Hence Sweden's Opeth certainly deserves all the attention it's been getting of late. Opeth does more than demand focused listening; the band rewards it. The group's latest album, Deliverance, is rooted in Swedish death metal, but owes just as much to early '70s progressive rock, particularly Yes. It's not a concept album, though, and it never forgets to rock -- damn hard, in fact. If you need to categorize it, it'd fall somewhere between Fragile and . . . And Justice for All, with the former's detours into quietude and the latter's long-ass songs and ferocious, almost ridiculously complex riff-scaffolding.
As a spin of Deliverance suggests, Opeth has had a long time to develop its ideas. The band formed in Sweden in 1990, just one more death-metal band from a country already stuffed to bursting with long-haired, angry guys with pointy guitars. Bandleader Michael Åkerfeldt doesn't exactly swear by Opeth's early material, saying, "Before we got the record deal, we were just a standard death-metal band. Pretty shit, really. But when I got in touch with the whole prog rock and symphonic rock scene, I saw a different way to write music, and that we could incorporate that in our sound and make death metal symphonic." Indeed, by the time Opeth released its first album, 1995's Orchid, the band was already dishing out the kind of lengthy, ultracomplex pieces that would become its stock-in-trade: The album opens with the 14-minute "In Mist She Was Standing," giving fair warning of its large-canvas vision.
Seven years later, Deliverance holds to that ambitious pattern, and it's a tough listen. Opeth's previous record, 2001's Blackwater Park, mixed extremely heavy metal with softer, almost folk-rock passages, but there was a clearer separation between the two elements. In many ways, it was a more accessible album than the new one. The first track on Deliverance is "Wreath," an 11-minute blast of energy that goes through five or six distinct sections, all but one of which are constructed around roaring death-metal riffs. It's a truly savage piece of songwriting, coming at the listener like a wall of black ice. It starts fast and gets faster; Åkerfeldt's vocals become an indecipherable roar mingling with the guitars, with the whole thing propelled by Martin Lopez's surprisingly intricate drum patterns. By the time the song finally ends, the listener could be forgiven for feeling a little out of breath -- and somewhat disoriented. When the title track kicks in, both longer and faster than its predecessor -- and with no break between the two -- Deliverance starts to feel like an endurance test. Opeth's shows should have people on the sides of the pit, ready to hand moshers cups of orange juice, as though they were running a marathon.
Åkerfeldt admits the new record is hard going -- it was a conscious choice. "Deliverance is a pretty dark and extreme record, and faster than before," he says. "Both Blackwater Park and Still Life were kind of midpaced, and I wanted Deliverance to be brutal." The standard of baroque brutality he's set, though, means it's going to be all the more interesting to hear the band's next effort. "It's called Damnation," Åkerfeldt says, "and it's going to be released in springtime. It's like the sister of Deliverance -- the complete opposite. It's a very beautiful and delicate, mellow record, and it sounds like . . . it sounds like one of the classic albums you'd have in your collection, from the '70s. It's got a very down-to-earth sound, and the songwriting process was a bit different. I didn't have the same dynamics, because we didn't have the heavy guitars and the screaming vocals. So I had to rethink my whole perception of how to write songs for Opeth. Some of the quieter parts on Deliverance could probably be likened to what Damnation is, but the whole production sounds like a '70s production. We have loads of vintage keyboards on there. Not like Rick Wakeman, but old Mellotrons and Fender Rhodes."
In the wake of punk, bands like Yes and ELP didn't suddenly become bad musicians, but they did become victims of a kind of pop-cultural revolution. Only music that sounded "raw," and that got its point across in four minutes or less, was acceptable. That limiting viewpoint has largely persisted to this day. But in the death-metal underground, even though many ideas were lifted from hardcore punk, the appreciation for instrumental technique and complex songwriting has never really gone away. To those paying close attention, a prog-thrash crossover could be seen as inevitable. "I've always been a fan of mellow music, rock ballads, that kind of stuff, as well as the heavy, extreme stuff," Åkerfeldt says, "but we never could find a way to incorporate both styles into the music. When I got into the whole symphonic rock scene, it really helped me see a way to do that and make it more extreme, yet more mellow on the other side as well." Opeth's success with critics and fans may be a small signpost pointing toward a mainstream reassessment of progressive rock: Thanks to these Swedes, metalheads no longer have to say no to Yes.