Ranked: OPETH's Discography From Best to Least Best
Hey! Welcome back to Ranked, where we pick apart classic bands' discographies to the sound of everyone yelling. Today we're hopping across the pond to frosty Scandinavia where we will be ruining Opeth's day and eating their lunch.
Some of you may be too young to remember, but metal today is a cultural juggernaut compared to the extreme music scene of the mid-90s and early 2000s. Today, a person on the street might actually respond to the words "death metal" with "Oh I have a friend who's into that," and not "Isn't that the thing where that one dude ate that other dude?" They might even know a band or two. One of them is probably Opeth.
Mikael Akerfeldt and co. had the distinction, good or bad, of being one of the first extreme metal acts to break into what we broadly call the Mainstream. They were dubbed, somewhat unfairly, "The Thinking Man's Metal Band," a term designed to shit on genre as a whole as much as praise the band itself. The blessing of the larger music scene made them an easy gateway drug for curious outsiders but also made just as uncool to a lot of hardcore metal brethren.
Just check out this New York Times piece from 2001 previewing a primarily Scandinavian metal show featuring Opeth. It reads: "Here is a guide to help make sense of all the ruckus, whether you want to buy a ticket out of a sudden curiosity for a genre that has been evolving since the formation of Black Sabbath in 1969 or to learn about a subculture in which your adolescents may have an interest." Oof. That is lame. None of this is really should have mattered. Opeth made objectively killer music. But nothing sucks the fun out of something quite like the approval of your parents.
Of course, the benefit of black sheep status is that you can pretty much do whatever the fuck you want. As such, Opeth's catalogue is definitely more varied than almost any band of their age and pedigree. How do you even begin to rank a catalogue that features two prog rock albums and an organ-driven, nearly all-acoustic love note alongside a bushel of stone cold death classics? Beats me but we're going to try. Onwards!
This album almost got me to second base like twice so I can't be too mad at its adorable, blissed-out face. There are some really great moments on here—"Windopane" is a free flowing beauty that draws the occasional tear if you hear that second solo in just the right Autumn light—but about half way through it just runs out of ideas. Mikael's limited vocal powers become all too apparent as the mellotron-led choruses begin bleeding together. This tends to get favorably reviewed by metal heads whose diet of outside music is either limited or nonexistent. The truth is that they could do much better. Ultimately, this is just a little too repetitious and underdeveloped to be more than background music or a little piece of Can-You-Believe-This-Is-a-Death-Metal-Band novelty.
It's hard to listen to this album without thinking of the free jam scene from Spinal Tap. Heritage is technically competent for what it is but none of the ideas are on display are really theirs, which wouldn't be as much of a problem if they weren't so adamant about making them the focal point of the album. "Look how prog we are, man." It also makes you wonder about how blatantly Opeth were grifting ideas all along to blend with their own and hoisting them on an audience that would see them as entirely novel. Maybe it was the recipe all along and not the ingredients… NO! That's crazy. Opeth are brilliant. [Looks around nervously].
9) Ghost Reveries
This whole list would have been much easier to write if Opeth had a more albums that just outright sucked. Before I started the evaluation process I thought Ghost Reveries would be that album. I didn't particularly listen to it very much when it came out but I certainly remember the reaction it got. You'd think it was just a tape of the band fucking up and starting over for an hour. Unfortunately, the truth is that there are just no blatant train wrecks in the Opeth catalogue. The quality of this album is, objectively, pretty fucking high. "Selling out" might be a bullshit term that disregards actual musical merit and is mostly used by people afraid of change, but if you were insistent on finding an album that its nebulous conditions—a massive PR push from a major label, maybe—this would probably be that album. And while I don't think that sat down, had a meeting, and decided they were gonna try to win a Best Pop Grammy, the riffs are just a little bit catchier and a few of the clean vocal sections are just a little bit too cute. There are bongos and a new keyboard player, too, neither of which adds a whole lot. It's a weak link to be sure but it's still probably better than anything most of us could ever do.
8) Pale Communion
A lot of what I said about Heritage still applies here, but as a standalone album, this is more focused, sonically defined, and just flat out better. There are actual songs on here, not just weird Frankenstein zombies pieced together from the corpses of Yes, Camel, and Pink Floyd, and the structures feel closer to the Opeth we used to know. There's even a little bit of good ol' fashioned heavy. In fact, this is much closer to Tales from the Thousand Lakes-era Amorphis than it is to Heritage. Throw in a few more death growls and we'd be talking about this a bonafide Return to Form.
When the dirge of "Heir Apparent" hits, you could be forgiven for thinking that Opeth were reversing course and heading back into dark waters. Way darker. Unfortunately (if that's what you were after, anyway), it's a mirage. What's here is good! "Hessian Peel" is cool! There just isn't very much material here. A lot of the songs are comparatively short and the material skews toward's Opeth's softer (read: weaker here, too) side. Subtract "Coil," "Burden," and the plenty-mellow "Porcelain Heart" and you're down to a half hour of METAL Opeth. That's downright criminal. And WHAT is going on with the keyboard jam in "The Lotus Eater"?
Somewhere, in some alternate universe, a mad scientist spliced this album with the best pieces of Damnation and a masterpiece was born. Instead, our boring-ass dimension is has Deliverance. As the counter piece to the aforementioned Damnation, it's Opeth's most explicitly "metal" album. You can feel it immediately with "Wreath." The picking is more aggressive, the riffs more tightly wound. Whether or not it's meant as a direct counterpoint to its sister album, there's an increased emphasis on more traditional metal riffing, with the band trying out out some weird half-thrash soloing and chuggy riffs. It's rousing in itself but hardly a pure Opeth experience, leaving this one pretty far down the list.
5) Blackwater Park
A lot of fans will tell you that Still Life and Blackwater Park are largely interchangeable and they're not entirely wrong. But to my ears, Still Life, even when it's firmly in metal mode, is like a gently swaying, death-inflected dream boat. On the other hand, Blackwater Park feels downright malevolent at times with Akerfeldt's tortured vocals nearly piercing the black metal spectrum on "Funeral Portrait." So why drop this album so far? One word: "Bleak." Whatever good will the rest of this album brings melts under the burning horror of Steven Wilson's breathy pop vocal duet with Akerfeldt. Is that nitpicking? Maybe, but people get executed for less serious offenses. Truthfully, it's hard not to hear it now and think of the hand Wilson would go on to have in the band's worst releases.
This a weird one. On the one hand, it's a HUGE step towards the Opeth that the world grew to know. The softer segments are more fully realized than on Orchid, and Johan De Farfalla's bass work (See: "Advent") stands out, which, no disrespect to Martin Mendez, wasn't something I found myself saying about their later albums. On the other hand, the metallic portion of their sound doesn't take quite the same step forward. The transmission still occasionally gets stuck between "Opeth" and "Boring Melodeath Band #452," and so the chasm between the band's two halves ends up feeling a lot larger here. "Nectar" still rules, though.
3) My Arms, Your Hearse
This is where Opeth really defined their the riffing style that would carry them into their so-called "classic period" and ultimately global acclaim. After two albums of wild experimentation, the slicing twin guitars are gone and in their place, resplendent in the newfound glory of Studio Fredman, is that sweet, patterned Opeth sound. You know, those swinging death riffs that would sound just as good on a dark oak acoustic in a candlelit study. All this comes together in the absolutely shit-wrecking, day-ruining (in a good way) "Demon of the Fall." If this list were based on every album's best song, MaYh would be in contention for the top spot.
2) Still Life
People like to point to Blackwater Park as the preeminent Gateway Album, but for my high school self and many of my college peers later on, it was Still Life that was the hook in the heart. I remember they way people's faces would light up with equal joy and confusion when they first heard the solo break in "Godhead's Lament." This is a fire-belching demon that somehow cradles you gently in its arms and sings you to sleep all while dripping molten venom onto your dumb smiling face. It sways, man. "Face of Melinda" might be the best make out metal since Type O Negative wrote "Love You to Death." My favorite mid-era album by far. If I had to find a real flaw…Well, concept albums are stupid, maybe?
Few debut albums can claim to be utterly singular in sound, and Opeth, for all their later innovation, fall prey to that here. Much of the album comes off sounding like the bouncy twin-guitar attack of their mid-90s melodeath peers. Akerfeldt's vocals sound a bit closer to Mikael Stanne than his legendary death growl and the acoustic sections are purely soft translations of metal metal structures, rather than shoehorned attempts at prog rock. And while that makes it one of the least distinct Opeth releases, it makes it the most cohesive, to my ears, one of the most listenable and enjoyable. If I had one complaint it would be the weird attempt at a Charlie Chaplain soundtrack on "Silhouette." Sorry but this is my Desert Island Opeth Album.