In 1999, with a full band lineup once again, Opeth created another concept album, Still Life, a recording that still holds a special place in the hearts of many metal fans the world over.
There is an obvious evolution in Opeth’s sound from album to album. Most bands tend to undergo some meager change from record to record, but generally speaking, especially in the metal world, there is precious little musical growth with each new observation. Enslaved is a band that has evolved tremendously over the years, that has managed to make each new album take a special place in the sound world, yet stays true to what makes them, well, them! I would heap that same praise upon a band like Dark Tranquillity (though in fairness their latest few records haven’t broken away from the formula they adopted in Character), and, until the releases of Heritage and Pale Communion, I say the same of Opeth.
My Arms, Your Hearse straddled the line between Opeth’s new, more death metal sound, and their old, bordering on black metal, harmony-driven arrangements. Still Life builds upon the heavier elements in Hearse, and in so doing presents us with Opeth’s most cohesive arrangements up to this point. That’s not to say that Still Life isn’t still complex, unpredictable, or dynamic. In fact it has some of the most bizarre, convoluted riffs and structures that I’ve ever heard from Mikael Akerfeldt and Peter Lindgren. Along with Martin Lopez on drums and the first appearance of Martin Mendez on bass, this is a strong, complex listen that requires patience to fully appreciate.
This is the first Opeth record to have songs with recurring themes and repeating parts throughout. Even with their typically ten minute long metal tracks, which have more parts than I care to diagram, the careful use of themes and choruses lends a strength and cohesiveness to the songs, which yes, make them easier to digest for those listeners who are used to more traditional song arrangements. Essentially what we have here is the distinct Opeth quality of musicianship and writing, but with a much tighter, more focused attack which packs a hell of an emotional punch.
By coincidence, I typically end up enjoying the first track on a given Opeth record more than any other, and that is the case here on Still Life. “The Moor” is a moody, relentlessly heavy, emotional onslaught of an album opener that sets a new songwriting standard for this band. The first few minutes are an aggressive, complex variety of angry riffs that is among this band’s most headbang-worthy, which then give way to one of the most haunting, tragic musical themes that I have ever heard in my life. Akerfeldt’s voice, over top of the sweeping riff and Lopez’s relentless attack, just projects pure, unadulterated agony.
That raw emotion is present in many other aspects of the recording. Even without seeing the album art, I would have described that “color” of this music as red. Compared to the bluer, doomier sound in Hearse, Still Life‘s mix is angry, raw, sometimes smoky and hazy, and overall very “hot.” Temperature is not something commonly analogous with music, but in this case I think it applies. When I listen to this album, I can picture myself in that studio with the guys, and can almost feel the heat coming off those guitars. Whether this sensation is a side-effect of the studio that this was recorded in, or if it was an intentional design decision, it fits exceptionally well.
This is because Still Life is another concept album, and unlike the more abstract story in Hearse, this one is much more down-to-earth and far more personal. Each song on this record furthers the story of a man who was exiled from his home, simply because he would not accept the religious dogma of his home village. He returns from this exile because he cannot stand to be away from Melinda, the love of his life, but in pursuing this forbidden love, they are both set on a course that destroys their lives. The story is told in a way that leaves specific details vague, but the emotional punch delivered by the music conveys every bit of feeling that you would ever want the lyrics themselves to bring out. I point to the final two tracks, “Serenity Painted Death,” and “White Cluster,” as the ultimate examples of this. “Serenity” has THE heaviest riff I have ever heard in my life, and the full track conveys, with haunting precision, the sheer rage and agony that comes from the loss of a loved one. “White Cluster” is a haunting, beautiful, spine-tingling send-off for a man who has nothing left to lose, and is staring death in the face.
I will sing this album’s praises without end, however there are some minor snags that keep me from regarding this as either the best Opeth album ever recorded, or my favorite Opeth album. The production and mix, while excellent in establishing the mood and tone of the observation, do no justice to Martin Lopez or Martin Mendez. Compared to the crystal recording of the drums in Hearse, the percussion in Still Life lacks a certain punch. It has nothing to do with Lopez’s playing. The snare just sounds weaker than on the previous album, and when he kicks in the double bass, it sounds as though one of the bass drums wasn’t recorded properly, and so half of the those notes get buried in the mix. Also an injustice is Mendez’s lack of presence in general. He comes through loud and clear on “Face of Melinda,” but in the other songs the bass guitar is barely audible. It really is criminal, because Mendez’s performance is a key part of the Opeth dynamic.
Despite some drawbacks in the production, any fans of dark, progressive music, and metalheads everywhere, owe it to themselves to give Still Life a spin. You will be rewarded with a rich, complex, dynamic soundscape that tells a story which most writers would envy.