27 February 2001
“Yes, Steven Wilson is a real person, not just a legend told to easily frightened children by the fire.” –Mikael Åkerfeldt
Opeth, as anyone familiar with Steven Wilson knows, are a progressive metal band from Stockholm. Their primary creative force is Mikael Åkerfeldt, a man with a sweet stache and an even sweeter voice. They’ve been around since 1989, and the prospect of covering them here makes me extremely nervous.
I’ve always had a fraught relationship with metal. For instance, when I first learned metal was a thing, I instinctively rejected the genre because I thought it was Satanic (recall I’m exvangelical). In retrospect, this was pretty stupid. No one in metal actually worships Satan the same way your average Christian worships the God of Abraham. At worst you have people like King Diamond who appreciate Satan as a concept. Most of the time it’s a bunch of guys who like to play up the Dark and Evil aesthetic because they think it’s cool and it pisses off uptight religious people. Whatever. I’m listening to some black metal as I write this, and it doesn’t sound like there’s anything actually occult going on here (beyond, you know, anything intrinsic about the act of creation), just something that wants to fool the listener into thinking that’s what’s happening. That’s fine. People listen to black metal because it’s dark and creepy and extreme and iconoclastic, the Satanic stuff is there for window dressing, but I just don’t think any of it’s shocking anymore.
(Opeth’s first album gestured in similar directions, of course, but Åkerfeldt, who’s an atheist, was always up-front about the artifice oand moved away from the cheesy hail-Satan stuff pretty early. It’s also not a coincidence that Åkerfeldt was only twenty-one when Orchid was released.)
Nowadays, of course, my beef with metal comes from not whether they’re Satanist but whether they’re fascist or otherwise have deeply disquieting politics. Going back to Mayhem, Varg needs no introduction, but let’s not pretend his Nazism existed in a vacuum. Bard “Faust” Eithun and Jon Nödtveidt are both responsible for hate crimes. Hellhammer has explicitly said black metal’s for white people. Darkthrone have released songs with anti-Semitic lyrics. Watain’s first demo was titled Go Fuck Your Jewish God. This even filters down to more mainstream artists. Kerry King has a history of homophobia, and Phil Anselmo was busted throwing the white power salute. And you’ll excuse me if I remain deeply suspicious of Lemmy and Jeff Hanneman thanks to their massive collections of Nazi memorabilia. (By the way, I don’t believe anyone who pulls that shit and when called on it protests they’re trolling or apolitical.) The point is, every time I discover a new metal band, I have to seriously wonder if they’re connected to the far right somehow, and that’s not a good look for a scene.
(Åkerfeldt, for the record, self-IDs as a social democrat.)
Between these two poles, a decently long but shallow metal phase that coincides roughly with my college years. When I say “shallow,” I mean in both senses, in that I only ever listened to the less heavy genres (power metal, progressive metal, folk metal, symphonic metal, that sort of thing), and I never really listened to much beyond a few of the most popular bands. To the extent that I listened to Opeth, I gave this album and Watershed a few spins and didn’t really explore their back catalogue much further.
All this means I’m a bit wary of covering Opeth in this space, because death metal isn’t really my thing and I don’t really have the language to parse the band’s evolution across time. I’m not going to do the band justice. But we may as well try.
Over the course of Opeth’s career they’ve released three landmark albums, and Blackwater Park is not one of them. (Note: “landmark” is not equivalent to “best.”) Their first, and only one released when this album dropped, is My Arms, Your Hearse. Before that album, Opeth’s sound had some pretty substantial black metal influences. The first two albums, Orchid and Morningrise, largely sounded either like the march of the pale horse of death or like being trapped in a house haunted by malevolent spirits. Åkerfeldt’s harsh vox hadn’t yet resolved into the bellow he’s known for, but instead resembled the raspy, bloodcurdling shriek typical of black metal (which probably goes a long way toward explaining why his death growls don’t fall into the Cookie Monster abyss). The production was harsher and more lo-fi, sounding in retrospect like it was recorded in a cave. (And that goes double for the bonus tracks.) Still, even this early there’s still the sense that Opeth were never content to just be a black metal band, and once other bands started ripping them off that provided the impetus for them to move in a different direction.
The period from My Arms, Your Hearse to Heritage represents what could be described as Classic Flavor Opeth. Sure, you got your death growls and heavily distorted guitars and other superficial genre trappings, but this is a band that’s considerably more baroque, delicate, and gothic than the label “death metal” lets on. These guys are all about technically complex songs with long acoustic interludes and clean vocals, and the contrast and interplay between the two. (Which, by the way, Åkerfeldt is a serious contender for the best vocalist in metal, able to switch between powerful and operatic, smooth and crooning, and that unbelievable fucking roar at the drop of a hat. Listen to Godhead’s Lament once for a full demonstration of his range.) They don’t sound like they’re recording in a cave or an abattoir or wherever anymore; My Arms, Your Hearse and Still Life are (ironically) music to fill out cathedrals to…at least, when they’re not invoking that particular chill you get on a winter’s night when it’s freezing and raining and you’re knee-deep in snow and the wind is going right through you.
Blackwater Park follows naturally from their previous two albums: the production (courtesy Steven Wilson) is cleaner and is better suited for Opeth’s more theatrical tendencies, but there’s not much here that’s a radical departure from what they were doing previously, or that would challenge their audience at first listen. If you liked Still Life, you’ll like Blackwater Park, because it’s is basically Still Life, but better. No wonder people think this is Opeth’s magnum opus: this is the band at their most refined, but before they spent the rest of their classic period picking their sound apart. It’s a great record, indeed one of the best of Opeth’s career, but there’s little in the way of advancement here. This album may have launched the band’s imperial phase, but when it comes to the evolution of your sound, that alone does not a landmark record make.
(Here’s as good a place to talk about this as any: Wilson gives it the ole college try in front of the microphone on Bleak, but set next to Åkerfeldt’s sheer virtuosity it feels like he’s out of his depth more than anything else. He does better when he’s in the background, harmonizing.)
That said, although Blackwater Park actually isn’t a landmark album in Opeth’s discography, it is a landmark album in Steven Wilson’s discography. To wit: we’ve talked a bit before about the idea that the universe is a hyperboloid, centering around an event so thickly knotted with conclusions and implications that divides a particular chunk of history into distinct “before” and “after” phases. Reductive, yes, but all narratives are reductive.
Steven Wilson’s musical career has several potential hyperbolodial moments. The obvious one is in 1987. Like rock music in general, there’s no one date where Porcupine Tree began. Instead, it just sort of grew throughout Wilson’s teenage years into something we would vaguely recognize as Porcupine Tree. 1987, though, was a milestone year in Wilson’s musical history, as that was the year Radioactive Toy was written, and represents the point at which all the individual elements recognizable as “Porcupine Tree” definitively came together.
Another one comes around 2010. This one’s attractive because the period between The Incident and Grace for Drowning coincides not just with a shift in Wilson’s musical priorities (Porcupine Tree → solo career) but also a transition between two eras (Metal Era → Jazz Era) and the start of Wilson’s remix work. Still another occurs in the early 90s, the one alluded to in Kneel and Disconnect, the point at which Wilson felt comfortable giving up his day job and committing himself to music full-time.
Finally, there’s the one related to this album, which occurs around 2000 and whose implications we’ll explore in more detail as we move through 2001 and 2002. Points in its favor: it coincides neatly with the millennium, and the point where No-Man’s change in sound was fully realized. This was also the year Aviv Geffen invited Porcupine Tree to perform in Israel, an event that leads neatly into the creation of Blackfield. And finally, this was the year where Steven Wilson and Mikael Åkerfeldt met for dinner in Camden Town and struck up a close and long-running musical partnership.
One era trips over into another when the new sound is fully realized, and for the Metal Era that’s Fear of a Blank Planet. Although in retrospect there was always a Metal Era growing within the Alternative Era—the solo in Slave Called Shiver comes immediately to mind—Wilson’s production of Blackwater Park was the point at which those inclinations were given full airtime and it became clear that’s where they were going. By the time Wilson met Åkerfeldt, he’d already been following extreme metal for some time—bands like Meshuggah and Katatonia and Mastodon and (yes) Opeth—as they were a natural synthesis of the more mainstream metal he listened to as a teenager and his more varied tastes now. They were what sounded interesting. (And, not coincidentally, hitching himself to the metal wagon seemed like an easier gateway to stardom than through recording pop music.) In addition, the story goes, Opeth were already fans of Porcupine Tree, and so Åkerfeldt slipped Wilson a copy of Still Life through a French journalist. Wilson loved it, they got in touch, and finally met in Camden Town, whereupon the next fifteen years of Wilson’s life suddenly unfurled before him with blinding, radiant clarity.
For Opeth, though, it was Tuesday.