I have decided that it is past time to resume my reviews of my favorite music albums. After having covered Disillusion’s magnum opus, Back To Times of Splendor, I think it is high time that I cover Opeth’s material; fitting, since they are the band which introduced me to the world of progressive metal in the first place. I shall start at the beginning, with their debut album, Orchid.
Opeth’s sixth album, Deliverance, is the record which introduced me to the band, and it remains my favorite observation from them. However, I dare say that their debut effort, Orchid, has had the most profound and telling influence upon my taste in music, and the way in which I write music. Although I prefer the drumming styles of later members Martin Lopez and Martin Axenrot, Orchid drummer Anders Nordin left an indelible mark upon my playing style with his performance here, as well as on the follow-up album, Morningrise.
Before I delve into the album proper, I would like to make a brief author’s note. This is my second attempt at an album review, but I am finding it is still a greatly different beast from reviewing a movie or a video game. Even down to what you italicize, what you put in quotes… do I cover song by song, do I try to keep it more general… things that I never have to consider if I am writing a different kind of review. So hopefully I do this justice, I hope you enjoy it, and perhaps you may glean an interest in this album if you haven’t already.
To the Opeth uninitiated, Orchid is something of a mystery. There are no pictures of the band in any of the liner art or the lyrics booklet, only silhouettes. The album title has little to do with the subject matter in any of the songs. And if you look on the back of the album and see that there are “only” seven tracks, you might be lulled into thinking that this is not a very long record. You’d of course, be gravely mistaken on that mark.
“In Mist She Was Standing” – The first track on the album, and the first thing you will hear if you have never listened to Opeth before. Within seconds, dual guitar harmonies and a driving rhythm section sweep you away into a musical landscape that is like nothing else. Orchid’s production is rough to the ears of classical and/or “educated” musicians, but only in that it sounds very live, and in your face. Every instrument is accounted for, and is far from buried in the mix. Every bit of Nordin’s drum kit is present. Neither Mikael Akerfeldt nor Peter Lindgren’s guitars dominate the other. And the bass, my goodness, this is one the best albums I’ve ever heard for bass guitar. Johan DeFarfalla’s bass lines perfectly complement the dual guitar harmonies, and occasionally even take a commanding lead in more restrained passages.
This song is less of, well a song, than an epic, or a passage. It is a movement. While there are a few harmonies that are revisited, this song is largely a journey, 14 minutes of alternating between a dual lead guitar attack, and quiet, somber, extremely brooding passages of acoustic guitars and atmospheric, clean vocals. When Akerfeldt opens up with his harsh, black metal, heavy vocals, it definitely commands your attention. Heavy, screamed vocals aren’t for the faint of heart. People who might otherwise enjoy Orchid for the instrumentation, will be turned off by the vocals. But what I will stick up for, is that unlike what you hear in a lot of punk and a lot of American heavy metal, heavy vocals from bands like Opeth or Disillusion should not be written off as just inane screaming, growling, or even shouting. They still possess a musicality, a sense of clarity, and to do them justice takes a lot more practice and effort than most people give credit for.
“In Mist…” is my favorite track on the album, both musically and lyrically. Akerfeldt described the lyrics as being about a nightmare, and I’ve honestly had nightmares similar to what the lyrics tell about. Just when you think the song is over and has reached a perfectly satisfactory conclusion, it sweeps you away into an epic, beautifully majestic instrumental outro that just defies explanation.
The main tracks of Orchid follow a similar pattern. All are ten minutes long or close to it. “Under the Weeping Moon” gets credit for having what is perhaps the most hauntingly atmospheric interlude ever put to recording, all accomplished with two guitars, bass, and drums. It’s another piece of evidence that I point to when I make the claim that Opeth never needed a full-time keyboardist; “…Weeping Moon” proves that they already had the means to create whatever soundscape they wanted. That being said, the piano solo track, “Silhouette,” performed entirely by drummer Anders Nordin, is a surprising, classy, and beautiful piece of music that provides a nice interlude between “…Weeping Moon” and the third epic track, “Forest of October.”
Aside from what some would call a relatively low quality recording and mix, and some occasional hiccups with tempo, Orchid’s only truly notable flaw was in the mastering of the second short interlude track, the acoustic guitar piece, “Requiem.” Somehow, in mastering, the second half of this track ended up being placed as the beginning of the last song, “The Apostle In Triumph.” If you are listening to the album from start to finish, it sounds as is intended, but if you were to play the tracks out of order for any reason, it does stand out as an oddity.
I really can’t sing the praises of this album enough. Despite some technical problems, it remains, to me, a masterpiece; a perfect blend of black metal, nature-inspired brutality, driven by dual guitar harmonies which defy expectation. Long acoustic passages, clean vocals, influences from prog rock, jazz, and classical sources flesh out an hour long musical experience that is so fulfilling, so satisfying, that this becomes not just an album you put on to have some background music for your workout or housecleaning. Orchid is an experience, something that you can just sit and listen to for an hour, doing nothing else but allowing your ears and your brain to be washed away into a sonic landscape which challenges you and rewards you for your attention.