With the release of "Blackwater Park" Opeth did something that has damaged the careers of many other bands: They released a perfect album. Other bands release what is often considered their greatest work and then spend the rest of their careers trying to recapture that moment. Opeth, wisely, refuses to do that. They have continued to evolve, to experiment, and to craft excellent music. Each new album since that time has been unique, and the excitement for their newest, "Ghost Reveries", was very intense. Fueling the excitement and speculation were three major changes for the band. First was the addition of Per Wiberg on keyboards. Opeth has had keys in the past, but never a full-time keyboardist. Second was the absence of Steve Wilson as producer on the album. Third, in the interim between "Damnation" and "Ghost Reveries" Opeth signed a deal with RoadRunner Records, a label known for angry, angst-driven 'nu-metal' bands. These factors, along with the fact that "Damnation" was such a singular album in the Opeth catalog, resulted in many rumblings about what the new album would bring.
Reaction to the first single "The Grand Conjuration" was mixed. Some thought it a new level in Opeth metal. Others thought it too accessible. Whichever side of the battle you stand on though, this song gave clues of what was to come with the release of the album, but nothing more. "Ghost Reveries" stays true to Opeth's recent records, while still treading some new waters. Don't expect a reinvention of the wheel here. Rather we are treated to a refining and retooling of the sound that has defined metal's most brilliant band for years now. "Ghost Reveries" starts off with the title track, a beautiful and brutal epic that blends the different styles Opeth is known for. Mixing aggressive metal with acoustic passages, guttural growls with excellent clear vocals, pummeling double bass with hints of jazz fusion, Opeth carves out their place in metal history even more with this album. While individual songs on the disc have less calm acoustic passages, the inclusion of three full songs that could have come straight off "Damnation" more than make up for it. They serve nicely to balance the album, adding depth to the experience.
So what about the three big changes? How do they effect the album? In reverse order, the band signing with RoadRunner will only help both the label and the band. It provides Opeth wider distribution outside of Europe and will add to their exposure. In turn, it provides RoadRunner with a more established, critically acclaimed band that is widely respected. Second, I actually had to look through the liner notes to confirm that Steve Wilson wasn't involved. The production is excellent, and Steve's knack for progressive music is all over this record. His influence continues to be felt. Finally, Per Wiberg helps to add depth to the sound of the band, filling the music nicely with his key work. Some find the keyboards at the beginning of "The Baying of the Hounds" and "Beneath the Mire" to be somewhat over the top and out of place. I vehemently disagree with them, particularly with the keyboards at the beginning of "Beneath the Mire". They manage to capture perfectly the organ sound from old black and white horror films, and given the subject matter of the disc, this is a subtle and effective touch that is certainly not out of place. All in all, I believe that the changes have only helped to strengthen the band.
Tracks to catch: "Ghost Reveries" is a brilliant song, both brutal and haunting, and a very effective introduction to the album. "Atonement" is a meandering, spacey piece that rolls over the listener in gentle waves. It is reminiscent of 70's prog at its best. "The Baying of the Hounds" is another punishing track, yet never to the point of overwhelming the listener. Opeth seems to have a talent for pushing the listener to the edge and then stepping back just when you least expect it, but most need it. Finally "The Grand Conjuration" is an epic anthem not to be missed. The principal riff is one of the most memorable in all of metal, and while it is used extensively, it builds in such a way to pull the listener along to the mighty climax. This song will be simply amazing live. It has become one of my favorite Opeth songs.