No band in metal consistently makes statements as grand and overwhelming as those of Sweden’s Opeth. The group hit their 30th anniversary in 2020, and they’ve come a long distance in those three decades — in fact, they’re very much a different band than the one that formed as teenagers in 1990 (literally — frontman Mikael Åkerfeldt is the only founding member that remains in the group, and a few more members have come and gone since the release of their debut album Orchid). But if there’s one thing that hasn’t changed, it’s their sense of ambition, building their sound on a blend of towering heavy metal riffs and intricate, detailed progressive rock songwriting.
Opeth’s music is big on drama, but refreshingly free of offstage controversy. Informed as much by Scandinavian death metal as they are by progressive rock titans like Pink Floyd, King Crimson and Genesis, Opeth pour a variety of disparate but complementary influences into their music, their earliest records sounding more in tune with death metal peers like Dark Tranquility while their later albums have mostly filtered out the metal elements altogether, instead riding more classic rock riffs and grooves. But no matter which album you’re listening to, the product is unmistakably Opeth.
With today marking the 20th anniversary of Opeth’s landmark 2001 album Blackwater Park, we took a broader view of the band’s catalog and evaluated which of their records have aged the best and which ones reveal any cracks in the armor. Here’s how the drapery falls…
13. Pale Communion (2014)
There are essentially three distinct phases of Opeth’s discography — their death metal-influenced ‘90s records, the heavy progressive metal grandeur of the ‘00s, and the more traditional progressive rock approach of the ‘10s. It lines up all pretty neatly, and each one will have its defenders and detractors (though, let’s be honest, the first five or six records probably won’t have many detractors). But going full-blown prog was a test of sorts to see how many fans would come along for the ride. There’s really no reason why they shouldn’t — Opeth playing prog rock isn’t as dramatic a shift from playing prog metal as it might seem on paper. Their 2014 album Pale Communion, for instance, shares a lot in common with 2005’s Ghost Reveries — blazing heavy psych organ, serpentine riffs, everything epic all the time. Yet those commonalities are also what prevent it from standing out among their other albums. It’s not different enough. That’s where the context of a band’s complete catalog becomes crucial. If this were Opeth’s debut, it’d be impressive, certainly. But as the band’s 11th album, it feels redundant, and though it has its share of towering rock moments, it also feels a bit more like a holding pattern than what came before. Not a bad album by any means, but definitely a missed opportunity.
12. Sorceress (2016)
How well one takes to Opeth’s more recent forays into progressive rock will likely vary depending on how much of their appeal in the first place was grounded in death metal or prog. The latter’s always been a major part of their identity, but since 2011’s Heritage, the group more or less cast aside the most explicit metal aspects of their sound. So by the time they released 2016’s Sorceress, Opeth had fully arrived at being a prog band — full stop. But here’s the thing: They’re good at it. Sorceress might lack some of the most ferocious rippers of their ‘90s-era highlights, but the album — based in large part on frontman Mikael Åkerfeldt’s divorce — employs their King Crimson, Genesis and Deep Purple influence toward knotty, intricate psychedelic dirges that still rock pretty hard, if we’re being honest. “Chrysalis” and the title track are badass, riff-heavy standouts backed with a heavy dose of dirty organ, and though Åkerfeldt restricts his vocals to a respectable croon, there’s no denying the heaviness at the heart of these songs. That doesn’t mean it’s without faults, by any means — though Sorceress boasts both energy and beauty, it’s imbalanced, increasingly leaning heavier on ballads and acoustic material. And despite the band’s prior innovations, it feels strangely safe for them, sounding more like a tribute to classic prog than a new interpretation of it.
11. Heritage (2011)
Opeth caught some fans by surprise with the 2011 release of Heritage. Though it technically wasn’t the band’s first non-metal album (that would be Damnation, which was a companion album to the very much metal Deliverance), it was the beginning of a new era in which the group sought to prove their capabilities outside of metal. On that front they succeeded — there are no growls, no moments of death metal riffage, nothing nearly as crushingly intense as Blackwater Park or My Arms, Your Hearse. Yet it’s still identifiably Opeth — the labyrinthine riffs and melodies on “The Devil’s Orchard” aren’t markedly detached from those on Ghost Reveries, and a hard-charging rock track like “Slither” still aims for a similar kind of catharsis, but with a touch more transparency about how much fun it sounds like they’re having. It succeeds where Sorceress slightly stumbles, largely because it has more life and more imagination, and for all its high-minded progressive rock conceits, it’s still an album that’s consistently fun to listen to. Yet to its detriment, it lacks the fluid sequence of the best of their previous albums, often feeling overstuffed with ideas to the extent that not all of them land as well as they should. But they sound inspired and energized, which makes it a natural standout among their prog rock-era records.
10. In Cauda Venenum (2019)
Opeth don’t have anything left to prove 25 years into their career, at least not to their audience. The number of genuine masterpieces in their catalog surpasses most other contemporary metal bands, and for how “controversial” their shift to progressive rock was with Heritage and the albums that followed, they’re still pretty good at it (and it’s not like the shift was so dramatic to begin with). Which is kind of what makes In Cauda Venenum as surprising as it is. While it certainly seems that the group were settling into their classic rock phase (Sorceress offering moments of some of the most straightforward rock‘n’roll they’ve ever recorded), three years later they turned around and delivered some of their most compelling and dramatic music in over a decade. It doesn’t hurt that it’s the most “metal” of their prog-rock albums, but that’s not necessarily why it succeeds. Here, the songwriting more than lives up to the grandeur of the arrangements, and the band — who recorded the album in both Swedish and English, and pepper the album with bits of Swedish dialogue — capture an immediacy as well as a newfound imagination in style and approach that makes these songs sound like the beginning of yet another new phase, rather than the long tail of one that began over a decade ago. These are some of their best songs in years, and a strong argument that Opeth still have some surprises for us yet.
9. Orchid (1995)
It’s astonishing that a record as ambitious and massive in scope as Orchid is a debut. Opeth had been a band for five years by the time Orchid was released, so by then they had dialed-in chops and a well-defined vision. It’s an auspicious introduction, comprising more than an hour of sprawling, progressive death metal with moments of atmospheric melancholy flecked throughout. The band set out to take listeners on a journey from the get-go, and Orchid does so magnificently, with 10-plus-minute tracks such as “Forest of October” and “The Twilight is My Robe” each cramming an album’s worth of ideas in a single song. That being said, some of the album’s cuts feel a bit overcrowded, and while beginning your debut album with a 14-minute song certainly makes a statement, later records proved much better at paring down and editing those ideas into (occasionally) more concise tracks trimmed of their bloat. It is fun, however, to hear the band in the most straightforward(ish) melodic death metal phase of their career, some of their riffs not far removed from At the Gates’ (whose Slaughter of the Soul was released the same year). A fantastic debut to be sure, but more sophistication in their songwriting and better production meant they were headed on an upward trajectory.
8. Watershed (2008)
“Coil,” the opening track from Opeth’s 2008 Watershed, likely caught a few listeners off guard with its gentle, atmospheric folk sound and guest vocals from Nathalie Lorichs. It certainly wasn’t out of character for the band to include moments of space and lightness between their epic metal compositions on earlier albums, though as a first track it’s something of a tease, throwing the listener off the scent before the heavy rush of “Heir Apparent” comes thundering down. It’s not a fake-out, though — Watershed is the most fluid fusion between the group’s darker, heavier metal sound and the prog rock direction they’d take in the years following this album, a gateway between the two worlds that sees the band opening up their approach even more by increasingly letting off the throttle. The result is some of their most compelling and diverse material, like the chilling and subdued “Porcelain Heart” or the explosive, blast-beat-addled “The Lotus Eater.” As the band’s last proper metal album (for now, anyway), it’s something of a landmark, an excellent collection that’s remarkable not because of its innovations nor its impact, but rather because it’s an outstanding showcase for the band’s seasoned songwriting.
7. Morningrise (1996)
It’s tempting to bring up the old cliche about how an artist has their whole life to make their first record and a year to make the second one. On paper, this seems like an uphill battle for a band that trades in gargantuan prog-metal journeys, but in the case of Opeth, one year was plenty of time to build on the already impressive template of Orchid. Morningrise is cut from a similar cloth as its predecessor, but it opens up their sound more, the group allowing themselves more room to explore a broader textural and atmospheric approach while also removing some of the rigidity of their debut. There are some genuine grooves in opener “Advent,” and a triumphant strut to “The Night and the Silent Water” that reveal a band more confident and more mindful of crafting an overall mood in addition to writing great riffs and melodies. Supposedly they had been heavily influenced by black metal at the time, though the only place where that’s noticeable is bonus track “Eternal Soul Torture,” a sufficiently evil demo-quality curiosity that reveals yet another side to Opeth, one that they were probably better off not pursuing, but a fun extra all the same.
6. Deliverance (2002)
In a particularly sly bit of Wikipedia vandalism, an enterprising prankster updated the listing for Opeth’s Deliverance to say it was, in fact, inspired by the movie, and that “Opeth wished to dedicate this album to the pain, suffering and humiliation of Ned Beatty.” While there’s a part of me that really wishes for this to be true, it’s not. Åkerfeldt has said in interviews that he just liked the name “Deliverance” as an album title, and for its prog-folk companion album, he wanted to come up with the opposite of that title, which is how the band arrived on Damnation. This is the heavier and more urgent of the two, a set of some of the most punishing and intense metal songs the group’s ever recorded, albeit with all of their progressive rock influence still intact. It’s not a straightforward album per se, but it’s a consistently aggressive piece of heavy metal majesty, and given that the band encountered numerous setbacks while recording — missing gear, technical issues and inter-band conflicts — it’s all the more impressive they were able to deliver (heh) something this cohesive and powerful. If it slightly pales when compared to its counterpart, it’s less in quality of content than vision.
5. Damnation (2003)
Opeth entered the studio in 2002 with the intent of recording a double album, which technically they did — its two halves just happened to be released separately. The band’s label preferred releasing the two albums, contrasting and stylistically different companion pieces, six months apart rather than as one lengthy album, and as such they sound almost like entirely different bands. Where Deliverance is one of the band’s heaviest recordings, Damnation is something different entirely — a progressive folk album that carries the autumnal influence of ‘60s and ‘70s-era groups like Comus and Pentangle. “Closure” is a cinematic, psychedelic journey, whereas “Death Whispered a Lullaby” is gorgeously gothic in atmosphere, and given greater depth due to a heavier jazz influence. “To Rid the Disease” even sounds a little like Radiohead (aside from Åkerfeldt’s instantly recognizable croon). There’d be ample reason to believe that fans might be skeptical about a record like this, which features none of the metal intensity of any of Opeth’s previous albums, yet it’s widely regarded as one of their best. And with good reason, too; maybe it’s not a metal album, but it’s far and away one of their best sets of songs.
4. Still Life (1999)
Opeth ran into some obstacles before making Still Life, namely that they were strapped for time and unable to do extensive rehearsals before recording the album. To their credit, they still pulled off something magnificent. By all accounts a true triumph of a record, Still Life is an album where everything simply works beautifully, from its heavier moments to its atmospheric folk passages to its moments of jazz-influenced prog, all of which complement each other and reveal how much growth and maturity the group had undergone in just four short years. Strong as Orchid might have been as a debut, Still Life finds every loose end tightened up, and with a compelling conceptual thread about a heretical martyr reunited with his love in the afterlife. And it’s within the contrasts on the record — the more well-defined quieter moments and more intense bursts of heaviness alike, coupled with crisper production and some of the best vocal performances of Mikael Åkerfeldt’s career — that Opeth show off why they’re one of the best metal bands of the past 30 years.
3. Ghost Reveries (2005)
A lot of things changed for Opeth on Ghost Reveries. It saw the band’s first release through Roadrunner Records, as well as their first album to feature keyboardist Peter Wiberg as a full-time member of the band, and his contributions add a considerable level of texture to the band’s intricate progressive metal sound. His organ playing is an essential element to tracks such as “The Baying of the Hounds” and “The Grand Conjuration,” which find Opeth revealing a bit more Deep Purple boogie in their autumnal, melancholy compositions. Yet there’s a greater degree of overt technicality on display as well; one of those very same tracks, “The Grand Conjuration,” is as much a showcase for rhythmic precision and instrumental skill as it is for colossal groove. When these elements come together, it sounds massive, naturally, but it highlights a quality that’s not always as immediately apparent in the band’s music: These songs are unusually fun. I don’t doubt that Opeth enjoy what they’re doing, otherwise they wouldn’t be doing it, but there’s a swagger to these tracks that, even at their most elaborate, is infectious. Say what you will about the group’s more high-minded concepts or stylistic breakthroughs, this is flat-out one of the most enjoyable records they’ve ever released. Not coincidentally, it’s also their best-selling one.
2. My Arms, Your Hearse (1998)
The title of Opeth’s third album is taken from a particularly harrowing song by British cult progressive folk outfit Comus, which offers a glimpse into the kind of darkly psychedelic influences that go into creating music as eclectic and huge as Opeth’s. Even at this fairly early stage, the band’s sonic palette and penchant for grandeur required second, third, fourth listens to take in all of the details and moving parts on their albums. But My Arms, Your Hearse is a much tighter album than its two predecessors. Any band whose recorded career begins with a 15-minute track probably has some material to trim, but even though the songs are shorter, tighter and more focused on My Arms, Your Hearse, they’re by no means less inspiring or vast in their scope. Åkerfeldt wrote the lyrics to the album before any of the music, and the last phrase or word in each song is the title of the subsequent song (for example, the final words in “The Amen Corner” are “Demon of the Fall”). And yet it’s the music itself that stands out — while Opeth at this point were a trio, Åkerfeldt himself taking on a pretty heavy share of the instrumentation, they sound not like a studio creation but rather a well-oiled group of musicians in sync and on point. While certainly there’s an elegance to these songs, there’s also a momentum and an intensity that few of their other records have matched. For as poetic and conceptual a piece of music as this is, My Arms, Your Hearse nonetheless contains moments like the relatively brief “Demon of the Fall,” which, frankly, just kicks ass.
1. Blackwater Park (2001)
Blackwater Park is Opeth’s biggest album — not their longest, nor their heaviest, but their biggest. From the moment that “The Leper Affinity” comes roaring out of the gates of hell, everything about the band sounds magnified, enhanced and delivered in greater detail. The first of the band’s albums to be produced by Steven Wilson, as well as their first through Music For Nations/Koch (making it their major label debut), Blackwater Park was a big step up in terms of presentation if not necessarily in terms of the actual sonic elements. It’s very much the work of the same band that released Still Life and My Arms, Your Hearse, but there’s a greater clarity of sound that shines a brighter spotlight on their melodies. Which is important, since those melodies are stunning — hook-wise, riff-wise, Blackwater Park represents Opeth’s crowning achievement as a band. Individually there might be stronger moments on other albums — even Sorceress, which is ranked considerably lower here, still has its share of riffs that stand tall on their own. But here everything aligns perfectly. It certainly doesn’t hurt that this is the catchiest record in Opeth’s catalog, and that has a fair amount to do with it, but their balance of the density and heaviness of their earliest records with a greater attention to detail and detailed, hushed nuances results in the ideal of Opeth. Blackwater Park is a triumph not just for Opeth nor even for progressive metal, but for all of heavy music.
Words by Jeff Terich