A User's Guide to Opeth
Mikael Akerfeldt is in an affable mood. He's remembering those back-in-the-'80s days when he lived in SorskÃ¶gen, a “no future” town in the Swedish wilds, dreaming about being in a band. He's namechecking the Scorpions and their road song about the simple pleasures of the migrating musician, eating Chinese food after the show. He's looking out over the sold-out crowd at the Nokia theater in Times Square (Times Square!) and benignly introducing another song about “Satan, death…and Satan” and then, with the pronounced pummel of Opeth behind him, launches into another mini-epic that visits all the light-prog and dark-metal that is this band's claim to ever-increasing fame.
It is Opeth's moment, and of all their peers in the Scandinavian abyss, two parts black and three parts death, with a good measure of Thor'd sorcery and cannibalism mixed in, they seem to be moving the music out of its expected territories into a new frontier. This is not even a sudden paradigm shift for them: as early as their debut album, Orchid (1995), and gathering steam around the time of Still Life (from 1999, prophetically turning the number of the beast onto its head), Opeth has mixed and mated the “all eater” musics Akerfeldt embraces. Be it red meat or veggies, tofu or grains (in what food group do Scott Walker and Vangelis fit?), he isn't afraid of being called a sissy by the hordes of metal fans who insist on zealotry rather than musical unorthodoxy. In an earlier time, he might have been burned at the stake, or pulled apart by the strappado, a la Savanorola. Now considered as much “progressive” as “metallic,” an aspiration which, though sometimes disparaged by garage punkers, and not without many legit rationales, does open the parameters of hardest rock music to a myriad of musical possibilities.
It's all in the choosing. Akerfeldt claims the biggest influence on Opeth's newest album, Watershed, which entered the Billboard charts at an astonishing #23, is the Zombies 'Odyssey and Oracle; also revealing are his favoritisms toward the Beatles 'White Album and Led Zeppelin IV, the one with both “Stairway” and Sandy Denny, the Zep's most pastoral work. And then there's Sabbath Bloody Sabbath and Morbid Angel. Put them together and what do you get? Mikael may wear a Moody Blues T-shirt to his interview with a guitar rag, but he's no Knight in White Satin. Opeth spiff out at the Nokia in a variety of black favorite-rock-band T-shirts. Just like their audience.
My Arms, Your Hearse, from 1998, their third release, blew apart any insinuations that Opeth had gone too dreamy. The double-time kick-drum fury that is “Demon of the Fall,” still a live staple as the Nokia indelibly showcased, is made more believable by a cut like “Credence,” with its nylon string guitars and jazzbo chords and chorused reverbs, followed by the flat-out thrashing of “Karma.” The only question was when Opeth were going to get heard, a worldwide distribution problem solved when they signed with Candlelight Records. They still had to be hunted down, but that only made their misbegotten allure more enticing. You could proselytize, follow the group as they made the rounds of festival tribal gatherings like Gigantour or the Monsters of Rock, join the pit if you were aggro enough or watch from the grandstand to appreciate their quick shifts in texture and downshift, the way they rode dynamics as if they were notes in a scale, sharps and flats and always the devil's interval, that be-damned augmented fourth.
Blackwater Park broke Opeth out of the metal underground in 2001, concurrent with their signing to KOCH Records. For a group that likes its meisterworks stretching time-wise into double figures (they begin thinking symphonically as early as their debut release, Orchid, which opens with the 13-minute “In Mist She Was Standing,” and crack the twenty-minute barrier on Morningrise and its 1996 opus “Black Rose Immortal”), a slicing of contrary parts that bleed into each other, forgoing normal chorus and verse structure, screaming passages dissolving into bursts of hushed acoustic fingerpluck, a remarkably controlled and cohesive stun-gun attack. Blackwater Park is the classic Opeth lineup at its most unified, with Mikael's guitar foil since 1991, Peter Lindgren, by his side. There is a fluidity to Lindgren's playing, his spidery fingers on the fretboard, that gives a melancholic feel to these abrupt movements of tone, and offsets the mask of comedy-tragedy reflected in Akerfelot's two vocal modes, his sweetly ethereal croon and his sarcophagus grumble. The Martin rhythm section, Martin Lopez (drums) and Martin Mendez (bass), plow relentlessly along.
Buoyed by the success of Blackwater Park, Mikael next decided to emphasize Opeth's dual nature by recording two albums at once, the “soft” Damnation and the “hard” Deliverance, opposing forces even in the apparent bait-and-switch of their titles. Taken together, released separately in 2002 and 2003, they express Opeth's visionary range and proclivity for expansive breadth; the guitar work alone is enough to dazzle, an interplay of delicate arpeggio meeting power crunch. We are not far from Pink Floyd territory here; even a touch of Yes, when the arrangement leans toward the Steve Howe axis rather than Rick Wakeman, though Per Wiberg's keyboards provide a lush texture for some of Mikael's more abstract excursions. An interesting sideview into Opeth's weaving guitar lines can be heard on Opeth String Tribute, which transcribes songs from Blackwater Park and Damnation in the manner of a traditional classical quartet. Prog-rock or metal monstrosities, the fact remains that Opeth's records are ambitious, highly conceptualized and bravely played.
This is not just an alchemy of studio patchwork and layering. As The Roundhouse Tapes evidence, recorded live in 2006 at London's premiere and storied rock landmark, and driven home by my recent h-banging with editor J. Keyes at the Nokia (no, we didn't mosh; yes, we did give the horns-up sign), Opeth are a live band with no holds barre'd, despite recent personnel switches over the past couple of years that might have proved devastating to band chemistry. First, drummer Lopez left the group, to be replaced by yet another Martin, Axenrot, who claims Billy Cobham as inspiration, and backs it up with a multi-limbed precision attack on the kit that keeps his many drums and cymbals in motion, every hit its own space, underlining and embellishing each nuance and implicated riff.
More wrenchingly, Peter Lindgren found his heart no longer in the rigors and away-from-homesick of touring, and in May of 2007, took himself off Opeth's perpetual road. His replacement, Fredrik Akesson, is one of Sweden's premiere players, originally from Arch Enemy, and has a more aggressive, foot-on-the-monitor style, not so much shredder as slasher. He's doesn't have Peter's androgyny, and since most Opeth songs are about love's divine retribution — “A black candle holds the only light / Touching her flesh in this night / My blood froze forever / Embraced before the dawn / A kiss brought total eclipse…” — amidst eternal Eves (“Faces of Melinda”), it will be interesting to see how the new members spin Opeth's future.
But it's Mikael center stage with the Laney amp, scraping at his guitar between songs, spinning out one bottom-heavy lick after another here at the Crossroads of the World, and the crossroads of music where Opeth await midnight to seal their pact with that ol 'devil moon. Their name, taken from Wilbur Smith's novel, Sunbird, is the ancient empire of Opet, the “City of the Moon.” Under a lunar sky, we walk out into Times Square after the last feedbacked chord, bombarded by incandescent neon and liquid crystal, still hearing the celestial ringing in the ears that are the leftover harmonics of an Opeth show.