Sweden’s Opeth have produced one of metal’s most curious discographies. After years of rehearsals and lineup changes, the outfit, led by singer and guitarist Mikael Åkerfeldt, burst onto the scene in 1995 with no publicly released demo, and a fully-formed sound combining folkish progressive rock and elaborate death metal, often in extended song structures. Progressive extreme metal was hardly new, but Opeth’s consistent and consistently likable songs stood apart from their cohorts. Long songs mixing together two notoriously challenging styles of music shouldn’t be this memorable, emotional or lovable. Even so, the band grew into a hard-touring, headlining act with a remarkably consistent discography. The band inspired a legion of imitators that all failed to nail down what made Åkerfeldt’s music special.
Åkerfeldt’s decision to depart from extreme metal, and the original sound that he created, while at the peak of its popularity is equally baffling. This week, the band releases their 13th album, In Cauda Venenum. It’s their strongest in years, and to celebrate, we’re ranking the band’s entire discography from worst to best.
13) Pale Communion (2014)
While I’m not prepared to say that Opeth have an outright bad record, Pale Communion at least has some serious flaws. Sure, it begins with some gusto: “Eternal Rains Will Come” is gorgeous, and “Moon Above, Sun Below” is about as good as a ten-minute Opeth tune written past 2010 can get. In contrast, “Elysian Woes” can’t really justify its six minutes of acoustic noodling, and “Goblin” succeeds at copying the style of its inspiration, the esteemed Italian prog outfit. But respectfully, and not to be too pedantic, if I want to listen to Goblin then I’ll listen to fucking Goblin. “River” showcases Åkerfeldt’s improved clean singing skills and a more finely-attuned ear for vocal melody, but comes too late to save the record’s momentum.
12) Sorceress (2016)
Truth be told, 2016’s Sorceress isn’t much better than Pale Communion. Its second half is just as slow and introspective (or inscrutable) as its predecessor’s, full of homages and allusions to obscure and hyper-valuable prog rock classics. Seriously, nobody needs to hear “The Seventh Sojourn.” However, it does have one thing Pale Communion doesn’t have: a jaw-dropping single. The title track doesn’t have any growls but is one of Opeth’s heaviest songs. Hearing Åkerfeldt cosplay as a stoner-doom front man laying down kaiju-sized riffs is a thing of beauty. Part of me would still like to hear a whole record in the style of “Sorceress,” the song – but otherwise, I’m good on Sorceress, the album.
11) Heritage (2011)
Heritage takes a lot of flak, as albums that mess with the template tend to do. With the exception of Damnation (which gets a pass since it was intended to be part of a double record), it’s Opeth’s first full-on prog excursion. Unlike Damnation, it’s not very cohesive or solid. To make matters worse, the band promoted it with a headlining tour of all acoustic or non-growling material — and didn’t tell their fans what they were in for. In retrospect, Heritage contains some of Åkerfeldt’s most concise and beautiful songwriting, as well as dull filler. “I Feel the Dark” and “the Lines in My Hand” would have made a killer 7-inch. “Slither” provides four minutes of rock-solid Rainbow worship — again, it would be great to have a whole record of Opeth songs in the vein of this and “Sorceress.” Longer fare like “Häxprocess” and “Folklore” fail to capture my attention or imagination.
10) Watershed (2008)
If Opeth had disbanded after Watershed, they would have left behind the most perfect discography in metal, by my estimation. From here on out, each record is essentially flawless — we’re comparing diamonds, now. However, the departure of core members Martin Lopez and Peter Lindgren left a few imperfections behind. New drummer Martin Axenrot doesn’t have the flair that made Lopez’s work so fascinating. In retrospect, it’s clear that Lindgren supplied much of the metallic heft that shaded in the darker side of Opeth’s other records — “Heir Apparent” and “Hessian Peel” attempt the death-metal-to-progressive-rock flip-flop that remains the band’s signature move but do so with an awkwardness that say “Deliverance” lacks. Lighter fare like the introductory “Coil” and the astonishing ballad “Burden” are the highlights, as well as signposts for where Åkerfeldt went after.
9) Morningrise (1996)
Assembled in part before Opeth’s debut album Orchid was released, Morningrise has the unfortunate-but-unavoidable sloppiness of a hasty sophomore release — some of its sections date back to 1991. The infamous, 20-minute “Black Rose Immortal,” for example, can’t really justify its running time, and the record would be much better without it. Still, even cast-offs from a band like Opeth at the time showcase remarkable musicianship. Bassist Johan De Farfalla, in particular, shines with busy arpeggiated runs, and drummer Anders Nordin’s quick drum rolls give the record a little more black metal aggression than its predecessor. Neither musicians remained in the band, and Opeth’s sound reached its optimal form afterward. “The Night and the Silent Water” remains a must-listen, however.
8) In Cauda Venenum (2019)
Curiously recorded in two languages with related-but-distinct lyrics, Opeth’s 2019 record still has trouble getting out of its own way, and still lacks any overt death metal elements, but it does show a noticeable uptick in Åkerfeldt’s songwriting ability. Finally, his prog rock compositions can hold their shape longer than four-to-six minutes, mostly thanks to a collection of gut-punching riffs which Åkerfeldt for the most parts plays without vocal backing. Martin Axenrot and Fredrik Åkesson perform with aplomb, and Åkerfeldt’s clean voice hasn’t ever sounded so powerful. Songs like “Dignity” deliver progressive metal without the need of added grit and aggression. No harsh singing? No problem.
7) Deliverance (2002)
Originally conceived as a pure death metal record to counterbalance the dutiful progressive rock of its counterpart Damnation, Deliverance still winds up sounding more-or-less like a typical Opeth record, though it’s songs do tend to make their mark more immediately than the songs on Blackwater Park which preceded it, and Ghost Reveries which followed. The title track, a rightful live staple, ends with a nearly five-minute polyrhythmic breakdown; It’s possibly Opeth’s heaviest moment. The rest of the record doesn’t quite live up to that song or that moment, but the band was still bowling an essentially perfect game at this point.
6) Orchid (1995)
In 1995, when Opeth released their Decibel Hall of Fame-inductee debut Orchid, nothing sounded like it. Sure, some things came close: Emperor’s lavish detail, Edge of Sanity’s melody-first progressive death metal (Dan Swanö produced it), and various post-black metal bands’ willingness to leaven extreme metal’s intensity, but nothing that so devotional captured the melancholy and beauty of prog giants like Genesis. Orchid deserves praise for its originality but has charms in its own right as well. This rougher, less polished Opeth has an atmospheric bent that informs Bandcamp black metal to this day — the first acoustic break in “In the Mist She Was Standing” still commands my attention. Åkerfeldt had the good sense not to dwell on one idea too long; the five touchstone songs on the album maintain momentum and storytelling power (“Under the Weeping Moon” especially whips). Swanö didn’t quite know how to capture the band’s sound right. The guitars sound a little thin, and the kick drum’s plasticky attack undercuts the drama. Åkerfeldt improved on Orchid as he went on, though I miss its light Renaissance fair atmosphere.
5) Ghost Reveries (2005)
Martin Méndez and Peter Lindgren’s final Opeth record might be their most gothic. Written partially in always-creepy open D tuning, and including layers of mellotron and organ from now-permanent member Per Weiberg (he’d been a live member for some time), every song on Ghost Reveries sounds richer than chocolate cake and twice as dark. Åkerfeldt’s roar never sounded more sinister, and the partial-concept record showcases some of his most occult-fixated lyrics — as well as his most oedipal. Despite — or perhaps because of — the resolute menace in “Baying of the Hounds” and “The Grand Conjuration,” Åkerfeldt’s lighter, more classic-rock oriented tunes shine brighter. “Isolation Years” and “Hours of Wealth” stand among his most gorgeous tunes. It may be the most quintessentially Opeth album in the band’s discography, a collection of songs no other band could compose and record. Truth be told, on any given day it and the remaining four records might jockey for the top slot.
4) My Arms, Your Hearse (1998)
With the addition of Martin Méndez and Peter Lindgren, Opeth’s classic lineup fell into place and the band’s sound crystallized. What did Åkerfeldt do with his now-optimal lineup? Naturally, he wrote a concept record. Sung from the perspective of a melancholic ghost, My Arms, Your Hearse weaves an interlocking narrative with an abundance of filler interludes and lyrics for each song ending with the title of the next. Even the instrumental songs have printed lyrics. The artifact weighs the proceedings down. So why is My Arms, Your Hearse so good? Because when Åkerfeldt gets out of his own way and writes actual songs, they’re all three-point shots from half court. The climax to “When” ranks among his most heart-wrenching moments. Even better is longtime concert closer “Demon of the Fall.” Short by Opeth standards at just over six minutes, the tune contains some of Åkerfeldt’s grimmest lyrics — “Silent dance with death / Everything is lost / Torn by the arrival of autumn / the blink of an eye / you know it’s me / you keep the dagger close at hand” — and improbably ends in a round. I can’t think of any other metal song that ends with that kindergarten-favorite musical device.
3) Damnation (2003)
There’s a common conception among longtime Opeth fans that boils down to a simple dichotomy: death metal records good, but prog rock records bad. Life isn’t that easy, and Damnation confounds the entire conception. If you’d told me in 2009 that every future Opeth record would be a straightforward prog album I would have said, “Well, if they’re all as good as Damnation that’s fine!”. Tight, melancholic and totally infested with earworms that come from distortion pedals, it’s a remarkable collection of songs, one that benefits from being listened to separately from its twin, Deliverance. Apocryphally, Åkerfeldt began working on these tunes as lullabies written for his then-infant daughter. Whether or not that’s true, every tune on Damnation delivers a memorable melody with a cool and crepuscular atmosphere. Steven Wilson gives the record the same audio treatment he gave to Porcupine Tree’s output at the time, which is to say it sounds immaculate, psychedelic and deeply sad. “Windowpane” remains one of the band’s most beloved tunes — as of this writing its’ their most-played song on Spotify with almost nine million plays. Later, “To Rid the Disease” hide serpentine rhythms under its impossibly catchy vocals. The only reason it’s not #1 is it’s not representative of the band’s discography as a whole, it stands as far apart from the recent prog records at it does the death metal records.
2) Blackwater Park (2001)
The perennially popular Blackwater Park remains one of the most highly-regarded records in music period. The data doesn’t lie: it breaks the all-time top 50 on the always-dubious Sputnikmsuic review list and holds steady at #6 across genres for 2001, maintains a respectable 78% on Metal Archives despite multiple reviews intended simply to tank its score, and maintains a 3.93 on Rateyourmusic where it has even stiffer competition and even more ratings, breaking that site’s top 200. For reference, only Metallica and Black Sabbath crack the top 100 on Rateyourmusic — for a metal band, these scores are incredible. As Cosmo Lee of Invisible Oranges helpfully aggregated, even among metalheads, it joins Isis’s Oceanic, Converge’s Jane Doe and Mastodon’s Leviathan in the consensus for best record of the ’00s. Some of that esteem comes from the band’s collaboration with Porcupine Tree mastermind Steven Wilson, whose pristine ear gives the record an unusually clear and deep sound. His songwriting fingerprints mark the record as well — he contributes vocals to “Bleak,” probably my vote for the band’s best song overall. For all its prog dork bona fides, it’s a hook-filled record. Virtually every tune on Blackwater Park features some massive chorus, none more potent than “The Drapery Falls,” though many come close. For its sublime presentation and compulsive listenability, it’s rightly hailed as a classic, likely to join records like Rust In Peace as among the genre’s best offerings full-stop. The sun sets forever over Blackwater Park, indeed.
1) Still Life (1999)
So if Blackwater Park is so fucking good, why does it take the silver medal, not the gold? Blackwater Park is a refinement, not a revolution. For all its polish and precision, it revisits ideas sketched on My Arms, Your Hearse and clarified on Åkerfeldt’s finest record, 1999’s Still Life. Here, he kept the storytelling structure of his earlier records while cutting the fat and upping the hook quotient considerably. From this point for the next six years, Opeth were possibly the best band in popular music (take your Radiohead records and toss them right out the window) just as Metallica was between 1983 and 1987. Rightly, Still Life’s data scores near those of its successor — comparing them is like comparing Ride the Lightning and Master of Puppets. From the folkloric lilt in the chorus of “Godhead’s Lament” to the pinch harmonic groove riff in “Serenity Painted Death,” each song includes some indelible moment to draw the listener in, as well as a myriad of tiny flourishes to reward revisitations. The band cleaned their delivery up later, but in so doing lost some of the Medieval touches that give Still Life its character. Speaking of character, this remains Åkerfeldt’s best story, an album long pastiche of Shakespeare’s Othello (“The Moor”) and Charlotte Bronte’s Wuthering Heights (“Melinda”). A B.A. in classical literature isn’t necessary to enjoy it, though. Buy this one on wax, light up a joint and settle in for one of the finest hours in progressive metal from its onetime heavyweight champions.