Once in a while, it's good to break out of old habits and try something new — expand your horizons! Get cultured! So I thought I would break out of my usual musical diet of nu-disco and folk rock and try some metal. Upon the recommendation of a few good friends, I decided Opeth's "Ghost Reveries" would be a good place to start.
For those of you who are as uninitiated as I am, Opeth is a Swedish heavy metal band, and this album, Ghost Reveries, was intended as a concept album about a man who kills his mother and then is condemned to Hell. I was surprised by how many of my assumptions about the genre were called into question! Rather than going through each song individually (after all, because it is a concept album, the songs do blend together and rely on similar themes), I'm going to discuss some of my observations and things that surprised me.
I was surprised by the diversity of sounds/instruments they used and what they did with them.
When I think of metal, I think of growling vocals, loud, distorted bass, and drums, but I was surprised to find there was a lot of instrumental diversity in this album. I think over the course of the album I heard:
- a very dramatic Middle Eastern-sounding violin that reminded me somewhat of Led Zeppelin's "Kashmir"
- a harp-like guitar that reminded me of Sunny Day Real Estate's "Tearing in my Heart" (although obviously that is a much softer sound than what is going on here)
- church organ?! (In the track called Atonement no less, which was perfect)
- Jazz flute? ... there's no way that's what this is ... somehow they make it work!
Maybe not all groups go so far out of their way to include a diversity of instruments, but I was pleasantly surprised by the variety. Still, this album is very metal with the guitar, drums, and bass you would expect. I was especially impressed by what they managed to do with the guitar riffs: some were pulsing violently, some felt like ripples on a pond, some ebbed and flowed like waves that pulled you with them, but my favourites were the riffs that poured like water. Even just with one instrument they managed to give an incredible amount of variety.
Another assumption I made was that most of the tracks would be just angry and high energy, but I was surprised by the variety of moods just one song could go through. I even found myself, at the beginning of Hours of Wealth, feeling very peaceful and happy, even though the song quickly drops into a more sombre tone. Longer tracks like Ghost of Perdition went through several moods, almost like classical music, and this kept them fresh despite their length.
I was surprised by the vocals—in more ways than one!
Even someone with a very cursory exposure to metal music knows about growling. However, I was surprised because I never realized how melodic growling lyrics could be. I was surprised to see you could carry a tune with growling and I even got better at listening to it (although I still needed to look up the lyrics to fully understand it). The clean vocals, however, were really amazing too. Mikael Åkerfeldt, the lead singer, has an angelic voice that is incredibly beautiful. The contrast between the two sounds was perfect for a theme like this album's concept because the main character of the album is moving between someone you feel sympathy for in his suffering, someone who you wish could somehow get better, and then the opposite side, where he has this part of him that is holding him back, a self-destructive self-loathing side that just keeps pulling him down into the depths of his torment.
My absolute favourite part about the vocals though was in The Grand Conjuration, when Åkerfeldt sings in a whispering voice. That definitely gave me butterflies in my stomach. I know it is supposed to be creepy, but it is also really hot.
The lyrics were incredibly powerful!
There were a lot of moments in the lyrics that really hit me. One thing I loved was the use of visual imagery, especially in The Baying of the Hounds. So many dark images came up here and so much symbolism, it was like reading Dante's Inferno. I also really loved how well they described the thought processes of someone who is experiencing insurmountable guilt: they way they isolate themselves from everyone around them, the way they justify their self-destructive behaviour, the way they rationalize their actions and the self-deprecation that constantly haunts them. I really felt as though I was in the mind of the main character as he wrestles with what he has done, tries to find a way to resolve his guilt, but in the end succumbs to his condemnation. They did an excellent job of building a character who was relatable in his suffering and still a monster.
My one complaint is about the last two songs on the track, Isolation Years and (in the 2006 re-release) Soldier of Fortune. It wasn't that these tracks were especially awful, but they didn't fit with the rest of the album, and I even found them a bit too sappy. Perhaps in a different context I wouldn't have minded them so much, but I feel like the album should have ended with the dramatic satanic finale of The Grand Conjuration, instead of piddling out with two love songs that weren't really relevant to the rest of the album.
Even though this isn't the kind of thing I would usually listen to, it did really moved me intensely, and I did enjoy it. There are moments in this album that I find are really powerful. I was glad that I tried something new. At first I was nervous to work with a genre with which I had so little experience, but this was a good time, and I am looking forward to getting out of my comfort zone some more.