There is perhaps no more divisive band in metal at the moment than Swedish prog overlords Opeth. After an unprecedented career within the progressive death metal realm, the band eschewed their traditional, extreme sound for blatant ’70s prog rock worship with their 2011 album, Heritage, and have continued down that path ever since, with bandleader Mikael Åkerfeldt seemingly taking every available opportunity to (further) distance the band from their heavy metal past.
Their newest release, Sorceress – while arguably the most accomplished and consistent of their prog rock output – is sure to only further the divide between the band and longtime fans. Yet it is important not to forget what an unprecedented and truly peerless force the Swedish act once were.
Let this be a reminder of those prior achievements, as well as a gateway for newer fans into their arguably unrivalled back catalogue.
‘Under The Weeping Moon’, Orchid, 1995
Orchid can sound somewhat undernourished compared to the expansive output of Opeth’s later, mid-period. Despite this, the album remains a classic in underground (death) metal circles and, when put into perspective, remains a landmark release of both progressive and, to some extent, melodic death metal to this day.
Before Orchid, the term ‘progressive death metal’ lent itself more favourably to the jazz-influenced and technically oriented sound of bands like Atheist, Cynic and Death. This record showed that death metal and the wider extreme metal genre were compatible with other ‘progressive’ elements, like mood, atmosphere, texture and even melody; and no track made this statement more clearly (or succinctly) than ‘Under the Weeping Moon’.
‘Black Rose Immortal’, Morningrise, 1996
At over 20 minutes long, ‘Black Rose Immortal’ is both the longest Opeth song and one of their most memorable and most accomplished. Even for a band known for their lengthy compositions, this track is a tall order – being in excess of six minutes longer than their next-longest outing.*
However, there is scarcely a dull moment to be found throughout its impressive length, and it remains a transfixing and rewarding listen, time and time again.
*‘In Mist She Was Standing’ from Orchid, which clocks in at fourteen minutes and ten seconds.
‘Demon of the Fall’, My Arms, Your Hearse, 1998
If Opeth ever had a song that could be considered their ‘Enter Sandman’, it’s ‘Demon of the Fall’. Even amidst an album as consistent and outstanding as My Arms, Your Hearse, this song stands tall, and it has become the defining Opeth outing for that very reason.
It is somewhat of a double-edged sword then that, since ‘Demon of the Fall’ is also one of the heaviest and most extreme Opeth compositions, it only makes their lighter, more recent output all the more disappointing.
‘Face of Melinda’, Still Life, 1999
From one extreme to the other: ‘Face of Melinda’ was perhaps the first and most definitive statement that Opeth were ‘more’ than just an outstanding extreme metal band. This almost entirely acoustic number remains a cornerstone of the band’s live set to this day, and is without a doubt one of the most recognisable and defining moments of their career.
‘The Leper Affinity’, Blackwater Park, 2001
Blackwater Park marks a defining point in Opeth’s career. It marked the ushering in of their second/mid-period phase, which forwent their ties to the traditional, Swedish, extreme metal scene in favour of a more decidedly ‘progressive’ and ubiquitous approach to their sound.
It also marked the transition from Swedish death metal legend Dan Swano (Edge of Sanity, Withersape, ex-Bloodbath) to British prog guru Steven Wilson (Porcupine Tree, Blackfield) as the band’s major outside collaborator. The (ultimately slight) change in direction could well have sent the band off the rails. Yet ‘The Leper Affinity’ provided instant reassurance that the new(ish) direction was perhaps for the best, and ushered in what remains the most impressive and important era of Opeth’s career.
‘Deliverance’, Deliverance, 2002
If ‘Demon of the Fall’ is Opeth’s ‘Enter Sandman’, then ‘Deliverance’ is their ‘Master of Puppets’. The Swedish outfit were at their absolute pinnacle on Damnation: as composers, performers, musicians, songwriters – everything. ‘Damnation’, the song (as much as the album), is perhaps the greatest of all Opeth arrangements and is an absolute masterclass in everything that, not just extreme music but music in general, can be.
‘Closure’, Damnation, 2003
Damnation is the confrontingly mellow counterpart to the devastating Deliverance, and there remains no greater argument – within the band’s catalogue or outside it – that their most recent outings perhaps aren’t all they could have been.
If Opeth wanted to abandon extreme metal entirely and put out albums as good as Damnation, with songs like ‘Closure’ on them, then their disgruntled fan base would hardly have a leg to stand on. Alas, it was not to be…
‘The Grand Conjuration’, Ghost Reveries, 2005
Ghost Reveries, which coincided with a jump to Roadrunner Records, provided a somewhat more accessible and polished rendition of the band’s sound. That its standout number and only single (albeit in radio-edited form) was the ten-minute, prog metal odyssey ‘The Grand Conjuration’ only went to show that the band hadn’t lost any of their ambition or prowess along the way.
There are few songs out there that fit their title so fittingly as this, and it remains for many people both a hefty introduction to the world of Opeth, as well as the final word on everything they sought to achieve.
‘Hex Omega’, Watershed, 2008
Just as ‘The Leper Affinity’ ushered in the golden age of Opeth, so too, ‘Hex Omega’ ushered it out in spectacular fashion.
Fans weren’t quite prepared for what came after, and many are still largely coming to terms with it. Yet, it was clear from an album title like Watershed that a change in direction was on the cards. Watershed was, and perhaps forever will be, the last great Opeth record, and ‘Hex Omega’ was a more than fine way to go out.
‘The Devil’s Orchard’, Heritage, 2011
‘The Devil’s Orchid’ was the first taste that fans (and the wider musical world), got of the new, trad-prog Opeth. Unfortunately, it remains perhaps the best and most complete rendition to come from the band’s most recent incarnation.
This song still has everything there was to love about classic Opeth, besides death metal vocals. There are technical-yet-not-off-putting riffs, progressive-yet-memorable song structures and otherworldly musicianship across the board. However, the rest of the album proved an intriguing yet inconsistent mess and though the band’s records have (again) become more consistent with time, modern Opeth remains a pale imitation of what it once was.
Check out our full Opeth gig here, which is full of Mikael Åkerfeldt banter.