Prog Primer: Intro to Opeth (featuring journalist Jordan Blum)

Have you ever wanted to get into a band, but you feel intimidated by their discographies? Prog Primer was created to help you, the reader, get a sense of where to start. We at Proglodytes decided to take the format of our successful Prog Primer podcast series and do a text-based version so that readers could gain some of the same information about bands they’re eager to get into.

For this edition of Prog Primer, we are discussing Opeth. Now, by most metrics, Opeth is one of the most successful modern progressive acts, with millions of albums sold all over the world and a large following among metalheads. But, I’ve seen a similar story with Opeth, where people will attempt to get into their most critically acclaimed albums, such as Blackwater Park, and will be immediately turned off by the death growls or the dark production.

We spoke with Jordan Blum, a friend of Proglodytes. Jordan holds an MFA in fiction from Rosemont College and teaches composition at various colleges and universities in the area. He’s also the founder of The Bookends Review, a creative arts journal, and he has written books on progressive rock/metal acts Jethro Tull, Dream Theater, and Opeth. Outside of that, he’s the Associate Features Editor at PopMatters and a contributor to magazines such as Loudwire, Metal Injection, Kerrang!, Consequence of Sound, WhatCulture, and Ultimate Classic Rock.

Jordan initially did not like Opeth’s music, but eventually was able to gain an appreciation, and then eventually a love of Opeth- so much so that Jordan recently wrote a book on Opeth called Opeth On Track, where he provides a song-by-song analysis of Opeth’s entire discography. Purchase it here via Burning Shed. Jordan answered some questions about his own history with Opeth, and what he feels like are some of the best entry points for the band.

How did you first hear about Opeth? Tell me some of your initial impressions. Did you like them right away or did they grow on you?

I grew up listening to a lot of progressive rock, and my favorite band when I was around 15 was Porcupine Tree. Obviously, Steven Wilson and Mikael Åkerfeldt are best buds and Wilson had a hand in a few Opeth records. So, when I saw that PT was touring with Opeth for In Absentia and Damnation, respectively, I decided to check out Opeth. At that time, I really wasn’t into death metal at all (I’m still not except for some progressive death metal stuff), so I HATED them at first. I think I heard “White Cluster” from Still Life and “The Drapery Falls” from Blackwater Park and couldn’t get into them. Then, I heard Damnation and LOVED it, and then when I got to college (in 2005), I met my friend Mike and he was really into Opeth. I think he still considered Blackwater Park to be the best album of all time, or at least the best Opeth album for sure. He was sort of my guide into their heavier material, and it didn’t take long for me to “get it” and adore pretty much everything Opeth had done up to that point (Ghost Reveries had just come out).

Opeth is a band that has experienced several transformations throughout their career. Can you sort of “divide” the Opeth discography for me into eras, or is it harder to do that than it seems?

Good question! I’ve thought about this a lot, obviously, and it is harder than it seems. Before writing my book, I definitely put their first three LPs—Orchid, Morningrise, and My Arms, Your Hearse—into the first chapter of their career. Then, maybe Still LifeDamnation as the second, then Ghost ReveriesWatershed as the third, and then HeritageIn Cauda Venenum as the fourth. I think of it in terms of sound more than line-up changes.

Anyway, after really digging into their stuff recently, I’m more compelled to put Still Life as the fourth and final part of their first chapter. It truly is an evolution of My Arms, Your Hearse in the same way that, say, Jethro Tull’s Thick as a Brick also feels like A Passion Play Jr. to me. Blackwater Park is a cleaner record production-wise and the songwriting is more refined than anything before it, although I may prefer the complexity of Still Life, so I’m more compelled now to say that BWP is the start of phase two and Damnation is the end of phase two. Then, it’s still Ghost ReveriesWatershed as phase three and Heritage to In Cauda Venenum as phase four. Wow, it sounds like the OCU (Opeth Cinematic Universe).

What would be the tentpole albums of each of those eras?

That’s another tough one but also something I’ve thought about since I usually have FOUR picks for Opeth’s best album: Still Life, Ghost Reveries, Damnation, and Pale Communion. (I know that a lot of fans don’t like Pale Communion but I think it’s a masterpiece. Fight me! JK, don’t.) So, seeing as how each of those represents a different era for me (see above), I guess I can technically get away by having four #1 albums if they each belong to a different era. So, thanks for that! Haha.

My first exposure to Opeth was Blackwater Park. At the time, I struggled with harsh vocals, as I had little exposure to that singing style. What would you recommend for a person who is trying to acclimate to harsh vocals?

Ah, I had the same issue at first. I’d say to start with songs (by Opeth or not) that have an equal balance of harsh and clean singing. Like, don’t start with “Master’s Apprentices” or “Heir Apparent.” Start with songs that themselves flow from clean to death vocals more patiently. Something like “Reverie/Harlequin Forest” or “Moonlapse Vertigo” for Opeth, or “Memory Palace” from Between the Buried and Me.

Did you have similar reactions, or did you like them right away?

I definitely had a similar reaction. I just heard noise and it took away from the melodies and music around it. After a while, though, it started to click with me and I began hearing the growling as its own instrument. I started to hear the melody in the growling and started to hear it as another essential timbre in the mix. As I said before, though, I usually need some sort of progressive or folk elements to get into death and black metal. If it’s just screaming for 10 minutes with jackhammer percussion and savage guitar riffs, it’s not my thing, But, if they throw in some acoustic break or weird time signature changes or dreamy passages, like Agalloch or Alcest or Enslaved, I’m totally there for it.

You recently wrote a book, where you listened to every song on every Opeth album and wrote about your sonic journey with each one. Without giving too much away, what were some insights and surprises from your listening and study?

Well, I’ll always think that their first two albums are—overall—their worst almost by default (production, songwriting, vocals). They’re still fantastic records, but Opeth is a band that evolved a lot in a short amount of time. (My Arms, Your Hearse is a HUGE leap from Morningrise, and Still Life is a HUGE leap from My Arms, Your Hearse). But, I grew more of an appreciation for the lesser-known tracks on those first two records, especially in terms of how bassist Johan De Farfalla and drummer Anders Nordin worked so well together and brought a sort of jazziness to a lot of it. Likewise, my framing of Still Life changed in terms of how I see it in the grander scope of Opeth’s catalog (as I said above), and while I still see it as a batch of demos for a greater project and bolder new direction, I like Heritage more than I used to. As always, I love what it represents regarding Åkerfeldt’s perspective on Opeth (“Here’s what we want to do next. If you like it, great. If not, fine. If you want to complain about it, f–k off”), but as a collection of songs, I rarely want to hear it from start to finish.

Opeth’s production is unique to my ears. How would you describe the differences in audio production from the early releases to the latest ones?

Hmmm well, the first four LPs get increasingly cleaner and more elaborate, but they all have at least a bit of the black metal dirtiness, if that makes sense. The compression of instruments. There’s not as much space between the timbres, I guess. Then, when Wilson came on board, he gave their sound a sleeker/classier vibe, as well as added some more textures to their stuff (mellotrons, etc.) They’ve kept that production quality up until now, more or less, but with Heritage – In Cauda Venenum, there’s also more color to the music. There’s more flamboyance and weirdness, but also (with In Cauda Venenum especially) a return to the gothic nature of their earliest stuff.

Finally, all things considered, what would you say would be the best entry points for someone who wanted to get into Opeth?

Well, it depends on what they’re looking for. If they just want to appreciate the songwriting and clean singing (Åkerfeldt has a lovely singing voice, despite his frequent self-deprecation), Damnation for sure. It’s pretty much a perfect album and, alongside earlier songs like “Still Day Beneath the Sun” and “Patterns in the Ivy II,” demonstrates how exquisite their music can be. If people are looking for the heavier stuff or the “full” Opeth experience, Blackwater Park works. I mean, it was their breakthrough album, so it’s already proven itself to be the one to get them new fans, right? As an overall representation of Opeth’s many sides, Ghost Reveries. I think that one is the best cumulative example of all that Opeth can be.

Finally, where can we buy your book, Opeth On Track?

Thanks! I believe that the three main spots are Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Sonicbond’s official distributor, Burning Shed. I believe (I could be wrong) that Burning Shed gives Sonicbond the biggest share of the earnings, but any way you buy it is appreciated! On that note, if any readers happen to buy it or even see it out in the wild (such as at a B&N store), PLEASE let me know. Take a picture. Reach out to me on social media. I’d love to hear from you.

Thanks so much, Jordan. Are you a fan of Opeth? How did you get into them? Was it instant love, or did they grow on you? Are you still having a hard time getting into Opeth? Share below in the comments.

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