Opeth – Still Life

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I’ve been somewhat nervous to write this review as Opeth is a band that doesn’t quite lend itself to description in words, but since I am making my first four reviews to point towards what I look for in music, Opeth has a sure spot among them, and Still Life is the first album by them I encountered. ‘They’ have changed members a lot throughout the years, but the two current members who were part of making Still Life are Mikael Åkerfeldt, on vocals, guitar and the writer behind most of the albums, and Martin Mendez on the bass. Their sound has gone towards incorporating more and more acoustic and ‘clean’ parts into their originally very death metal oriented music. Already at the time of Still Life however there were clear influences from acoustic and jazz and the album plays as an art piece, more meant to incite a mood than to be ‘tracks’ on an album.

Let’s start at the vocals, which is usually where any band has to pull me in to begin with as I am a huge fan of song. Mikael Åkerfeldt delivers a stunning performance on more than one level. He handles both growls and ‘clean’ song in a most irregular way. The two nearly become separate entities both originating from Mikael’s vocal cords and the way he gives them life on their own is truly a sight to behold (just you know…with your ears). In a song like Serenity Painted Death (track six out of a total seven on Still Life) the two facets of Mikael’s voice function as a dialogue between two parties and by doing so adds an interesting dimension. Playing the two against eachother helps create an atmosphere to tell a story, rather than feeling like lyrics sung by a singer on stage.

Nicely complementing the dual nature of the vocals is the guitar work. Anything you’d want a guitar to do (other than maybe, I don’t know, fly and make slurpies) you’ll hear it do in most of Opeth’s works. On the one side you have heavy-end segments that feel like they cut into you with every touch of the strings, seemingly dormant with power. On the other appears a chillingly beautiful well of acoustic pieces, each drop sending shivers down the spine.

Both vocals and guitars are accompanied by bass and percussion that are nothing short of brilliant. Their sound often resembling what you would find in jazz, improvisational and off-beat pieces that complete both heavy and gentle segments very nicely. To give you a sense of the overall effect these aspects have together I here provide a link to one of the songs on the album.

Clichéd as the notion may be, Opeth possess a quality which I personally rarely come across in that their music delivers the listener ear first into another world. A world of gothic romanticism and dark poetic beauty. What you find there might be different depending on what you’re looking for, but to me it definitely holds a serene quality that is very appealing.

As it would be expected of an ambient story-telling album such as Still Life there IS an actual basis for the story element, but I feel telling anyone what it is SUPPOSED to depict takes away from what it COULD mean to whoever picks it up so I will not be writing anyone on the nose about what the album is about. I will however state that for my personal enjoyment, the similarities in the dramatic curve to classic tales of star-crossed lovers have been central. The center piece (if such a thing could be established in an album that doesn’t necessarily have strict boundaries) Face of Melinda has an odd classic feel to it and for me gives off a timeless vibe.

Another outstanding segment is the album’s acoustic piece labelled Benighted which has a softer, gentler feel which conveyes an almost sensual experience. Its sound like the caressing hands of a loved one. Partially it derives its beauty from the way it works toward the following part named Moonlapse Vertigo in which the intensity of music and vocals provide the listener with what a cruder man would label an eargasm.

My favourite album by a group of artists I hold in high regard, Still Life is a journey into a world of both wonder and horror. The question you should ask yourself before finding and listening to it isn’t so much if will you enjoy it, as it is if you’re ready to go.

Pain of Salvation – The Perfect Element 1

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While I was in the last year of my equivalent of A-levels my life consisted nearly exclusively of going to school, studying, gaming and the occassional evening with friends. One particular of these evenings I was at a festival during which my friend Nugge’s band was going to play. Since their gig was one of many I took the time to scout out the other bands. Watching the shows one band stood out, namely this review’s focus – Pain of Salvation. I had heard them once before back in the eighth grade, but was then far too juvenile to comprehend it. Luckily this concert sparked my interest in them and lead me to discover the album I will be introducing you to today.

Pain of Salvation (PoS) today places itself in the progressive metal venue and constitutes four members of which the only one remaining from the original line-up is Daniel Gildenlöw. Although it can be said that all members of the band contribute to the delicious end result there is no doubt that Daniel is the main source of fascination. Having started what would become PoS at age eleven Daniel was by definition a musical prodigy. In 1987 at the age of 14 Daniel and his band participated in the annual swedish music contest Rock SM and Daniel walked away with prize for ‘best vocalist’.

When The Perfect Element 1 is released in 2000, we are faced with not only a brilliant singer, but an artist who’s had more than a decade to refine his technique – and it shows. A lot. To give you a taste of Daniel’s provess I’m including a link to a compilation of ‘moments’  which include clips from this album among others. Personally I am not schooled enough in music to distinguish such things but concensus seems to be that Daniel ranges three and a half octave, which if nothing else sounds mighty impressive.

The Perfect Element features 12 tracks which are all part of a concept. The music is character-driven and as the characters develop throughout the album the tone of the music gradually changes. Thematically we are introduced to a less than ideal family where the daughter suffers abuse by her father’s hand. We deal with their hardships through the perspectives of both of them which adds a diverse tone to the story. Ranging from the actual abuse and her pain to the years of dealing with the guilt and other issues that follow it.

There is a predominant image that follows us throughout the album, that of ashes. In the song Idioglossia the girl’s dwelling on the past is described in the following way: “As I search through the ashes for someone to blame, I’m afraid to see my face”. I’d like to linger a moment at this in my eyes rich symbolic passage. As ashes are what remains after something has been burnt I feel it is a very powerful way to convey her dealing with the abuse she was subject to. The life she could’ve had, her childhood, her dreams and aspiration – I wager – is what has been burnt and she’s searching through the remnants of the hideous events fearing she’ll come to the same conclusion she has on other occassions, that it is all her fault. My knowledge on the subject is limited, but that is the impression I’ve gotten, that people who have really bad things happen to them often wonder if it’s their own fault.

In a sense the album is a classic tale of a child’s coming to terms with adulthood, albeit twisted, and functions as a lament of lost innocence. It was originally meant to be the first of a two-part double album, but the second part has not and most likely will not be published. When I first heard of this I was sorry to hear there would be no proper closure given to what has become an important part of my musical experience, but as I grew to love the album and kept being fascinated by its many layers I have come to change my attitude towards it. It complements the theme of the album very well to have no ending in the standard sense as with life (particularly for the girl in the story) things tend to end whether we feel it is appropriate or not. Maybe the second part would have offered a lighter twist towards the better, maybe it would’ve pinned down the dark edginess of the first part. But by not being published it has provided us with both (or neither) – an open ending.

The Perfect Element 1 remains close to my heart for many reasons. The music is well performed (nearly a given considering I speak well of it, but worth mentioning) and playful. It twists and turns in an exciting way that keeps me coming back for more. Daniel and his vocals add a unique touch to the music which already comes off as heartfelt and sincere. Most of all though I think it is the way the Perfect Element deals with a heavy-handed topic such as child abuse by confronting it and putting it on display without trivialising it or feeling cheap. All around a great album and band that warrant a lot more international attention than it appears to have received.

  • "Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster.
    And when you look long into the abyss, the abyss also looks into you."

    - Frederick Wilhelm Nietzche