Opeth twist Death Metal into new shapes, resulting in a triumphant album.
Opeth are a band I have steered clear of as I am not into death metal, having a distaste for death vocals growling like someone possessed; it was the type of puerile juvenile nonsense I used to listen to as a young metal head, I used to enjoy thrashing to Slayer, Believer and Mortification, but I have no time for it now. However, Opeth are an exception to the rule. I adored their "Damnation" album, the vocals by Åkerfeldt are stunning, warm and lovely to listen to, yes even uplifting despite the dark lyrics that are centred on death and spirits wandering about haunting the living. But I loved that album so much I listened to "Deliverance". Unfortunately it was all death metal growelling and nauseating metal at that. I gave up. But the reviews of "Still Life" are glowing and respected prog reviewers here are giving it the masterpeice status, so here we are, reviewing an album from a genre I am just not into.
What I discovered was the influences of Porcupine Tree meets Morbid Angel. What a combination. You get blasts of death metal at its most brutal mixed with passages of melancholy ambience. It works! Just when I think I cannot stand another second of those growls, the music takes over and really so well executed that it is impossible not to like. The guitars scream and soar, the bass pounds. The double kick drum embellishments and triplets are incredible. They are not kidding around.
The album begins with 'The Moor' with a beautiful acoustic guitar, a storm brewing, a brief moment before the distorted riffs blast in without remorse. Åkerfeldt's growls are brutal and soul chilling and unwelcome as far as I am concerned. I put up with it. I had no idea what the lyrics were and did not bother to check. There is a clean vocal chorus and it is so refreshing. I longed for more of this. The growling reminded me of the black metal I used to listen to with the likes of Bathory or Morbid Angel. At 6 minutes in the riffing stops and we have an acoustic interlude, a moment of respite. The "Damnation" style clean vocals chime in and they are so good, like a different band. I was drawn into the music at this point. Suddenly the caustic roars return scaring the hell out of me. Perhaps I am too timid to take this type of music. Let's move on.
'Godhead's Lament' has a fantastic riff but the brutal Napalm Death vocals infect the track again. The vocals are deep and angry reminiscent of Napalm Death's 'Suffer The Children', or Bolt Thrower's 'Cenotaph'. I told you I used to be a death metal addict. Now into prog I have discarded this type of metal so I am biased, I have no appreciation for this death stuff anymore. But if you do, Opeth are for you. The clean vocals return after 3 and a half minutes. It settles into a gentler mood, and lunches into a wonderful lead guitar solo with acoustic guitars. There are more warm vocals and I love this part of the album. The growls of course return but it is not as overbearing with all the softer sections. This would have to be among the best tracks of Opeth, a definitive highlight of the album.
'Benighted' is my favourite song on this as there are no growls and it has a beautiful melody; it is like "Damnation" again. The acoustic and jazz fusion electric guitars are fantastic. I love the lyrics; "Come into this night, Here we'll be gone, So far away, From our weak and crumbling lives, Come into this night, When days are done, Lost and astray In what's vanished from your eyes, What came and distorted your sight, Saw you benighted by your fright..." A great song that is as mellow as Opeth get. Atmospheric, melancholy and sinister.
'Moonlapse Vertigo' opens with a strange layered guitar riff. It is a moderate tempo and melodic chord structure. The lengthy intro is terrific, and it lapses to an acoustic treatment and clean vocals again. I began to really enjoy the album more at this stage. The growls are even more intense when they begin. They are deeper and evil sounding, ruining it for me. Then the clean vocals return again. This is weird. I half love, half loathe it. It's like an angel conversing with a demon. There are a myriad of time signature changes with soft and hard textures painted on the canvas. At 5:20 there is some delightful violining on the guitar, a crunching riff locks in and an emotive lead break. Moments of brilliance once again.
'Face of Melinda' is a lilting acoustic gentle ballad with some beautiful vocals from Åkerfeldt. He is so lovely to listen to, it is astounding how brutal he can sound when he is growling. I love this track, one of my favourite Opeth songs. The lyrics are quite disturbing though, "And conceded pain in crumbling mirth, A harlot of God upon the earth, Found where she sacrificed her ways, That hollow love in her face, Still I plotted to have her back, The contentment that would fill the crack, My soul released a fluttering sigh, This day fell, the darkness nigh..." The heavier sound returns towards the end but it is a nice break from all the serenity. The clean vocals remain and I was so pleased as I would rate this track highly.
'Serenity Painted Death' is an ultra heavy song with some respite of acoustic flourishes. The killer riff is incredible and yes, the vocals are grimly caustic. I could actually make out the lyrics, "Voices fell like marble, No longer by my side, Gone all that would linger..." It settles down again and a new time sig kicks in, a very good riff. The death metal vocals are so turgid in comparison to the sweet vocals or previous tracks it is a shock to the system. There are passages of dark and light, tension and release that make up for the brutal vocals. Opeth are musicians of virtuoso standard.
'White Cluster' is very powerful featuring an awesome intro and very fast double kick drumming. The intense riffing is angular with a plethora of time sig shifts and metrical patterns that are complicated and dark. It has a false ending and some structural guitar breaks. It is played effortlessly and with complex arrangements: Opeth on a grand scale. At 1:46 the track changes direction in another time shift with soft vocals and gentle guitar. At 4:13 there is another time shift, a half time feel. At 5:10 a minimalist guitar is plucked gently. It builds again and at 6:30 a cool riff and blistering lead solo take over. The lengthy instrumental break continues with a new time sig, and violining guitar and gentle vocals again with a strong melody. It fades at 9:10 then an acousotc guitar plays away quietly and it is all over.
In conclusion, one of the best Opeth albums that rang a chord with me apart from the death metal vocals. The music ranges from very melodic, symphonic sections counterbalanced by breakneck power chord progressions and soaring lead solos. The ominous atmosphere of pervading doom is punctuated by the broken drum patterns and shattered metrical shifts. The slower sections allow breathing space. The musical inventiveness is unsurpassed for the extreme tech metal genre. "Still Life" is not quite a masterpiece, but its growing on me with each listen. I love it, then I loathe it, but I can't ignore it's complex structure and innovative approach, reinventing extreme heavy metal.