Still Life marks Opeth's most noticeable foray into exploring more progressive sounds, utilising a cleaner and more pristine production work compared to their first two albums produced by Dan Swano. Not as heavy as My Arms, Your Hearse, their first album engineered at Fredman Studios, Still Life contains more clean vocals than before, merging the band's interest in death metal, progressive rock, and Scandinavian folk, while still retaining their heavy approach to songwriting. After this disc, Opeth would move on to work with Porcupine Tree mastermind Steven Wilson, venturing into more 70's prog with thicker soundscapes and layered melodies.
For starters, there is a wealth of clean vocal harmonies on this album, which have Akerfeldt sounding a lot more emotive and elaborate. This would be the album where he found his true self as a clean vocalist. Still alternating between demonic death growls and fragile, soothing clean passages, the album became a logical next step for the band's future albums, where they experimented with more complex harmonies. However, the first two songs on Still Life are arguably Akerfeldt's finest moments, as far as clean choruses are concerned. "The Moor", the album's first track, is comprised of innumerable threads of melodies that range from the slow, haunting intro to the acoustic and electric riffs respectively. Actually the acoustic intro of this song remains among Opeth's most remarkable to this day. Infused with clear folk elements which particularly come to the fore during the amazing chorus that starts with the lyrics "If you'll bear with me, you'll fear of me", the melody of this section is reproduced on guitar impressively. There are several guitar themes soaring above the piece, while neat acoustic elements are played on top of them, and Akerfeldt's melodies convincingly hummed. Without doubt, when contrasted with his possessed death growls, the dynamics make for an incredible song overall.
"Godhead's Lament" is another Opeth classic. Starting with sudden shifts of metallic riffage and a paralyzing lead solo, the song retreats to its anticipated calm mood, where a fantastic guitar theme is played to generate atmosphere. Unlike the opening song, this time Akerfeldt delivers the lyrics staying true to the theme played, singing "What would they care if I did stay, No one would know", stressing the final word and producing heart-wrenching melodies. For a brief moment, the bass, acoustic and electric guitars are all played in synch before the song ventures into its initial heavy path, only to highlight another clean chorus that is arguably the most moving part on the album.
The all-clean sung "Benighted" and "Face of Melinda" are both sublime. The former maintains its careful flow throughout, with subtle blues-inflected leads; while the latter does take on a heavier vibe in its second half with a great electric solo. By many considered Opeth's most engaging ballad, it is also interesting Mikael Akerfeldt would name his new-born daughter Melinda a few years later. On the heavier side, "Moonlapse Vertigo" and the amazing riff-master "Serenity Painted Death", besides highlighting Opeth's death metal heaviness, are also punctuated by creepy middle sections underpinned by tranquil elements and quirky sound effects. Needless to say, these parts are very brief and only serve to enrich the dynamics, as they are both followed by punishing death metal riffs and brutal growling. "Serenity Painted Death" particularly stands out for its endlessly creative riffing and climactic ending that follows a throbbing bass and syncopated drum workout.
Still Life is one of Opeth's two concept albums (the other one being My Arms, Your Hearse). The lyrics are poetic and rather hard to understand on first reading; it's a tragic love story based around the Middle Ages about an exiled man who returns to his village after many years in order to find the woman he loves. Also, as was the case with My Arms, Your Hearse and Blackwater Park, the title seems to have been inspired by another 70's band Akerfeldt highly respects: namely Van der Graaf Generator's 1976 album. However, given the amazing artwork by Travis Smith, it could also be the art term for a type of painting which consists of predominantly inanimate objects. Speaking of which, the packaging is among Opeth's best as well.
If you have never heard any Opeth before, start with Still Life.
- The Moor
- Godhead's Lament
- Moonlapse Vertigo
- Face of Melinda
- Serenity Painted Death
- White Cluster