It’s no secret that modern heavy metal bands tend to be a theatrical lot. But while I’m sure there are some bona-fide Satanists thrown into the mix, the majority of metal musicians who purport to be on friendly terms with the devil are putting on a show.
On one hand, that kind of artifice is lamentable considering how genuine and personal a journey music is meant to be. On the other hand, it gives these artists license to explore the darker side of theology with a lot more freedom than if they simply wrote about their lives as-is.
Anyone who’s sufficiently well-versed in the world of metal knows the name Opeth. Hailing from Sweden, Opeth have built up an incredibly varied and masterful discography over the last 20-plus years. And, yes, frontman Mikael Åkerfeldt has written his share of quasi-satanic material, though he usually gives the impression that it’s done more for storytelling purposes than for coming clean about his true nature.
But Opeth in 2014 is a different beast than they were in 1990. Their music has gradually become more experimental, and the death metal tropes that they leaned on so heavily 10 albums ago has been replaced with a much more contemplative and deliberate, not to mention less harsh, sound.
Some fans lament the change, while others have rejoiced that Opeth are not content to travel the same creative ground again and again.
But what of the band’s darker themes? It’s clear that the band has purposefully distanced themselves from the metal genre from a musical standpoint, but what about the lyrics? Pagan rituals and nods to Satanism only surfaced occasionally in Opeth’s music over their long and storied career, and when they did, it was done only in the name of telling a compelling story.
And like their music, the band’s lyrics, too, have grown up as the band has matured.
There are at least two theologically-charged songs on the band’s latest studio effort, Pale Communion. The first is the 11-minute “Moon Above, Sun Below.” Here’s a passage:
“You are sleeping unhampered by guilt/Comes the morning you shut down/The devil’s breath is a disease on your lips/Reaching out for your loss/You prey on your flock
Seeking out the weaker hearts/With eternity in your grip/And on a lifelong throne of sub-religion/They will eat from your hand/With the moon above and the sun below”
A condemnation of religious fundamentalism, maybe? A call to be suspicious of charlatans masquerading as religious soothsayers? In any event, it’s clear that this track takes a less than favorable look at religion, though one gets the sense that it’s more carefully targeted than some of the band’s previous output; Opeth is capable, in 2014, of criticizing one particularly ugly part of faith – the fact that it frequently attracts the power-hungry – and speaks to that fact alone without making broad generalizations.
Things do get a little more complicated on brilliant closer “Faith in Others” – a track that Steven Wilson (crown prince of progressive rock and close friend of Mikael Åkerfeldt) proudly named Opeth’s “finest achievement” to date.
It’d be hard to disagree. It would be enough if the song were only one of two songs in Opeth’s entire discography to feature live strings. It would be enough for it to only be a perfect album closer. And it would be enough to simply be a mesmerizingly beautiful song with challenging lyrics. Instead, the song accomplishes each of these things and more.
I can’t help but provide the lyrics in full:
“The grave of our youth is up ahead/And life has become a burden/We move in circles of suppressed despair/Waiting for the sun/And turning stones to find evidence/But it hides in the recesses of our hearts
A written decree of our loss/And we carried no faith in the cross/And the cold years are coming/For the victims of a longing
Out through the doors of starvation/And into the rains of damnation/Where the bitter winds are singing/For the victims of a longing
We carried along through squalor/With an inborn need to dominate and possess/It gives birth to an anger inside/And we can’t control this
The blood of departure in our tracks/Dripping from our emptying vessels/Your hand reached out to hold mine/But you’re grasping melting ice
Asleep in the rain/A child once again/And the ghost in my head/Has forgiven me/And lifted his curse upon me”
Talking about this song would almost seem to lessen its power, but I’m going to anyway, if only briefly. As funny as it sounds, this track comes across like an atheist’s crisis of faith. It begins with something of a scathing criticism of religious-minded people, likening them to listless, purposeless wanderers, waiting for an eternal reward to give their lives meaning.
And then, there toward the end of the song, the narrator nevertheless gives in to the “ghost in his head” – a specter of his faith, perhaps? – and finds that, despite the doubt that’s plagued him, he still believes that his lapse in faith will be forgiven: a realization that he cannot help but regard as a curse. Why a curse? Perhaps because, according to the scripture, if you choose to believe it, there’s always a way back to faith. Always forgiveness for those who ask. The narrator, however, seems to regard the process of asking as a display of weakness.
Dissecting lyrics in this way is always a tricky proposition. It’s prone to error and misinterpretation. I might be putting words in the artist’s mouth, or misinterpreting the song entirely.
That, in a nutshell, is what’s so beautiful about music. I’ve gotten from this music whatever I brought into it. I’ve transposed all of my baggage and doubt as a struggling Christian onto this very beautiful song about faith.
And that doesn’t make my interpretation less valid – just more personal.
Mr Åkerfeldt and the rest of Opeth are clearly on a journey toward self-discovery. They’ve never sounded more confident than they do on this latest album, but it’s clear that they’re still looking for something. Wondering if they’ll ever find it is part of the singular thrill of following this band.