There's a danger in taking OPETH for granted, now that we've been graced with a staggering seven albums' worth of progressive metal brilliance from them. They have their own sound, with instantly-identifiable elements, and you can only hear them "for the first time" once. That makes it easy to say they peaked when you were first exposed to them, and aren't as brilliant any more, or that they're coasting on those past glories. A lot of that is just personal perspective clouding people's judgment, and has little or nothing to do with OPETH's musical journey.
The trademarks are still here — Mikael Åkerfeldt's distinctive white-noise roar, serpentine guitar riffs and progressive arrangements. There are the extended acoustic breaks and Åkerfeldt's ever-more-confident clean vocals, still retaining a heavy influence from mentor and former producer Steven Wilson of PORCUPINE TREE. One of the biggest and most bandied-about fan concerns — would signing to Roadrunner ruin OPETH? — was clearly unfounded. The "lead single," "The Grand Conjuration", is over ten minutes long, fer Chrissakes! OPETH exist in their own rarefied realm, regardless of who's counting up the increasing record sales or putting the CD into chain stores. Their success is organic, and anyone who begrudges them that success is just a dick.
New full-time keyboardist Per Wiberg makes his presence felt in a positive way, adding Jon Lord-ian Hammond accents to "The Baying of the Hounds" and a slinky Arabian vibe to "Beneath the Mire". The acoustic interludes continue to drip with PINK FLOYD-ian atmosphere, with nods to Italian film scores and '70s prog. And there's more subtlety in the changes this time out — heavy riffs don't automatically cue the death metal vocals, and the songs return to past movements, or reference previous lyrics and titles, with a cohesion that holds Ghost Reveries together as a continuous, dynamic piece best absorbed in one sitting, at full attention. From the icy, aloof verses of "The Grand Conjuration" to the airy, inviting prog of "Atonement" (anyone else hear AMORPHIS here?), "Ghost Reveries" is an encompassing aural journey, the kind of record that should come with a Tolkien-ian treasure map and a stock of supplies for the trip.
It would still be possible, I suppose, to call this "just another OPETH record," given the familiarity so many have with their sound now. Call them formulaic if you must, as long as you also acknowledge that their formula is one of the best things going in metal right now, a style that is hard-won, fiercely independent, and musically transcendental. It's still a baffling mystery how so many people have joined what should, by all rights, be a tiny worldwide cult of OPETH fans — maybe the metal masses have better taste than everyone's given them credit for? Whatever the reason, it's heartening to see a band this skillful, creative and unique making inroads. OPETH bear the standard for real, unadulterated metal as art, and it's hard to think of a more important band in the genre this decade. "Ghost Reveries" is a masterpiece from a band that seems unable to create anything else.