I don’t really know where to start with this album. So perhaps I should start at the beginning, as they say. As you may or may not be aware (or care), I originally formulated the skeleton of my 2005 list in the halcyon days of, well, 2005. There is a message board to which I semi-regularly post, they have end of year festivities, so I usually tend to round my list out to a fifty by listening once or twice to albums in an mp3 format.
This is terrible form, both as an audiophile (well, as far as finances will allow) and a music fan. To be quite honest, I feel that evaluating a work of music solely through mp3 is almost akin to appreciating a Renaissance painting by asking a toddling-age relative to finger paint his impression of Bacchus and Ariadne and judging Titian on that. But sometimes needs must et cetera.
This is a roundabout way of saying that I listened to this album on mp3. Probably. If not, consider the last two paragraphs catharsis. I know that I listened to it once on the Death Deck, and made placement of it on this here list from that, so I am still bad. What is really weird is that I was very impressed with it, but also found no urge to listen to it again. Which is why this instalment of 2005 was so long in coming.
I think one of the reasons why the thought of listening to it was so unappealing was because every one of the songs hereon seemed to be an epic (in reality, ‘only’ half of the songs break ten minutes). I usually tend to like things like that (I mean come on, removing the brief sample-scapes, the average track length on my favourite album ever is ten minutes), but this can sometimes be slightly intimidating when it comes to first getting into the album. The other reason is that I’m not the biggest fan of Euro-metal.
I really like that strain of Gothenburg melodic death metal (i.e. the successor of Liverpool’s Carcass, at least in latter days, and the progenitor of pretty much every major American metal band of today). I also have some fondness for Norwegian black metal (as well as the bizarrely avant-garde bands that sprung from the country: Arcturus, In The Woods et al). I just can’t get into European metally metal (touches of the eighties, hints of goth). Like Moonspell. I never liked them.
Still, this Opeth album was to 2005 what Mastodon’s Blood Mountain was last year, i.e. the straight-up metal album that was supposed to be so good that it transcended our little ghetto and became that album non-metal fans could listen to. I never really understood that notion, as a metal album is a metal album, and you might as well listen to a bunch of the albums, rather than a ‘look at me, I can listen to metal’ coffee table gesture. Anyway, I liked it a lot, thought it had a lot of potential and decided I might as well give it another listen, seeing as it was pretty high on my own list.
One observation I had from that initial listen, possibly tying in with the sense of the epic, was that it seemed to be a European (in metal terms, read: ‘less cool’) take on Tool’s excellent Lateralus (2001). In hindsight, that comparison doesn’t really play out, but opening song ‘Ghost of Perdition’ reminded me of the L.A. quartets ‘The Grudge’ in its length (and resulting level of statement in having such a song open an album), dynamic shifts that are less swings than drops off precipices, and the clarity in production. Still, both are great and powerful songs, so there’s nothing wrong with the similarity.
The only real issue with that opening song is a dislike of the album as a whole: the vocals here are too binary, almost to the extent of sounding like an ill-fitting collaboration. The singing is either cleanly-sung poppy melodies or gruff death metal vocalising. The latter is poor, at best. I have nothing against death metal vocals at all (and I would like to take this opportunity to mention how I loathe that lazy term ‘cookie monster vocals’), in fact I tend to like them.
Slowly We Rot, by Obituary, has excellent DM vocals, as does most early period Morbid Angel. In fact, there is a DM passage on Mr. Bungle’s ‘Merry Go Bye Bye’ that is phenomenal, and by that I mean pretty much the best death metal I have heard. Plus, the vocals from Brutal Truth, Coalesce and Soilent Green were all very DM-influenced. This, though, is weak. There is no sense of brutality to the vocals, none of that real guttural nastiness. It’s clean death metal singing, and that really does not work.
It also sits very at odds with the rest of the sounds on the album, which is overall very melodic. Track two, ‘The Baying of The Hounds’, really evinces this melodic sophistication as it breaks down quite beautifully into a very mellow passage. When the ‘rocking’ returns, it does so while maintaining the beauty; a deluge of shimmering guitar notes, picked as though by angels. This is the Opeth that really justifies the plaudits that have been bestowed. The song ends rather suddenly, but this is otherwise another awesome epic, in both senses of that word.
For every step forward, though, there is an equal and opposite move from the band. There is also a sense of diminishing returns as the album progresses. ‘Beneath The Mire’ is an eight minute song that seems neither here nor there, partly due once more to the irrelevant yin-yang of the singing, and partly due to what emerges as the real sticking point of the album: it’s just too polite.
I mentioned earlier how well-produced this record is, and that is very much the case; the problem is it’s too well-produced, in a way. Maybe that’s why the aggressive vocals sound so neutered, and it is certainly the reason why, even on the complex, dynamic ‘The Grand Conjuration’, the fast and jagged riffing sections fail to energise me. As someone who loves the sound of testosterone (and is completely unapologetic about it; maybe my perspective will change when I hit thirty, and my own levels drop), this kind of flaw is inexcusable.
The album is really summed up by the closing ‘Isolation Years’. A perfectly fine romantic rock song, though very clearly below the kind of thing Peter Steele’s Type O Negative were doing on their Bloody Kisses and October Rust opuses, it definitely benefits from the omission of what seems elsewhere to be an obligation to rock.
With the success of the melodic rock frames, as well as the undeniable superiority of their clean vocals over the ‘gruff’ ones, this seems to be less a classic Opeth album than it is a self portrait of a band at a crossroads. Not knowing which way to turn, they split their forces, resulting in an album that sounds unconvinced in itself. Perhaps it is time to put to rest the ghost of nineties death metal that haunts Europe still. Amorphis seem better at that kind of duality anyway. Ghost Reveries is an album for which sheer sophistication, professional sound and scope of vision end up being its albatross. Opeth are excellent artisans, but what this album really needs is artistry.