An album I consider transcendent.
It has been too long since I’ve written a music review. As I return to this type of post I find it only fitting to continue with Opeth’s catalogue.
Blackwater Park was the second Opeth album I purchased when I first discovered them (and the world of progressive metal in general). Though to this day Deliverance remains my favorite work of theirs (subjectively), I cannot deny that by every standard I value, with as much objectivity as I can attain, Blackwater Park is the band’s masterpiece.
This album continues down the road paved by Still Life, with stronger, more cohesive, more definitively structured material than what we heard in Orchid or Morningrise. There are several differences here that I believe elevate Park above its predecessors. The performances by all members are strong, flowing effortlessly from the disc into your ears. Everything is balanced exceptionally well, as each piece of the music is given room to breathe, each section complimenting and enhancing the others at every turn. This is aided by the immaculate production and mastering by Steven Wilson. Despite my misgivings with his future collaborations with Opeth frontman Mikael Akerfeldt, Wilson’s production here is crisp, clear, but in such a way that does not feel artificial, forced, or synthetic. The clarity is such that you can almost hear yourself sitting next to each performer in the studio. Wilson’s added touches and ambience only add to Opeth’s powerful sound.
I have difficulty thinking of a better mixed album than this one. The guitars, acoustic and electric, are lush, vibrant, full of character, blazing with intense heat during the heavy moments, brimming with beauty and vibrancy when the music goes mellow. Martin Mendez’s bass, all but drowned out in Still Life, is loud and present in Park, lending strength and flow to the music, connecting the percussion and other string instruments together like a seamless, invisible glue. Martin Lopez’s drumming is a masterful combination of elegant simplicity and subtle technicality, shifting in moods with the twisty, adventurous musical passages, with a beautiful mix that brings his whole kit to life with a variety of moods and colors.
Although Akerfeldt would clearly grow more confident in his clean vocal abilities in time, pushing his performance to new realms in future albums, I prefer his vocals in Park to any other. The death metal growls are perfected here, but his clean voice rests on a wonderful medium ground between the humble, the vulnerable, and the confident. It is in this medium where I think he conveyed his greatest sense of emotion, of humanity, of the pain and sorrow much of the lyrical content covers. I still find it difficult to listen to the beginning of “Dirge for November” without wanting to cry, as Mikael all but weeps his words into the microphone.
It is in the emotion and humanity where Blackwater Park is ultimately the greatest triumph. Previous Opeth albums certainly weren’t lacking for passion or emotional depth, but the whole feels greater than the sum of its parts more so here than I daresay in any of their other records. Each song is a unique soundscape, woven and flowing like a tapestry of musical language that most artists never even aspire to, much less achieve. The haunting majesty and sorrow of “Bleak,” exalted to an ethereal realm by a vocal duet of Akerfeldt and Wilson, then transcending to otherworldly in the soaring solo following the smoky, acoustic breakdown; the sound of pure Autumn that is “Harvest”; the guitars of Akerfeldt and Peter Lindgren washing over the listener as an engulfing wave in “The Drapery Falls” during the intro and outro; the infectious momentum shift of rage that is “The Funeral Portrait”; and the merciless, nihilistic assault of the title track, featuring one of the longest and most wrenching, intense onslaughts of drumming my ears have yet to enjoy, played underneath a progression of guitar that somehow becomes heavier with each new movement.
It might be easy to brush this off not as a review but more like the ravings of a fanboy. If loving this album and expressing just some of the reasons why draws such a criticism, so be it. I am loathe to use the word perfect in any context, as I believe perfection to be an arbitrary, subjective human abstraction. Yet I cannot help but consider Blackwater Park to be as close to the generally accepted definition of perfect as any other album I have yet to listen to.
In some of the darkest and most vulnerable times of life, this music has quite literally saved me. I knew in a fundamental way that because this existed, I was not alone with my despair. I have wept with this music, it has been a catharsis, an outlet for feelings buried too deep to be understood in the outside world, where judgments and perceptions of people all too often go skin deep. In my instinctive, intrinsic belief that music is its own language, I point to Blackwater Park as proof to back up my claim. It captures and expresses so much more than just the lyrics printed on the booklet inside. Because of its heavy nature (particularly the death metal vocals) it may not fit within everyone’s musical palette. It is their own loss, for aside from Back to Times of Splendor I can make no higher recommendation for a collection of music than I do for Blackwater Park.