynamics tended to be of a HEAVY-light-HEAVY-light-HEAVY variety that got rather comfortable after a while. Here, though, everything is integrated much more seamlessly, exploring a stylistic range that takes Opeth well beyond the status of “that band that mixes death metal, folk, and prog rock.”
Opeth do still mix styles with abandon on Ghost Reveries, but the patterns are varied considerably more this time around, with multiple sonic shifts per song, some of which can take a while to pinpoint. As a result, Ghost Reveries is a lot less predictable than what came before it-listening to albums like Still Life and Blackwater Park, I could settle into a heavier or lighter passage secure in the knowledge that it would probably continue for a while, but that’s not so here. As tradeoffs go it’s a worthy one-there’s a lot more of a sturm and drang effect here; the death vocals hit harder for their sparser distribution; and the instrumental passages give you a lot more to chew on. Not to mention, the band’s compositional style is just a lot more interesting here, with tighter songwriting highlighted by inceasingly intricate riff structures and guitar harmonies and some azz-kicking solos. For the first time, I can safely say that every second of an Opeth album is made to count.
The first two tracks-Ghost of Perdition, The Baying of the Hounds-are somewhat prototypical Opeth epics, but even then some changes are evident. Even during the heavier parts, there’s more of a melodic metal approach, with Mikael’s clean vocals (previously used almost exclusively for soft passages) making frequent appearances. Still, these tracks exemplify the band’s traditional balance of viciousness and majesty, effortlessly incorporating bowel-shaking growls, gorgeous guitar melodies, and dizzyingly technical instrumental interludes while sweeping keyboard textures, gentle atmospherics, and screaming solos weave their way in and out of the mix. And it may just be my new stereo talking, but I don’t recall the bass work being as prominent or interesting on previous albums as it is on this one.
Beneath the Mire, while superficially not that different from the two songs that come before it, is still probably the most rabidly experimental thing on here, shifting mood and tone every minute or so, interspersing head-banging metal with gorgeous vocal melodies and emotionally charged guitar leads, and closing with a bizarre, free-jazzy instrumental passage that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Meshuggah CD. And although it sounds a lot different, the first all-nice track Atonement continues in the same vein. In sharp contrast to the pleasant but often lightweight tunes that generally provided a break from all the heaviness in the past, Atonement is a hypnotic, densely layered ambient piece driven by Eastern-accented guitar work, subtle keyboard flourishes, and even some hand drums and piano (never thought I’d hear that combination on an Opeth album). Another classic, the Grand Conjuration, steadily builds tension with some hushed, eerie melodies and foreboding clean vocals before releasing it with flurries of death vox, crazy Meshuggah-style polyrhythms (there’s that name again), and ghostly keyboards. For its part, Isolation Years is a pretty nice closer; Akerfeldt’s vocals get a little too close to the top of his register for my tastes, but the purty guitar leads and tricky drumming make the song register just enough.
Alright, I’m too bored and full of caffeine to write a suitable closing to this review now, so I’ll just leave you with this: if you like Opeth, get this album. It’s their best one yet, and easily among my prestigious personal top 5 of the year thus far.