etalheads are some of the meanest music fans around. Troll the comments sections of metal news sites, and you'll find levels of bile and inarticulate hatred not seen since middle school. No cows are sacred, and few bands have been spared the title of "sucks." However, through the years there has been one band that consistently earns the honor of formerly-transitive verbs "to rule" and "to own": Opeth.
Since 1995, this Swedish band has established an unmistakably unique blend of death metal, '70s-influenced progressive rock, and folk music. These influences offer something for everyone: brutal growls for the death metallers, clean singing and melodic riffs for old school fans, and acoustic strumming for the pastiest of black metalheads. Earlier efforts were raw and sprawling, but over classic albums like My Arms, Your Hearse and Blackwater Park, the band honed its chops and songwriting.
In 2002, Opeth ambitiously recorded two albums at once, Deliverance and Damnation. Deliverance focused on the band's heavy side, while Damnation was a quiet affair largely free of distortion except for guitar solos. Deliverance was solid, but Damnation was an unqualified success. Its clean tones and cozy ambience were a million miles from metal, and significantly helped expand the band's fan base.
Ghost Reveries is a relaxed, confident marriage of Opeth's heavy and mellow sides. Unlike stressful, rushed recording experiences of before, the band came into the studio prepared, and it shows. Singer Mikael Åkerfeldt's clean voice is smoother than ever. The songwriting is incredibly fluid. Songs regularly top 10 minutes in length, but never feel long. The band wrote most of the album in a new open tuning, denying itself the usual easy licks. As a result, the guitar work and songwriting are more considered than before, and the album is focused and dynamic.
The album spends as much time being quiet as it does rocking out. Even its heaviest songs are full of contrasts. "The Baying of the Hounds," for example, has the band's signature 6/8 riffs and Rush-like odd-meter interludes. But after a boisterous, complex opening, the song downshifts into a bass-and-drums groove, with small, luminous keyboard notes dotting the soundscape. It's the musical equivalent of lighting candles, and it's magical. The epic "Reverie/Harlequin Forest" is another great showcase of dynamics. The song goes from death metal growls to jangly acoustic guitars to soaring solos to crashing waves of sound, ending with an eerie, sinuous outro. One can almost feel the song breathing as it expands and contracts. The rhythm section is much to credit for this, as drummer Martin Lopez and bassist Martin Mendez have a '70s-esque sense of swing that gives the album a human, organic feel.
As with Deliverance and Damnation, the quieter moments steal the show. The piano arpeggios in "Hours of Wealth" recall Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells, "Isolation Years" has lovely vocal harmonies, and "Beneath the Mire" ends with atonal textures worthy of fusion-era Miles Davis. New keyboardist Per Wiberg is the band's secret weapon, his piano, organ, and mellotron giving the album a lush, spooky atmosphere.
If this album were a drink, it would be a hot toddy (in contrast, Opeth's rock equivalent, The Mars Volta, might be tequila shots or a long night of Carlo Rossi). It's warm and dark, without the intimidation factor that much of metal carries. Put this album on, and curl up under a blanket with your favorite Harry Potter book. Don't be surprised, though, if you find yourself occasionally headbanging.