Opeth are surely one of metal’s most unlikely success stories. Formed in Stockholm, Sweden about 1989, the group’s career showcases a melding of diverse influences. Whether it be their unashamedly brutal early LPs, their mid-period opuses, or somewhat polarizing recent glimpses into macabre 1970s-esque prog/jazz rock eccentricity, mastermind Mikael Åkerfeldt and company continuously create records that push themselves, their audience and progressive music as a whole forward.
US-based author Jordan Blum tackles this wide-ranging catalogue in his new book, Opeth: Every Album, Every Song (part of the On Track series). Utilizing a mixture of original analysis and behind-the-scenes research, this book digs into all facets of Opeth’s output to discover how they evolved with practically every release.
Blum holds an MFA in fiction from Rosemont College, and teaches composition at various colleges and universities in the area. He has written books on progressive rock/metal acts Jethro Tull and Dream Theater. He’s also the associate features editor at PopMatters and a contributor to magazines such as Loudwire, Metal Injection, Kerrang!, Consequence of Sound, WhatCulture, and Ultimate Classic Rock.
Brendan Crabb: First of all, tell us about your own fandom of Opeth. When did the band first appear on your radar, and what were your early impressions of their music?
Jordan Blum: I first heard about them when they were touring with Porcupine Tree in 2003. I was in high school at that time and was obsessed with Porcupine Tree; especially In Absentia, which I still think is the best album Steven Wilson ever made. Obviously, Opeth were touring Deliverance and Damnation around then, and the two bands were playing near me, at the Trocadero in Philly (RIP). So, I decided to check them out. I loved Damnation but couldn’t get into some of the other songs I heard (“White Cluster” and “Deliverance” were two of them). I wasn’t really into metal back then, so Åkerfeldt’s growling turned me off completely.
When I got to college in 2005, though, I met my friend Mike and he introduced me to a lot of progressive metal, including Opeth’s Blackwater Park. After a few listens, it clicked with me, and I started to appreciate the growling in a different way. It became a part of the instrumentation instead of something that got in the way of it. From there, I was obsessed and couldn’t get enough of their work thus far. Of course, Ghost Reveries was brand new at that point, so it was a great time to become a fan.
At what point did it become a reality that you could parlay that fandom into writing a book about the band?
I started writing about music during my freshman year of college for the campus newspaper, and Ghost Reveries was the first album review I ever wrote. Well, it was either that or a retrospective review on Spock’s Beard’s Snow. Over the subsequent 15 years, I’d written a lot of other pieces about them, so when the time came for me to follow-up my Jethro Tull and Dream Theater books for Sonicbond Publishing’s On Track series, Opeth was my first pick. Luckily, no one else was doing it and the publisher, Stephen Lambe, was totally on board. Of those three bands, Opeth is my favorite, too, so I saved the best for last, for now.
Tell us about the writing and researching processes for the book – how long was it in the works for? Any notable interview subjects?
I didn’t do any of my own interviews, but I found a lot of pre-existing ones. It took me just over a year to do the book, which was considerably longer than the prior two books. That was because I was teaching more, and writing more for different magazines. My process for all three books was basically the same. I’ve always had an official biography to help – in this case, Book of Opeth from Rocket 88 – and since what I was writing wasn’t a traditional biography (so the two books have different purposes/styles), it made sense to use it along the way.
From there, I basically looked at all of the citations on Wikipedia for Opeth and for each album and other things they’ve done. Once I found all of the useful and valid sources, I also turned to various search engines, library databases, and the like to amass all of the research I could for each chapter/album. On average, that resulted in about 40 pages of research alongside the Book of Opeth chapters. At times, I also transcribed album documentaries, YouTube interviews and the like to cover as much ground as possible.
Then, I read through it all with annotations and then just outlined what I wanted each chapter/album’s introductory essay to cover based on the research and my own assessment of how the band changed from one album to the next, musically and personally/professionally. Oddly enough, it sometimes took as long to write the intro essays as it did the song analyses, which were a combination of my own evaluation and whatever important background info I could find, because I’m hyper focused on using synonyms as much as possible to avoid repeating words. I guess I’d say that from the initial researching to revising the song descriptions and bonuses, each chapter/album took between 15 and 18 hours to do.
You note early on that, “Opeth have amassed one of the most idiosyncratic, admirable, and reliable discographies in modern progressive metal”. A group with such a diverse catalogue ensures fans will all have their own individual favorite songs and albums, and often have deep personal connections to those works. Can that be an intimidating prospect?
It can be, but I’ve been writing professionally for about 15 years so I’ve learned that no matter what you say about pop culture, certain people will agree and certain people will disagree, and probably insult you along the way (laughs). People put their identities into what they like, so they can get too into things and care too much about them, to the point of forming parasocial relationships with artists, and if you dare to not love or hate what they love or hate, they perceive it as you challenging who they are or some shit.
The whole premise of the On Track series is that each author provides a fair amount of research and facts and all, but also a lot of their own insights and opinions. You read one of those books to see what the author thinks of the band, so you need to approach it with an open mind and willingness to consider other points of view. In the end, it should be seen as some fun discussion about the music that – overall – we both adore. If I like Blackwater Park less than you or Pale Communion more than you, it doesn’t really matter, right? It doesn’t reflect on either of us as people, so just go about your day and thanks for reading.
Also, in the social media age, readers won’t be shy about telling you if they disagree with any of your views in the book. Was that of any concern, or something you just had to accept?
Nah, that’s never a concern of mine. I don’t mean any of this to sound arrogant or pretentious or anything like that, but the internet is gonna internet and diehard fans are gonna do what diehard fans do, you know? I’m always happy to discuss music with people, obviously, and even the worst feedback means that someone took the time to read and consider what I’ve written.
As with all of the writing I do online, I just approach it with the attitude of, ‘okay, thanks for reading.’ If a reader’s day is ruined because one person (me) ranked Still Life above Deliverance or wrote that “Charlatan” is the best song they’ve done in a decade, just as examples, they need to reassess their priorities. Again, I appreciate every reader and I’m happy to talk for hours about Opeth as long as it’s mutually respectful and not taken too far in terms of how much weight it has on how someone sees themselves, me, and the world.
Successful bands always seem to have their growing pains. Opeth is no exception, both from the many lineup changes to early creative shortcomings (such as the lyrics on one early track being dubbed “absolute black metal nonsense”). What do you think has driven Åkerfeldt and company for so long?
Good question. Åkerfeldt has said countless times, in countless ways, that he can’t help but do this. He is driven to it, and if he ever feels that he no longer has the passion or artistic merit to sustain Opeth, he’ll end the band and move on. It’s his calling and he must stay true to his muses (even if it polarizes the fan base, hurts sales, etc.)
I really admire that about him because that’s what artistic integrity is all about. You want to keep fans happy, make money, get popular and all of that, but at the end of the day, an artist has to make art. Sometimes, that means changing your work in drastic ways so that you’re staying true to your own interests and capabilities in that moment. He – and the rest of the band – are doing what so many other bands won’t. They’re saying, ‘here’s what we want to make right now. Here’s what we need the next album to sound like. It’s what we want it to be. If you’re still with us, great. If not, oh well and thanks for the memories.’
Regarding the rest of the band (which I don’t mean to undervalue even though Åkerfeldt is clearly the mastermind), I think that being in Opeth allows them to check off all the boxes to some degree. It sustains them financially and gets them fame and credibility and all of that, but mostly, it gives them an unbeatable creative outlet. I’ve always thought that Opeth is the best at what they do. A lot of other bands do similar things, and many of them are great, but Opeth is the band for their kind of style. To be able to be a part of that, I would imagine, is the greatest thing in the world for the rest of them.
Despite their amazing body of work, Opeth are in many ways an unlikely success story, given the past use of such harsh vocals, not to mention their lengthy songs and complex musicianship. How is it you feel that they’ve been able to triumph in such a way, and attain a level of success few other progressive metal acts have achieved?
Primarily, persistence. Blackwater Park was obviously their breakthrough, and that was due to a mixture of support from the label in terms of funds, marketing, etc., timing/luck, and of course, quality since it’s an incredible album. Plus, Steven Wilson was working on it, so being connected to him and Porcupine Tree at that time gave Opeth a big boost in popularity.
Prior to that, they were really struggling to sustain the band, yet they never gave up because they couldn’t, even if they considered it a few times. Opeth almost immediately became Åkerfeldt’s baby, and the early days were full of hardships in order to create and release the first four albums. They prospered through it to get to the Blackwater Park rewards and all that came afterwards.
They’ve also stayed 100 per cent true to themselves, which a lot of fans respect completely. As clichéd and hyperbolic as it is to say, Opeth is a one-of-a-kind band not just musically, but personally as well. They’re all such distinctive and endearing characters as people, so you enjoy Opeth behind-the-scenes maybe as much as you do on the stereo and on-stage. There’s an authenticity and quirkiness there that keeps people coming back and keeps Opeth’s name in the media.
During the writing and researching of this book, has your assessment of Opeth’s overall career, or even individual albums, changed at all? If so, how?
Definitely. Namely, I’d say that my appreciation for Heritage grew. I still admire it more for what it represents regarding their fearless artistic integrity than I do for the music itself. I still hear it as a bunch of demos for a style that they’d quickly perfect on the masterful Pale Communion, but I like it more than I used to as a listening experience, too.
Beyond that, I appreciate the first two albums more for how forward-thinking they were in terms of where Opeth would go afterwards. There’s some innovative stuff there, and a jazziness to the rhythm section that you somewhat lose once you get to My Arms, Your Hearse. I like Sorceress and In Cauda Venenum more now as well, although I think that Pale Communion is by far their best album of the 2010s.
What do you hope readers derive from this book?
Some new insights and perspectives on the albums they love, and the albums they don’t love. As I said before, I think that diehard fans of anything – be it music, film, video games, TV shows, books, etc. – can feel a sense of tribalism and rivalry with which era of franchises they like. In other words, they may think that they’re betraying who they are if they admit to liking something outside of what they’re “allowed” to like.
Screw that (laughs). Like what you like and feel okay to admit it. My two most controversial Opeth opinions (which, again, shouldn’t really upset anyone because none of this is that serious) are probably that Blackwater Park is a remarkable but slightly over-rated album, and that Pale Communion is a masterpiece and easily one of their, say, three best albums. I want my book, and everything I write, to reflect that openness about pop culture. Try to appreciate, if not celebrate, Opeth’s whole history and catalogue.
Any famous last words?
Thanks for reading this interview and, hopefully, the book itself. Also, thanks to Heavy Music HQ for the opportunity.
(interview published April 2022)