The Hang of Music: Ghost Revieweries

I am pleased to announce that todays review is a request from a friend of mine: Hi Dave! Do you remember a few weeks ago when we went to corp for a bit? And you recommended that I review Opeth’s album “Ghost Reveries”? Well this is for you 🙂

So, there’s no further lead in that I can think of, so here is the review, starting with the single “The Grand Conjuration” (edited down to half length from the album version, I hasten to add.)

I’ve listened to this album a few times now – obviously – and I want to share with you some the responses I’ve consistently had to the first two tracks. My response to listening to track one has consistently been to flinch (that’s quite a scare chord they’ve got). My response on getting to track 2, however, has been to say “I must be onto track 4 by now.”

This is for a number of reasons, not least that track one is as long as 3 normal songs combined.* However, it’s mainly because each track feels long. Some songs keep you interested and hooked, and albums go by in what feels like seconds.

I suppose that one could argue that, for this reason, I’m getting more album for my money. For every track, I’m getting three tracks’ worth of music. And I definitely am getting that – every song feels like it changes shape every few minutes or so, and I don’t think I’ve ever felt like comparing a prog rock track to Divine Comedy. Yet here I am, talking about the breakdown to “The Baying of the Hounds”, and claiming it reminds me of “Note to Self”.

But the problem is that the songs, for all their innovation, drag. And the merges, from one innovatio to another don’t even always work well: “Beneath the Mire” sure doesn’t. From pounding metal guitar solo to smooth piano blues piece. No, just no – not a good idea.

I suppose that makes "Beneath the Mire" a bit of a mess, which is thematically appropriate...

Tool, Machinehead, that one track by Fields: these are all comparisons. Not necessarily good ones, but comparisons nonetheless. They are all bands who share some of Opeth’s harsh sound, long tracks and constant shifting. I would say probably more like Tool than any others, though, as the clean vocals, when singer Mikael Åkerfeldt chooses to use them, sound almost exactly like Maynard James-Keenan.**

Actually, when it comes to the vocals, I have to say that the words themselves are awesomely well chosen for playing the Misheard lyrics game. For the uninitiated, the game is simple: for every time you think he just bun “unripened bananas of goatwheel”, or something equally ridiculous, the song scores a point. I’m not sure if it’s the grunting, or if it’s Mikael’s grasp of English, or even his desire to be unnecessarily obtuse, but getting a grip on the lyrics has been difficult.

[That was going to be the misheard lyrics version, but sadly there are no misheard lyrics Opeth songs online. Darn. It’s just me, then.]

I keep hearing shit that couldn’t possibliy be in there, especially when the harsh grunting vocals come in. Like “Ghost of Father’s day/My gentle pillow, tour the hound!” I even swear I hear a reference to a “heart/ in a holocaust/ seared memory.”

… Oh wait, that’s real. I see. Thanks, “Beneath the Mire”. They’re definitely not aiming to be shallow, then. But still, they persist in speaking in unintelligible metaphor and weirdly parsed sentences.

I find it interesting that a lot of modern “concept albums”, especially in the prog rock genre, focus on the emotional turmoil of their subjects, almost to the point of the exclusion of everything else. Compare this to concept albums such as Tommy or The Wall, both of which tell a story not limited to what the characters are thinking, but including the thoughts and actions of others. And it doesn’t help that the characters in these tend to be defined by a single emotion – in this case, guilt.

I find it important to stress at this point that “Ghost Reveries” is not a concept album, largely due to the inclusion of the last song, “Isolation Years”, which is the only a song unrelated to the “concept”. Wiki informs me is that of a man who feels remorse for killing his mother, and I cetainly feel that even with the existence of “Isolation Years”, that’s a theme I should’ve been able to pick up on without the help of wiki; either I’m too stupid for this album, or it’s being too smart for its own good.

Songs about longing and loss 101 – 1) Never speak clearly and precisely, 2) Always meander around the subject in a manner that is supposed to reflect stream of consciousness, and 3) Keep the pace slow and interminable. I know vagary is part of the purview of prog rock, but “Isolation Years” is this down to a tee, and I’m not sure I appreciate it. The genre is a crowded field, and I don’t need any more on my iPod. That said, at least this particular track ignored Rule 4) Make the song as long as possible, as at 3:51 this is the shortest track on the album.

For my own amusement, I have two comparisons for you. Listen to the opening of “Atonement”, then play “I Invented The Night”, off the Electric Six album everyone should own. Then do the same with “The Baying of the Hounds” and “Killing in the Name”. I know nothing is original, and that all I’m comparing is a couple of notes, but with both of those I was struck by exactly how similar they sound. And even a minute into Hours of Wealth, I can just hear strains of “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper”. None of these are bad things to remind me of, but they’re worth bearing in mind.

By the end of Harlequin Forest, and a number of the others, I have to ask myself “where is this track going?” Because it doesn’t seem to have an endgame in mind. They don’t seem to be intending to end the song at any particular point – more that they just want to stretch how long they can make me think “they’re going to end after this bar.”

Time gentlemen please!

But after getting a few minutes into “Hours of Wealth”, I start to hear something smooth, cool and enjoyable. And the change into the next track – the grand conjuration – is great. Not as listless as much of the rest of it at all. You know, I really do think that, instead of benefitting them, the length of these songs is actually hampering them. They end up being slow and trying to do too much, “jack of all trades” style. Whereas shorter songs – shorter than ten minutes, would allow them to fully explore one concept, rather than three at once, and without stretching it for too long for it to be enjoyable.

That said, I recognise that some people do find this enjoyable as it is. And I’m not quite sure why.

So, in short, this album is too impenetrable. I’m sure that all of the structural and lyrical decisions make perfect sense to Mikael and the band themselves, but from the outside looking in, it just looks like a mess. Too many ideas, not enough grounding forces to give the ideas impact. Not enough clarity for the ideas it wants to convey. And not enough appeal for it to be anything other than daunting. Every time I listened to the album, I liked it a fraction more, so who knows – maybe in a few years I’ll find it more digestible and more enjoyable because of it. But in the meantime, it’s just hard going listening to it without tuning out.

I’m considering trying to end on a terrible ghost pun, but I don’t think this is the right medium. Maybe in another lifetime.

* As are tracks 2, 5 and 7, but who’s counting?

** This way round, rather than James Marnard-Keenan, as I always want to say it.

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Posted on April 13, 2012, in Music, The Hang of Music and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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