Frontman Mikael Åkerfeldt looks back on how Opeth made one of the most important metal albums of the twenty-first century – just as he was about to give it all up.
Some albums are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them. In the case of Opeth’s fifth album, 2001’s ‘Blackwater Park’, all three apply. It received rave reviews on its release. It subsequently only grew in stature amongst the Swedish band’s fanbase – Opeth played the album in its entirety at London’s Royal Albert Hall for a 2010 live recording. Twenty years on it is widely regarded as a necessary masterpiece. It changed perceptions of ‘progressive’ music and it revitalised the underground. Its legacy within death metal is more complicated, because Opeth occupies a category of music of which, really, they are the sole member.
Released on 12 March 2001, a week before my nineteenth birthday, I resisted buying ‘Blackwater Park’ for two years. Their previous album, ‘Still Life’ (released in 1999), was a revelation to me. New to death metal itself, I was blown away by that album’s musical adventurousness and depth. Frontman Mikael Åkerfeldt transformed the emotional tenor of a song like “Godhead’s Lament” not once, but multiple times – whether within the torrent of the bellowing opening or in one of the subsequent, cleanly sung acoustic sections. Opeth painted the monochrome world of extreme metal in vivid, near psychedelic, colours. I was worried I would be let down by ‘Blackwater Park’.
‘I can understand,’ says Åkerfeldt, when I call to interview him for the album’s twentieth anniversary. ‘If you have a favourite band, especially if it’s a contemporary band, that puts out something that you’re really into, it’s a bit scary to listen to a follow-up record. Is it going to disappoint? Is this going to be shit? And you want to be completely blown away right away.’
Åkerfeldt had his own concerns after the release of ‘Still Life’. He was proud of the album, but in his eyes nothing really happened off the back of it. This was not entirely true. The band were invited to play the fourteenth Milwaukee Metalfest in Wisconsin. They entered the US for the first time on tourist visas and had to hire all their gear. The reception they got was rapturous. The quality of their songs and huge anticipation of their set conquered the booming acoustics onstage.
Opeth did not sound like anyone else. Åkerfeldt was sure of that. They also had a new record deal with the prestigious label Music For Nations. But all the talk within the band was about breaking up after the new album. At the time, Åkerfeldt was sub-letting a one-bedroom flat, staring out the window at everyone else busily going about their lives. He felt disillusioned and ostracised. In his view, ‘Blackwater Park’ was born out of ‘bitterness and almost resentment.’
In the nineteenth-century novel ‘The Woman In White’, Blackwater Park is a gothic mansion where the protagonist Laura is taken to live with her new husband, Sir Percival Glyde. The house is named after the lake on the estate, where ‘the trees rose thickly again and shut out the view, and cast their black shadows on the sluggish, shallow water.’ When I read the book a few years ago I had assumed that Opeth’s album took its title from the fictional house and its grounds. This passage could be a description of Travis Smith’s album cover artwork. Indeed, this Blackwater Park is the perfect setting for the Opeth’s songs of melancholy, anger and lovelorn violence: a world of overripe opulence on the verge of corruption.
‘Blackwater Park’ was actually named after a German prog rock band, who had released one album called ‘Dirt Box’ in 1972. Åkerfeldt has not read ‘The Woman In White’. He has never been a big reader. This makes the conceptual storytelling of previous albums ‘My Arms, Your Hearse’ (1998) and ‘Still Life’, as though ripped from the pages of a gothic novel, all the more surprising.
Instead, like the German band, Åkerfeldt envisaged a future for Opeth where their albums were dug out of crates by vinyl lovers, who would eventually realise their greatness. ‘I figured we’d become one of those obscure bands that stay hidden for 20/30 years, then someone picks it up and it becomes cool, if you know what I mean,’ Åkerfeldt remembers. ‘So I was really not in that frame of mind that I was thinking we were going to conquer the world. At all. On the contrary. It was almost over.’
When I did eventually first listen to ‘Blackwater Park’, it was in the run up to the band’s gig at Shepherd’s Bush Empire on 25 September 2003, immortalised initially in DVD format as ‘Lamentations’. I thought I should bone up on their latest material. I was stunned.
Opening track ‘The Leper Affinity’ lurches out like a cadaverous hellhound: ‘We entered winter once again,’ Åkerfeldt roars. That sentiment is echoed on the song’s first major transition as he cleanly sings ‘Lost are days of spring’, over a naked section resembling the dextrous runs of folk musician John Martyn. This sinister, skin-crawling song about sexual servitude is thrilling because you cannot anticipate where it will go next. ‘Blackwater Park’ treats songwriting like a quest – a journey to an unknown destination, full of twists and turns.
‘It was a very heat-of-the-moment, going-with-the-flow type of writing which I did then,’ reflects Åkerfeldt. ‘I started somewhere with no idea of where I’m going to end up, but all of a sudden I feel like I’ve reached the end of a song: it’s done now. Without giving too much thought to song structures at all. I was more of a dynamic junkie.’
With limited means of demoing his material as he wrote, the songs took the form of rudimentary charts: ‘I just wrote everything down, like “evil riff”, you know “evil riff four times”. “Weird break” and then “evil riff no.2 four times”. So that’s how I remembered the songs and built the songs that way. Just printing, giving names to each riff and each passage in the song.’
At its most obtuse, seventies prog rock can sound like a puzzle a musician is trying to solve while the listener waits patiently for a song to end. Aside from the synthesis of influences from classic prog, ‘Blackwater Park’ is progressive because it is stuffed full of unusual musical mutations but never loses its power and beauty. Often its songs hold an ecstatic tension between disparate genres.
On second song, “Bleak”, Opeth transition out of the opening verses at the 4.25 minute mark with two key changes before elliding into an almost completely different song, backed by the insouciant brilliance of the band’s Uruguayan-Swedish rhythm section at the time: Martin Lopez (drums) and Martin Mendez (bass). Guitarist Peter Lindgren completed the band – a huge talent who could conjure magic from his instrument under duress.
Back then, Opeth had a tendency to put pressure on themselves. All of a sudden the studio was booked and they had to get down to work. Parts of “Bleak” were demoed and ready to record, but none of the album’s lyrics were written. The songs “Dirge For November” and “A Funeral Portrait” came together in the studio. The solos were written and performed in a crunched timeframe after the songs were tracked. It reflected Åkerfeldt’s attitude at the time: ‘I didn’t know that it was going to take off for us, that record. It’s ironic actually. The one time I felt like, fuck it, I’m just going to do something, write some shit and not think too much. Not expect that anything is going to happen for the band this time.’
Opeth had a trump card in the studio. Porcupine Tree frontman Steven Wilson was Åkerfeldt’s idol and agreed to produce the album. Åkerfeldt hoped he would perform on it as well. When he brought the cleanly sung choruses of “Bleak” to Wilson – which he thought were out of his own vocal range – he had a feeling Wilson would agree to sing them: he did. Their voices work well together because there are very close in timbre, but different enough that the song’s disturbing narrator seems to be a fractured self set on a murder they cannot avoid.
Wilson should take a lot of credit for the sound and success of ‘Blackwater Park’, and some of the innovations which made it deviate from extreme metal norms – at the time he was intrigued by second-wave Norwegian black metal and fellow Swedes Meshuggah. But likewise, Opeth and Åkerfeldt rubbed off on Wilson.
Porcupine Tree’s next album, ‘In Absentia’ (released the following year), has a beefed-up sound: ‘I think it probably goes hand in hand, that he’d work with us, then he wrote and recorded their next album and it was heavier. So it was mutually rewarding in that way,’ says Åkerfeldt. ‘In Absentia’ doesn’t sound like Opeth, though. For that, there’s Wilson’s solo album, ‘The Raven Who Refused To Sing’ (2013) – something about the chord choices, progressions and mood of that album is very Opeth. Unsurprisingly, it is Åkerfeldt’s favourite Steven Wilson solo album.
Inevitably, when Åkerfeldt listens back to ‘Blackwater Park’ he does so with a critical ear, focusing on the ‘shitter bits’ (how the production has aged, how the drums sound, etc.). The songwriting on the album feels ‘remote’ to him – part of a previous era of the band: ‘I feel it would be almost impossible for me to write that stuff today.’
There is one notable exception: “Harvest”, the third song on the album. ‘It’s a simple song basically,’ says Åkerfeldt. ‘Feels like I could have written it today. It’s more timeless than the other songs.’ This bucolic, acoustic song is deceptively simple though. It is still full of interesting transitions and expressions of longing. It resonates with Opeth’s more vocal-driven, classic rock sound today, reaching a pinnacle on 2019’s ‘In Cauda Venenum’.
By contrast, the closing and title track of ‘Blackwater Park’ is one of its heaviest. It exudes malevolence. Åkerfeldt refers to it as a ‘sound turd’ because of the way it is visualised on a programme like Pro Tools: a death metal wall of noise. I ask him about one of his trademark UGHAARGH grunts which he emits as the main riff kicks in.
‘That’s my forte,’ laughs Åkerfeldt. ‘I’m really meticulous about those. My inspiration is the king of death metal, David Vincent [ex-Morbid Angel frontman], who has the best. It’s something you do with the tongue. You have to extend your tongue when you do the “ughaargh”.’
There’s another one at the beginning of “The Leper Affinity” and Åkerfeldt mentions the one in “Serenity Painted Death” from ‘Still Life’. One of my other personal favourites is at the 6.31 mark of “Hessian Peel” from 2008 album ‘Watershed’. Death metal side project Bloodbath demanded plenty of them from him too. There’s not many musicians where you can dig into the complexity of their choice of barre chords as well as how they articulate their grunts.
‘Blackwater Park’ was released a few months before Tool’s ‘Lateralus’ in 2001. Both changed the perception of what constituted progressive rock and metal. They were featured in a recent ‘Kerrang!’ list of the 13 essential progressive metal albums. When Slipknot released ‘Iowa’ and System of A Down ‘Toxicity’ later that year, nu metal was peaking. ‘Blackwater Park’ was part of the beginning of an ‘alternate death metal scene’ in Åkerfeldt’s eyes. The album led underground rock and metal out from under nu metal’s shadow.
It is not alone, but the impact of ‘Blackwater Park’ on death metal and extreme metal more generally was so seismic that those genres are inherently progressive now. Opeth’s sound is so distinctive that it is rare for bands to try to emulate it. However, partly thanks to them, long, ambitious compositions are now the norm – listen to recent albums from Blood Incantation, Sweven or Bedsore (who definitely do sound like Opeth at points), or swathes of the underground. There is no greater testament to Opeth’s legacy than the fact that simpler, more brutal bands refer to themselves as ‘old school’ – harking back to early Morbid Angel and a time that predates Opeth and their peers.
But is it their most important album?
‘I don’t really regard any record as our most important album, to be honest,’ says Åkerfeldt. ‘It’s just kind of an imprint in time, for me… all records. That’s what I did then, that’s what I liked then, that’s what I wanted to do then, and after that I move on to the next thing. So it’s important in that sense that a lot of people love that album and we could probably go out and play “Blackwater Park” on tour for ten years and people would still come to the show.’
Opeth won’t do that, though. The band is an exercise in evolution. It’s been ten years since Åkerfeldt dropped his growl from their records. When I saw them at the London Palladium two years ago touring ‘In Cauda Venenum’, the band launched into “The Leper Affinity” second in the set. It was jarring, delightful and ferocious, even if Åkerfeldt’s deep-chested roar is more hoarse after thirty years of wear and tear. As if to compensate, his singing voice has only improved with age.
Twenty years ago, instead of walking away, Opeth left a monumental mark on heavy music’s history. The sun of acclaim will never set on ‘Blackwater Park’ and I imagine it will be listened to with even more reverence decades from now. The only band that could eclipse it is Opeth themselves.
‘Blackwater Park’ is being reissued across a range of formats on 16 July. Get the details – HERE