Opeth Was My Gateway Drug

by | Dec 1, 2015 | Blog, Musings

In 1996 I was a prog-metal-loving music geek. I was living in Germany at the time, learning the language. The plan was to study music there…a plan which didn’t work out.

Still, those 10 months I spent in Germany ended up being an important part of my musical life.

Now these were the pre-Napster years, the early days of the internet. People still used the term “World Wide Web” and actually bought CD’s. And I was finally living in a country with big music stores, where I could easily find music from all of my favorite artists, from the more popular ones to the most obscure.

This was quite different form Panama, where I had to special-order a lot of the albums I wanted. So, as you can imagine, I went crazy. I don’t even want to think about how much money I spent on CD’s during my time there.

One day, I walked into a store and saw a gloomy-looking album by a band called Opeth. The sticker on it said “Progressive Metal from Sweden, 6 songs totalling 66 minutes!” Boy they sure knew who they were selling to! As any prog fan knows, the longer the song, the better!

So I bought it, without hearing it, based solely on the artwork and that little promo sticker. It was the kind of thing you did before Spotify existed…I went home, put the CD in the player, and eagerly pressed play…

Some pulsing clean guitars fading in, followed by the rest of the band: harmony guitars, double bass drum, followed by a jazzy breakdown and then a head-banging riff…this was my kind of music! I was really digging it.

Until the vocals came in.


Death metal growls. I was not a fan.

I was really into thrash, but death metal and other types of extreme metal weren’t really my thing. I never quite got the growls…thrash was more about shouting, being angry, aggressive…blowing off steam. And it was still melodic a lot of the time. That I could get.

But growling? Trying to sound scary? What was the point?

But Opeth changed all that. Because despite not being crazy about the vocals, the music was so great, I just had to keep listening.

At first I just tried to straight out ignore the vocals. Then I tried to rationalize them by thinking of them as “scary poetry.” I guess part of me was just curious, because if such a talented band used growls, then there must be something to them that I was missing.

But inevitably, it happened. I actually started liking the growls. And I also realized they were essential to what Opeth was doing. Just as the music was alternating between beauty and brutality, so were the vocals.

That album, by the way, was Morningrise.

Jump forward a couple of years, and I was now in Boston, studying at Berklee College Of Music.

I had kind of lost touch with metal during my time there. While I still put Morningrise on the occasional gloomy day, I hadn’t bothered to get the two albums that followed.

Then one day I discovered Meshuggah, and just like that, I was listening to metal almost constantly (Meshuggah, by the way, deserve their own blog post…). But now, I was way more open to the more extreme side of things.

I was listening to bands like Dillinger Escape Plan, Refused, Isis, and many more, thanks to the time I spent absorbing the music from Morningrise.

Notice that those aren’t even death metal bands…but Opeth’s music opened my mind and ears to a whole new world of vocal expression.

I know some of you will laugh, but there is beauty in screaming…on one side it’s such a primal action, but there is still a lot of care and attention put into the final result. Well, most of the time…

During this time, I was listening to a metal show on a local college station, and one night they put a new Opeth song. It was “Bleak” from Blackwater Park.

I was stunned.

As much as I loved Morningrise, this was a whole other level. And the singer was so much better now…both the clean vocals and the growls were more expressive and powerful. The production was exquisite and captured the band’s essence perfectly. I was a true fan now.

The next day I went to Tower records and bought Blackwater Park. Shortly afterwards, I got to see them live at the New England Metal & Hardcore Festival (along with Meshuggah). It was one of their first shows in the US, and they played songs from all their album up till then, including Morningrise.

It was fitting that while I was discovering all these extreme forms of music, I rediscovered the band that opened my ears to them.

So thank you Opeth, your music showed me that a lot of my musical tastes were totally arbitrary, and that by going beyond my comfort zone and forgetting my expectation of what music should be, I discovered a whole new world of sound and expression.



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