An introduction to Opeth

I’m going to try to introduce you to a band called Opeth. Opeth plays progressive metal*, which sounds scary and inaccessible, and is, a little bit, especially because they use growled or grunted vocals in many of their songs. I’ll give you that: when you first hear growls, you might find them disturbing — or funny. They’re not something most people appreciate on first listen.

But Opeth is about a lot more than a few grunts. Their singer is also an accomplished “clean” vocalist, and all the musicians are first-rate. The songwriting is complex and diverse, encompassing an elaborate and intoxifying combination of genres. The result is music of startling depth, beauty, variety, and power.

So I’d like to introduce them to you one step at a time. At their quietest:

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Perhaps this is more accessible than you expected. Let’s add a two-part song structure (most of their songs go through three to five parts), and some distortion in the second half. This song is nearly eight minutes long, but be patient.

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We’re getting pretty kickass here. Same quiet opening, but then — louder, more powerful, killer riffs. Notice how strong the melodic core of the song is, even at its loudest moments.

Get ready for the biggest shift: this next song is a fully-realized Opeth composition: loud parts, quiet acoustic parts, clean singing, growling, multiple movements, nine minutes long. Right off the bat you’ll hear the growling, and hopefully you’ll appreciate how it fits into the mood. A guest vocal by Porcupine Tree’s Steven Wilson opens up the clean section at 3:25, and by 5:20 we’re off in different territory altogether, before hitting the reprise.

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Yes, this is tough to listen to if you’ve never heard this kind of music before. But if you’re willing to put in the time to habituate to the new noises and wrap your head around the song structures, you’ll find yourself amply rewarded.

I’ll leave you with one last track, which traverses a dizzying breadth of sonic terrain, at 0:00, 2:30, 3:30, 5:05, 7:15, 8:10, and a rhythmically interesting coda at 10:00 that I dare you to try to tap along with the first time you hear it.

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How many people do I expect to convert with this post? Realistically, zero. But it’s worth a shot…

* Many people actually label Opeth in the sub-genre “death metal”, as opposed to its cousin, “black metal”. Though any music labels are generally imprecise, I think of “death metal” as “feeling bad about yourself” and its cousin, “black metal” as “feeling bad about everyone else”. I’ve never really gotten into black metal, this second genre, but I do have a few albums. It’s pretty extreme — there’s occasionally animal blood at shows, and the musicians sometimes do crazy things, including burning churches, killing themselves and even committing the occasional murder… all of which I agree is ridiculous. A friend of mine was shocked that I’d even consider listening to black metal, given such behavior, and at the time, I kind of had to admit his point. In retrospect, though, it’s very similar to rap (which we both listen to), in that both often glorify a violent, hateful worldview and occasionally live up to that promise in real life. In both cases, I don’t think you have to endorse the lifestyle to appreciate the music. Black metal is a little comical in its absurdity, but there are still some jaw-dropping moments (give yourself at least until the “clean” vocals about halfway through this video), and impressive technical prowess (see the guitar work here, a live version of the next song on the same album by the same band).

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