Opeth’s Still Life: 15 Years an Unsung Masterpiece
If I asked almost any Opeth fan what their favorite album was, 90% of them would say Blackwater Park. Why? Because many people believe that was the album where Opeth truly found “their sound”, the mid-paced death metal and acoustic-laced proggery hybrid that they were known for producing until fairly recently. What do I think? It’s a good album, but it seems to me that in their persistent praise people tend to overlook what is quite possibly one of the best prog/folk/extreme metal fusion albums of all time (yes, I went there): 1999’s Still Life. Fifteen years after its release, this album still stands several heads above anything Opeth have put out since then, both musically and lyrically.
A banished man returns home for his long-lost love after more than a decade of religion-imposed exile. Upon his return he discovers that an organization dubbed “The Council of the Cross” has gained absolute control of the town, and that his love, Melinda, has sworn her vows to become a nun. Unfazed by this, the man reunites with Melinda, only to have The Council capture them both and have them executed. It may seem like the backdrop for a bad telenovela, but it’s more like the frame for an extra-sensorial journey that never ceases to conjure a broad rush of emotions in my mind, no matter how many times I’ve already taken it.
This album is everything that Blackwater Park receives praise for, but better. The songs are structured more coherently, the mellow parts are folkier, the heavy parts are HEAVY, and there are still traces of the band’s black metal roots here and there. It strikes the perfect balance between melody and dissonance, between musicality and harshness: it is true embodiment of the dynamic interplays in songwriting that can only be described as “Opeth”. The musicianship of every member of the band shines through: memorable vocal melodies, guitar solos, bass lines and drum fills permeate every song here, without coming across as forced or wanky for the sake of being so. Still Life marked the recording debut of what many fans consider to be the “classic” Opeth lineup, consisting of Mikael Åkerfeldt, Martín López, Martín Méndez and Peter Lindgren, which would remain unchanged until the release of 2005’s Ghost Reveries. It could just be a coincidence that the musical quality of Opeth’s releases started to wane after this point, but I believe that the synergy that these four individuals attained when they worked together is still unparalleled, and I’m grateful for the amazing music that they made while they did.
As far as lyrics go, I personally think they’re a knockout. I know some will disagree, but I usually don’t care too much about lyrics as long as they’re not particularly offensive (racist, homophobic, fun stuff like that). There’s just something about Still Life’s lyrics and story that resonates with me in a way that truly brings the music to an entirely different level, a level that few albums have reached, and fewer probably ever will. The song “Face of Melinda” definitely takes the crown:
By the turnstile beckons a damsel fair
The face of Melinda neath blackened hair
No joy would flicker in her eyes
Brooding sadness came to a rise
Words would falter to atone
Failure had passed the stepping stone
She had sworn her vows to another
This is when no-one will bother
And conceded pain in crumbling mirth
A harlot of God upon the earth
Found where she sacrificed her ways
That hollow love in her face
Still I plotted to have her back
The contentment that would fill the crack
My soul released a fluttering sigh
This day fell, the darkness nigh
I took her by the hand to say
All faith forever has been washed away
I returned for you in great dismay
Come with me, far away to stay
Endlessly gazing in nocturnal prime
She spoke of her vices and broke the rhyme
But baffled herself with the final line
My promise is made but my heart is thine
All of these elements combined with a great mix that lets every element shine through just as it should make for an album that is truly one of a kind. I urge everyone who thinks they don’t like Opeth to reconsider after hearing this album, as long as you’re hearing what I’m hearing. I’ll try to explain this trying to incite as few chants of “NEEEEEERD” as I can: the original mix of the album is kinda lackluster, so I took it unto myself to track down the 2008 Surround mix of the album and turn it into stereo, and now you can listen to it. Every Opeth fan I’ve shown this to agrees that this version (mixed by Jens Bogren) is the version about which most people would say “This is a good version”.
I sincerely hope you enjoy it as much as I do, I recommend reading the lyrics while you listen.
(P.S. I meant to write about the album on its actual anniversary last October, but lifeloving and other such things got in the way).