How I see it, there are three top Opeth albums, and I'm hard pressed to pick a favourite. 2001's Blackwater Park is often considered the benchmark release, and is certainly definitive in terms of their sound. 2005's Ghost Reveries sees the band at their most diverse, and this year's Watershed is overflowing with moments of absolute sonic perfection. Seeing as its still 2008, I'll plump for Watershed for the time being. But there's no doubt that every time I revisit Ghost Reveries, I end up doubting myself.
The last album to feature the so-called classic line-up of Akerfeldt, Lindgren, Lopez and Mendez, aided by one Per Wiberg on keys, Ghost Reveries is a perfect, and I don't throw that word around lightly, swansong for those departing players, Martin Lopez and Peter Lindgren. Indeed, their work on here is without doubt the finest of their respective careers. The guitar work in particular stands out on this Opeth release, each and every song filled with luscious passages, varied playing styles, intriguing rhythm and lead sections: basically, plenty to make the CD worth any serious metal guitarist's time. Lopez' drumming too has never been better, most noticeable on tracks "Harlequin Forest" and slow-burner "The Grand Conjuration". His work on the latter song is a masterpiece of understatement balanced with sheer power, at once both timid and majestic. As and when his varies capabilities are needed, he never fails to impress.
As for those still in the fold, the praise comes just as readily. Mikael Akerfeldt is without question the best singer in all of music today. As a metal vocalist, he belongs to a select group who practice a style which is both as grim as they come and perfectly intoned and comprehensible. As always, his song-writing is beyond compare: no other musician so perfectly combines elements of death metal, classic rock, folk music and more. On Ghost Reveries we are treated to the Middle-Eastern ramble "Atonement", something of a sequel to the previous album's "Closure", though ten times as impressive.
Shallow as I may sound, it's not often that I notice the bass on an album, or indeed in a band. Production is often to blame. Not so here: Martin Mendez' subtle touches and flourishes are noticeable on each and every track on this album. His sweeping, climbing style is a thing of beauty, a fantastic match for Lindgren and Akerfeldt's guitar work. Wiberg, appearing here for the first time as a full member of the band, makes his presence known. His joining is no mid-career addition: you'd be forgiven for thinking keys were this prominent on every Opeth record, so well integrated are they into the band's sound. From menacing guitar-mimicry on "...Conjuration" to Mellotron overload, well, pretty much everywhere else, not one of his parts seems like a post-production flourish: he's in integral part of the structure of the album.
Musician worship aside, what of the songs? Like I said, the offering here is more diverse than every other Opeth record. Sure, there's plenty of what could be called recognisable Opeth, but there's also a hell of a lot of fresh stuff too. Opener "Ghost of Perdition" is a shifting, twisting mass of music, effortlessly transitioning between furious death metal, Latin grooves and straight-up rock. "The Baying of The Hounds" has a similar vibe to "The Funeral Portrait" from Blackwater Park, that is to say, it sees the band in a raucous, lively, almost bouncy metal form, before descending into a dreamlike, bass-driven mid-section. "Beneath the Mire" has a great intro section, before treading familiar guitar-heaven/scary-heaviness ground. "Atonement" marks the first non-metal offering of the album, a hazy, heat-stricken, wander through the desert set to some fantastic prog guitars, and ivory tinkling. A supposed manufacturing error places "Reverie" at the end of this track rather than at the beginning of the next. It's a short example of an old Opeth trick: write something short and utterly, unbearably good, and play it over and over for just long enough. "Harlequin Forest" ends with much the same idea. "Hours of Wealth" is another non-metal number, giving the listener a chance to catch their breath before the power of "The Grand Conjuration", which I'll get to in a minute. "Hours..." is essentially an instrumental showcase for guitar and keys, with a short section at the end which opens up for TGC in the best possible way. One section of the song, where notes on the keyboard join those of the guitar, never fails to turn me into a puddle. "The Grand Conjuration", undeniably the album's cornerstone, is a modern classic behemoth of metal excellence. Clocking in at somewhere around eleven minutes in length, it builds upon a very simple build and release structure before collapsing on itself for some much deserved showing off in the middle, before returning to the menace and then descending into chaos again at the end. Simply put, its textbook Opeth, and an absolutely essential song for any self-respecting fan of decent prog or death metal. To say it's the best song on the album almost puts the rest in shadow, so I'll avoid that pitfall. But it's damn good. So good, in fact, that closer "Isolation Years" is something of an anticlimax. But once you're fully familiar with the album, such a thing won't matter. A short piece, it really does stand on its own, musically and lyrically. That's not to say it's unwelcome, it just might have been better off, well, off.
Which brings me to another thing: album structure. I'm a firm believer that album structure is integral not only to one's enjoyment of a record, but also to its status as a classic album as a whole. Top marks then for Ghost Reveries, save for that little blip at the end. The metal-trilogy opening salvo to the bliss of "Atonement", back to another lengthy genre-buster, a smaller quiet number and into the centrepiece, its all so confoundingly well put together you have to wonder if scientists weren't drafted into conjure it all up. In some grand manner, pun fans.
The artwork is fantastic, as are the lyrics, particularly considering the lyricist's first language isn't even English. The production is top notch on all counts: each individual instrument sounds fantastic, each guitar tone like a gift. Everything is mixed perfectly.
The special edition of the album is one of the last special editions I've bought that's actually been worthy of separate release. The main album is bolstered by an unnecessary but nevertheless wonderful cover of Deep Purple's "Soldier of Fortune". The main attraction is the 50-odd minute documentary on the DVD, chronicling the making of the album, with just the right amount of in-studio recording, interview footage and cats with a penchant for surprise. The rubbish, Gene Hoglan-starring video edit for "...Conjuration" is also presented, as well as a 5.1 mix of the album which I've heard tell is well worth hearing. There's also a short introduction to the album, and a brief explanation of what's on the special edition from Akerfeldt himself, always likeable in his prose form.
I hate ending reviews. I just don't know how to do it. I usually plump for a summary, which tends to make it feel like an essay for school. So I may as well just say buy the bloody album. Please try and ignore anything negative you may hear about it, as those who spout such blatant inaccuracies are inexcusable, and punishable by firing squad execution for lack of human decency, taste and an education in how not to be musically ignorant.