OPETH — Blackwater Park (review)

OPETH — Blackwater Park album cover Album · 2001 · Progressive Metal Buy this album from MMA partners
3/5 ·
Charcaroth
Blackwater Park; Opeth's Blandest Effort.

Maybe it was Steve Wilson's hand in the creation of this album coupled with Akerfeldt's eagerness to have him onboard. I wouldn't know, as I haven't yet become familiar with the music of Porcupine Tree, for which Akerfeldt professes so much love, but to me, this is Opeth's least impressive and most commercial metallic release. The opener, "The Leper Affinity" starts things off well and is easily the best track of the album. Standard Opeth awesomeness up to that time, in perhaps a more succinct, but more acutely atmospheric package.

But I'm bothered by the following track. In 'Bleak' I could swear I hear the strains of... Metalcore. At first I thought 'Maybe it's coincidence', or at worst, 'Maybe they've muddied, mellowed and simplified their various influences down to a mush on this one.' but no. This is just so simplistic and 'catchy'. Remove the leaden guitars and death vocals, crop the ending and this could easily receive airplay on any 'college/alterna-rock/whatever' station. It isn't god-awful, in some places it projects that beautiful, meloncholic atmosphere informed by the shadow of prog rock classicism that is Opeth's main appeal, but it certainly doesn't blow me away in any sense at all, and it's remained a low moment in Opeth's history for me. So basic, bland, and so disappointing.

The next track, "Harvest", is actually very beautiful and mellow. Even quite romantic. It basically distills Opeth's ability to create these amazing atmospheres and melodies into a simple little ballad, and would foreshadow the material on the album 'Damnation'. I seem to think of this song as the 'heart' of the album 'Blackwater Park', and an indicator that Akerfeldt & co really weren't in as much of a mindspace to create the heavy, complex and diverse music of past or (thankfully) future albums. That would make sense, given the much more relaxed, atmospheric and simple approach of this album. But it's in "Harvest" where Opeth's capacity for creating these incredibly eerie, beautiful and poignant, darkly emotive atmospheres and moods is really showcased in a very direct, basic form, and it works. It isn't metal, but it works, and along with the overall more simplistic and frankly, less enthusiastic nature of "Blackwater Park", it foretells of their need for creating an album like "Damnation" and getting the mellow prog/folk/rock out of their system.

I seem to sense a searching in Blackwater Park, to strike some kind of balance or even compromise between the various aspects of Opeth's sound, and it seems to be the heaviness and complexity that often get compromised. Many of the heavy moments are less heavy here, and often much simpler. There are fewer of them, and most of them, aside from the opener, "Leper Affinity" are either very mournful, as in the doomy "The Drapery Falls", (another highlight), and "Dirge for November", (probably the band's single darkest musical expression), or more of a grooving, classic hard rock influenced riffing workout as in "The Funeral Portrait". The eerie and enigmatic beauty, and haunted, arcane maelstrom of lethality takes a back seat most of the way through this release, in favor of a more generally mournful, somehow almost darkly romantic mystique. It's often extremely evocative, even poignant. I have a feeling many female fans favor this album.

It seems there's a divergence of Opeth's various facets as well, almost as if they were examining the various elements of the Opeth sonic landscape. "The Leper Affinity" is a recapitulation of the overall Opeth sound up to that point, "Harvest" Is wholly mellow and acoustic, "The Drapery Falls" and "Dirge for November" are both slow, depressive and doomy, "The Funeral Portrait" has a grooving classic hard rock/metal feel in it's riffing, and the closing title track (another low point of the album for me) "Blackwater Park" seems to include all the previously covered elements (including more metalcore), as though over the course of the album, Opeth had dismantled themselves and examined all aspects, then reassembled themselves in some new configuration. Albeit losing a lot of the initial appeal of their previous work in the process. Thankfully the evident metalcore undertones would never resurface again. (so far)

The consolation I take from this release is that it seems to be an examination of the uncanny moods and atmospheres Opeth are able to create with their music, as if in some sense they were trying to get to the center of what makes Opeth's sonic and emotional alchemy so unique and darkly beautiful. It makes for what may be Opeth's most introspective album, apart from "Damnation", of course. "Blackwater Park" has that going for it. The emphasis here is largely on songwriting and atmosphere, rather than riffing, and strangely this time around, most of the songs which do emphasize riffing come off a lot less successfully than the mellower moments. I still tend to feel Steve Wilson may have had to do with the way this music turned out. I have to admit I was glad when he departed.

In any event, I consider this album the beginning of a transitional period for Opeth, which was continued with the dual "Damnation/Deliverance" releases and led to their current sound begun on "Ghost Reveries". It's unfortunate that "Blackwater Park" was so well recieved and broke Opeth to the mainstream, but it's also easy to see how that would happen, given the material. This and to a lesser extent "Deliverance" are probably the two albums which have done the most to earn Opeth their reputation as a "boring" band among metal fans.

The Sound?

Well, with Steve Wilson on board as producer, obviously it's the best sounding Opeth album up to this point, with a warm, wide and balanced sound that seems geared toward expressing an atmosphere and mood. It could probably use a little more bite, and a little more attention paid to the guitar tone, which sounds slightly muddied in a way that I can't really decide is good or bad, but I don't think anything about the production serves as any real detriment to the album, or that anything could be improved enough to drastically increase the appeal of the material.

Frankly, Lopez's drumming sounds slightly labored in places here. I do think he's a great, expressive drummer when he's firing on all 8 cylinders, but this is the album that first begins to evidence his struggling with the pressures that led him to eventually quit the band. He holds his own well enough and certainly doesn't detract from the album, but he's also done better work. He sounds a little overworked in the studio. It's too bad the band could never find the time to rehearse properly during this era. Thankfully it doesn't really show up on the album, save only slightly in Lopez's taut, cautious drumming, (and possibly the seemingly underdeveloped nature of the musical ideas on this and "Deliverance").

Highlights:

"The Leper Affinity" (The heaviest and most complex thing here) "Harvest" (Beautiful. Fits in with "Damnation") "The Drapery Falls" (Mournful, swirling, simple but beautiful) "Dirge for November" (Simple, but extremely dark) Some people will also enjoy "The Funeral Portrait" simply because it rocks out. Solid, but unremarkable compared to a lot of Opeth's other work. ..Actually, that sort of sums up this whole album.

If you're a fan of Opeth at all, you'll enjoy this to some extent or other and it's worth having, but in case you're new to the band, DON'T start here unless Opeth is much heavier music than you're used to, or you've heard "Damnation" first and are looking for the best place to start getting into their metallic work from there. It's their most "accessible" metallic album.
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