Only a Northern Song

In some ways, the mainstreaming of black metal resembles the transformation of the Klingons on Star Trek: originally barbaric and one-dimensional bad guys, they grow sympathetic as we learn of their myths, their rituals, their women. From a commercial point of view, this makes perfect sense, though it's precisely this kind of accommodation to conventionally human taste that extreme metal has long attempted to purge through its sonic nihilism. "True" black metalheads bemoan even the snarling likes of Dimmu Borgir, and most of Blessed by the Nightwould make them gag.

And you can't really fault them. It's tough to go velvet while still getting medieval on your ass, and much of Blessed by the Nightresembles Enigma on steroids. The return of glossy rock drums is an abject failure, the keyboards often sound like they were lifted from old video games, and the cut-rate Dead Can Dance moves lack that band's flare for exotica. On the other hand, if you allow yourself a little of that old suspension of disbelief, this eclectic and emotionally dramatic music has plenty of room for marvels. In "View From Nihil," the latest Mayhem singer sounds like Mark E. Smith channeling Beckett on a drill sergeant's megaphone, while the Swedish band Otyg digs so deep into their folk roots they sound like Danzig playing a hoedown for dwarves. Still, most of these bands simply do not have the chops or the taste to back up their lofty aspirations. They fall flat, like Lucifer stubbing his toe on the gates of hell.

One blackish metal band that has amassed enough D&D hit points to risk such adventures is the Swedish group Opeth, which has built up a small but fanatical cult since their wrenching 1994 debut, Orchid. Avoiding the cornier trappings of Goth metal and the Satanic hordes, Opeth still paint on an epic canvas, sounding at times like black metal's answer to '70s King Crimson. Restless with moods and melodic lines, their impressively long songs flow and unfold over shifting blocks of rhythmic ice. But even their wankier passages remain rooted to the riff—which gets Opeth's mastermind, Mikael Åkerfeldt, a golden star in my prog rock book. He has also perfected the dynamic tension that has driven many of the most expressive metal bands since Led Zeppelin: the interplay of quiet and crude, of shivering acoustic passages and brutal electric squalls. In fact, Opeth's "blackness" lies less in the music then in Åkerfeldt's morbid lyric obsessions (death, despair, misery) and tonsil-shredding vocals, which he nonetheless varies with what has become, over the course of five albums, an increasingly convincing "clean" voice. Lately, he's even been willing to slip in ballads about—eek!—girls.

Opeth in the (possibly black) forest
photo: Harry Valimaki
Opeth in the (possibly black) forest

Details

Blessed By The Night: The Dark Metal Compilation
SPV/Angelstar import

Opeth
Blackwater Park
Koch/Music for Nations

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The new Blackwater Parkcontinues to open up Opeth's sound. Producer Steve Wilson, who fronts a pop-prog act called Porcupine Tree that manages to be both off-kilter and straight ahead, fills out Opeth's sound with shinier riffs, nifty vocal filters, and the occasional electronic blurp. Despite delightful eruptions of atonality and old-school prog moves, many songs here are more repetitious and conventionally structured, and so wear their length less justifiably than on 1999's amazing Still Life. Still, you would be remiss to call Blackwater Park"pop," even in the sense that Blessed by the Nightis pop. While the 11-minute "The Drapery Falls" starts out with catchy choruses and lots of acoustic strumming, the tune gets twisted after the five-minute mark, with ice-cave vocals, crazy Frippertronics, and manic beats from the two Uruguayans named Martin who back up Åkerfeldt and guitarist Peter Lindfren on bass and drums.

Despite lyrics about coffins, crypts, and drapery, Opeth's Romantic spirit manifests itself less in Gothic trappings than in the strange vulnerability with which Åkerfeldt presents bleak and blasted emotions. Åkerfeldt's melancholy is now as believable as his rage, and the album's strongest passages are generally the mellow ones. After twisting and turning through a fistful of angry riffs, "The Leper Affinity" ends with the man on the grand piano, tinkling out rainy day ruminations that simply drift away to a diminished end. Even his "evil" vocals don't communicate Viking fury so much as the desperation and weakness with which we submit finally to anger and despair, like a trapped animal or the "derelict child" mentioned in "The Funeral Portrait." In essence, Åkerfeldt does for the black metal bad guy what John Gardner did for Beowulf's foe in his book Grendel: He gets inside the monster to reveal its sad confusion, its helpless knowledge that it will, in the end, be swallowed up by the very darkness that fills its sinews with might.

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