Remembering The Bleakness & Beauty Of Opeth's 'Blackwater Park'

20 October 2016 | 11:38 pm | Staff Writer
Originally Appeared In

Opeth's musical horizon is endless, but a look back will remind us that 15 years ago they produced a truly special moment in the history of metal music.

Originally released: February 27th, 2001 (Music for Nations/Koch). 

There's a cycle that the Australian metal community has almost become accustomed to over time. Every 2-3 years Sweden's Opeth will produce another boundary-pushing piece of prog-metal that gets the critics tongues wagging (myself included) and makes the countless end of year lists, usually coming in at around the fifth or sixth position. About six months later the band will usually pay us a visit, play a bunch of sold out shows, and disappear from our shores until their next instalment of music 18 months later. The musical circle of life, really.

Now, if you looked at the ARIA charts over the past week or so, you would have noticed that Opeth has once again stormed in and stamped their authority on the Australian music market. At the time of writing this, the band have just come in at #7 in the ARIA’s for their latest effort ‘Sorceress. The band are also due to touch down in February for a run of headlining shows, including a sold-out performance at the Sydney Opera House. As our country braces for another dose of Swedish death metal blended with folk and nu-jazz (shut up, it's a thing), there is one album name that inevitably surfaces whenever Opeth is being discussed - 'Blackwater Park'. 

The term can come up in a variety of contexts when the band is being discussed;

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Do you think they will play much off Blackwater Park at the next gig?”

“I like this record - I mean it’s no Blackwater Park, but at least they are pushing forward with a new sound!”

“I got into Opeth through a hand-numbered tape of their first record….at least that’s what I tell people, I really just followed everyone else and listened to Blackwater Park first.”

It’s hard to argue against the notion that the band’s fifth album is their most definitive and well-constructed. To argue against the amount of influence the album had on the progressive metal community at the time would be nigh on impossible. To this day, it remains a record that a majority of contemporary releases are measured against. It is a record held in the highest regard by other modern heavyweights of progressive music. Whenever the band play any of the songs from the record live it is immediately a set highlight, from the pulverising heaviness of ‘Bleak’ to the pained emotion of ‘Harvest’ and so on.

But what was it that made this album stick out from the pack of squabbling metal bands trying desperately to keep the fire alive at the turn of the 21st century? Why is this album revered as one of the great progressive releases of all time, and how did it fit into the existing musical context of the time? To find out, we have to travel back to the grim, rainy landscape of Europe at the turn of the millennium, back before narcissistic obsessions of social media, a time before blogs, when newspapers were a genuine source of news and CD’s sales a genuine indicator of what was popular.

As far as the wider metal world was concerned, there had been a changing of the old-guard over the past decade. Metallica’s abandonment of their thrash roots heralded a change in the approach heavy bands took to both songwriting and image. Songs were shorter, more radio-friendly and far more melodic. Nu-metal dominated MTV, with dreadlocks, liberty spikes and track-pants dominating the visual aesthetic. Bands such as Korn, Limp Bizkit and Linkin Park were the new masters of contemporary heavy music, with the marriage of hip-hop and heavy metal dominating the airwaves.

Put simply, prog was a thing of the past.

[caption id="attachment_1088170" align="alignnone" width="501"]6356621_orig Band promos have come a long way since 2001.[/caption]

The success of Dream Theatre’s 1992 breakthrough ‘Images and Words’ was a flash in the pan of sorts, whilst bands like Porcupine Tree, Symphony X and Meshuggah were all still flailing in obscurity, despite being some of the best-kept secrets of the underground community. Progressive music was seen as something that had plateaued in the 1970’s and 1980's with acts such as Rush, Pink Floyd, among others as well as heavier artists Fates Warning Queensryche flying the flag for as long as people could hold their attention spans for.

But in the harsh winters of Scandinavia, death metal had blossomed in the mid-1990’s with acts like In Flames, Entombed and At The Gates, each of whom provided a faster, heavier outlet for the remaining few from metal's peak in the mid-80’s. However, by the turn of the century, the genre had well and truly begun its downward trajectory out of the public eye, with blast beats, growls and guitar solos unable to stand the test of time. Furthermore, a lack of dynamics, thematic sameness and general repetitiveness all combined to create a growing discontent with the genre by the late 90’s.

It was within this... hostile musical environment that Mikael Akerfeldt and co. begun experimenting with their take on melodic death metal and progressive music. From the start, the band offered something more to listeners than what was readily available on the market. The band’s first two albums, 1994’s ‘Orchid’ and 1996’s ‘Morningrise' demonstrated a unique fusion of black metal and folk in the form of long, dynamic works, with Allmusic proclaiming the latter as a “startlingly unique” piece of work. Both albums provided lovers of brutality and the abstract alike a new star to follow, with their follow-up record 'My Arms, Your Hearse' further condensing the style into a more digestible format. 1999 saw Opeth release 'Still Life', a record which displayed a greater grasp of progressive tracks melded with both death metal and acoustic elements. It was with this album's recording, that the band entered the studio after minimal rehearsals and next to no lyrics having been written, that the seeds of inspiration were sewn for the creative process of the band's next record, the now seminal 'Blackwater Park'.

The very foundations of the album's greatness were laid before the band had even stepped into the studio, with Akerfeldt enlisting the help of Porcupine Tree's Steve Wilson to produce the album, namely in the area of assisting with guitar leads and vocal production. Aside from the now legendary creative partnership that would be formed between the pair, from a production level, the move proved to be a masterstroke of foresight. Album opener ‘The Leper Affinity’ opens with all the ferocity that Opeth was known for at the time, but the way the vocals explode over the instrumentation is what takes the song to the next level. Speaking in an interview with Metal Rules at the time of the album’s release, Akerfeldt noted that:

“We were trying to impress him. He had never produced a metal band before….so I think he was a bit nervous as well. Every idea we had we asked him if he could do it and fixed everything as well as coming in with some weird ideas himself, which we liked and ended up using.”

In another interview with Team Rock, Akerlfedt further elaborated on the positive outcome of the decision, claiming that working with Wilson “enhanced” the sound of the band, saying :

“He came up with so many interesting angles on the way to record, and it was the little things he did that made the biggest impact.”

Some of those ideas can be heard in the acoustic piano lines, of which Wilson played all on the record. An absolute stand out is ‘Patterns In The Ivy’, a two-minute acoustic interlude that appears towards the end of the album. It's a song that tugs at the heartstrings of even the truest of death metal fans, and it serves to epitomise the dark, cold emotions which exist within the record's depths. This ‘bleakness’ is something which characterised the first era of Opeth, but on ‘Blackwater Park’ it was executed in a way that makes the listener genuinely feel a sense of sorrow. The Celtic folk dance of ‘Harvest’ seems merry on the surface, but gives way to faint, nostalgic feelings of pain and uncertainty, like a distant memory of longing for things to be as they were before in far easier times. But it’s on ‘The Drapery Falls’ that all the feelings and artistry of the record comes alive.

I will personally never forget hearing this song for the first time when I was fourteen. Before I had heard the first two minutes, I assumed that for a song to be progressive it had to be technically brilliant with odd-time signatures and guitar solos but this song threw that out the window. It reminded me that the power of melody far out-shone the significance of instrumental wizardry. From the gentle acoustic crooning to the haunting guitar leads and reaching its climax with Akerfeldt’s death growls at around the six-minute mark, the song remains a masterful fusion of calmness and brutality.

It’s this combination that became the backbone of the sound that brought Opeth to prominence in the metal world, and is the finest example of the content heard on 'Blackwater Park'. The cascading acoustics of ‘The Funeral Portrait’ give way to a thick guitar groove that sits right in the pocket for a night of head-banging, before twisting and turning through a range of dynamic soundscapes. This is even more apparent on my personal favourite 'Bleak' (a song which Akerfeldt has also said is one of his favourites from the album), with the dark Middle-Eastern dissonant harmonies of the first half breaking down into what is, in my opinion, the most heartbreaking acoustic interlude in the entirety of Opeth’s discography. It was the music's ability to make me feel genuine emotion that took me by surprise, and it’s something that I have hunted down in music ever since. The song also shows the bands ability to use brutality with taste, with the end of the song breaking out into a flurry of double kicks, one of two times they are used by then drummer Martin Lopez on the record.

While it may be a cheesy, over-used metaphor (particularly in the world of music writing), there is simply no other way to describe the phenomena that occur's inside venues when one of these tracks is unleashed. This sentiment is well and truly realised when the band drop the title track. A 12-minute song -  that is sometimes blown out to a 20-minute epic - begins with one of the heaviest riffs of the band's career, as a dissonant guitar lead gives way to a thundering march that insights a wave of headbanging and horns. Things slow down in the song's middle section, with a spooky and threatening interlude that promises you chaos and brutality, which the band then delivers on. Then the finale erupts into a flurry of double kicks and death growls, with the double time tempo the fastest pace reached on the entire record.

Opeth well and truly saved the best till last with this album and playing live it just makes sense.

[caption id="attachment_1088169" align="alignnone" width="600"]Promopic-Opeth-001 When the squad lets their hair out.[/caption]

Opeth would go on to further explore this sound on three future albums - the crushingly heavy ‘Deliverance’, the more digestible ‘Ghost Revelries’, and the darkly experimental ‘Watershed.’ However, one always felt it was impossible for the band to top the sheer perfection of balance that they managed to achieve on ‘Blackwater Park.’ It was this very sentiment that would play a part in the bands sudden shift in direction in the form of 2010's ‘Heritage’, a direction that the band is still following today with the newly released ‘Sorceress.’ (Read our review of the record here). In a sense, this change actually saved the band, with the sheer magnificence and beauty of ‘Blackwater Park’ drawing a line under what the band had achieved. This was the same junction in the road that has reached by many bands prior, like Slayer with their opus ‘Reign In Blood’ in 1986; there was simply nothing left to do with the genre. But such a moment should be recognised as a moment celebration rather than for lament. As Sputnik Music remarked;

“Opeth's ‘Blackwater Park’ is a clear example of how both beauty and absolute brutal mayhem can be combined into one near perfect package….it borders on perfection.”

This album reminded the wider metal world that with heaviness, there came the possibility of creating something that could make people feel something; that dynamics were indeed relevant, and that it was possible to produce 10-minute songs without delving into a chaotic storm of instrumental technicality. ‘Still Life’ had hinted at this, but ‘Blackwater Park’ was the full realisation that such music could exist.

For most bands, an album with the accolades and acclaim of ‘Blackwater Park’ would be enough to guarantee career longevity, as well as a solid base of songs to fall back on should future releases fall by the wayside. However, Opeth is a band that have not let the success and stature of 'Blackwater Park' hinder them from even greater creative adventures. The bold trajectory that the group has taken in the last decade has further expanded their sound as well as their fanbase and has pushed the members themselves to their musical limits. The addition of keyboards with Joakim Svalberg joining as a permanent fixture to their soundscape has further expanded the musical possibilities and the creative heights Opeth can, and have achieved.

Opeth will tour Australia in 2017 alongside Caligula's Horse, playing songs from their latest epic 'Sorceress', as well as a collection of tunes from their back catalogue. Dates below.

Saturday, February 4 - Tivoli Theatre, Brisbane

Monday, February 6 - Sydney Opera House, Sydney *SOLD OUT*

Tuesday, February 7 - 170 Russell, Melbourne

Wednesday, February 8 - 170 Russell, Melbourne

Friday, February 10 - Thebarton Theatre, Adelaide

Saturday, February 11 - Metro City, Peth