Opeth are one of Sweden’s many exports, and for near on 20-something years they have been of the better and more unique bands to emerge, starting with their 1995 debut album Orchid and, more recently, continuing their journey with last year’s Sorceress. They have a variety of music, steeped in their love of classic rock and prog, and have quite a few members come and go throughout the years. One bone of contention with the fans in their change in direction largely noted on 2011’s Heritage, where vocalist Mikael dropped his renowned growls and sang entirely clean vocals, which has continued for the following two albums, Pale Communion and Sorceress, respectively. You know how these ranked things go. Just as a side note: this will only include studio albums, and not live releases, EPS, singles — just straight up studio records. Let’s go!
Orchid (1995, Candlelight / Century Black**)
Yes, despite this their first album, and you might forgive them for that, but this is my least favourite Opeth album. Most of the songs, all apart from one, range in the scale between 10- and 13-minutes in length, so you must have a great deal of patience in listening to this record. I can imagine Mikael and Opeth going into the studio, hitting record and having a good time. It sounds like there was no sense of songwriting with this album, and evenly strangely enough the only instrumental of this album – “Silhouette” – which is strangely entirely piano (or keys), could be placed on a later Opeth album, which is strange really.
My Arms, Your Hearse (1998, Candlelight / Century Black**)
Opeth’s third album. By this point Opeth had formed three-quarters of their legendary line-up (although Mendez had joined the band, he wouldn’t have time to record his bass parts, so instead Mikael did it), and again this would be an album where their would last appearances by departing members – Fredrik Nordström plays the Hammond organ on “Epilogue”. This was clever songwriting by the band where every final line would contain the title to the next track, and overall bonus point was this was a concept album. Still, it’s very raw and primitive when you compare to more recent albums; it’s very rare that I put this album, so this is why it goes second worst.
Morningrise (1996, Candlelight / Century Black**)
Opeth’s second album. To be honest, if you’re a fan of their later records, the first three albums will always stick out like a sore thumb — at least they do for me. I actually like Morningrise better than the previous two albums that are listed above, as I could hear the progression the band were making both musically and songwriting. Later versions would contain the “Eternal Soul Torture” demo that original vocalist David Isberg wrote, so considering its 5 tracks this is the shortest early Opeth album. Fan favourites like “Advent” and “The Night and The Silent Water” make a regular appearance live, however “Black Rose Immortal” is the real underdog of this record. If you have the patience to sit through its 20:15, you’ll find plenty to enjoy.
Here is where it gets tricky…
Pale Communion (2014, Roadrunner Records)
By all means, this isn’t a bad record but I felt that Opeth were instinctively having a bit of a wobble musically and more so a knee-jerk reaction to how much discussion (read: controversy) Heritage caused between the fans. As said above, once I always past the first three records, it does get tricky as their music and songwriting gets a thousand times better. There are moments when I listen to this record and enjoy it, but there are times when I realise how safe this record sounds and feels, mostly. I can also respect Opeth for adding something new to their collective arsenal: a string section, notably towards the latter end of the album. Notable tracks include “Eternal Rains Will Come”, “Moon Above, So Below” and “Voice of Treason”.
Damnation (2003, Koch++)
The final time that Steven Wilson and Opeth would work together, and this was the first time that there would be entirely clean vocals. I compare both this album and Heritage, wondering why people freaked out so much to the latter but not the former? This an album that was largely inspired by prog rock and the first time that the band really experimented with their sound by really thinking outside the box. But to do this as a supposed double album, albeit released separately (later released together in 2015 as the Deliverance & Damnation: Remixed box set) so one dark and one light, was really brave. Notable tracks include “In My Time Of Need”, “Hope Leaves” and “Closure”.
Sorceress (2016, Moderbolaget / Nuclear Blast)
This is the album where I felt that their ‘experimentation’, if you will, with Mikael dropping the growls really paid off. There was also a presence of heavier guitar tones (especially in the title-track) and overall sense of staying true to themselves. The songwriting was also a thousand times better than Pale Communion where I felt that with the concept of love and the way the album flowed made it feel much better (starting with “Persephone” and the ending with the same track at the end). Although there weren’t any 10-minute tracks like “Moon Above, Sun Below” on this album, the track “Strange Brew” makes up for it in waves. Notable tracks include “Sorceress”, “Will O The Wisp”, “Strange Brew” and “Era”.
Still Life (1999, Peaceville)
Ah, Still Life. This is where the legendary Opeth line-up made their first appearance on an album (until 2005’s Ghost Reveries) and I’m hating myself for putting it in fifth because, quite honestly, I could put it up there with Blackwater Park, Ghost Reveries and they would all tie at first! But I can’t do that, and alas, it goes here. This album is just so good though. Every track is pure and utter gold! It was remastered in 2008 (its third re-released, following ones in 2000 and 2003) by Jens Bogren including a 5.1 Surround Sound mix. Notable tracks are really every track; I can’t pick one.
Heritage (2011, Roadrunner Records)
I know some people are gonna see this at fourth and make above face (especially above Still Life), but this album is brilliant if you listen to it. Their love of Jazz, especially Swedish Jazz, really came through on this record. Yeah, after Watershed this was a complete departure and an utter shock to most fans, but for me this was the perfect blend of progressive rock/metal and Jazz music. Although I feel that the preceding album was as much as trying to continuing what was already established but also trying to offer something new, with tracks like “Burden”. Then again, this was a bold and brave move, and the cover artwork (done by longtime collaborator Travis Smith) is also awesome as well — definitely one of the more visually appealing ones in the last few years. Notable tracks include “The Devil’s Orchard”, “Slither”, “Famine” and “The Lines In My Hand”.
Deliverance (2002, Koch++, Music For Nations)
The better looking sister at a party, this album feels like a lot of leftover material from Blackwater Park. With the band and Steven Wilson having a better understanding of each other, I feel that Steve was able to refine their sound a lot better and, as a producer, had some creative influences in their sound. Despite that, the band were never totally happy with the end result, which resulted in both albums being re-released but remixed in 2015, Deliverance done by Dan Swano and Damnation done by Steve. Both albums, remixed, sound absolutely amazing. The thing about this album is that every track, bar one (the 2:17 “For Absent Friends”), on the album is 10-minutes plus. Every track is notable, no singular tracks I can highlight here.
Watershed (2008, Roadrunner Records)
Very much like Blackwater Park and Deliverance, this was trying to continue what Ghost Reveries had started. As we have seen, two albums after the pinnacle was achieved, the band swayed to the right a bit (Blackwater Park -> Deliverance -> Damnation). I really like this album and I can appreciate its diversity with the music it presents, and with Jens Bogren as the producer he really helped to thicken their already thick sound. Notable tracks include “Heir Apparent”, “Burden”, “Porcelain Heart” and “Hex Omega”.
Blackwater Park (2001, Music For Nations, Koch++)
At number two comes the crowning jewel of their collection Blackwater Park. Came out in 2001 and with already four albums under their belt, and their first of three albums with Steven Wilson as the producer, this was the album that really broke the band onto the mainstream circuit. On Still Life the band showed a lot of promise as to what they could do, and on this album the band absolutely nailed it. Notable tracks include “The Leper Affinity”, “Dirge For November” and “Blackwater Park”.
Ghost Reveries (2005, Roadrunner Records)
When I first heard album this, and it was my first Opeth album, it blew my mind wide open. It still does to this day, in fact. It was the perfect balance — for me — between heaviness and prog. Sort of what Dream Theater did on their Black Clouds and Silver Linings album. This was truly the band at the height of their powers, mixing all they had displayed beforehand with the now added firepower of Per Wiberg on keys, who became an official member of the band having merely performed as a session musician during the tour of Damnation. This would be also be the last appearance of both Peter Lindgren (retired completely from music) and Martin Lopez (who’s actually doing pretty well with Soen, who just released their third album) so this is a bitter-sweet album really — it’s great given the performances of all members. Notable tracks include “Ghost of Perdition”, “Harlequin Forest” and “The Grand Conjuration”.
** According to Wikipedia: “During the mid to late 1990s, Century Media had a label offshoot called Century Black, which served to be the “Miramax Films” of black metal, releasing or re-releasing hard-to-find black metal albums that normally would be near impossible to find in America (usually released under smaller labels such as Malicious Records or Candlelight Records). By 2000 the Century Black label was discontinued, seeing as more than a few bands under that label either moved on to other labels, changed their musical direction, or became part of the actual “Century Family”.
++ According to Wikipedia: “Koch was renamed E1 music in 2009”