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Opeth: From Stockholm to Sorceress

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Opeth doesn’t play by your rules. And they probably never will.

For over 25 years, the progressive mavens – under the leadership of singer, guitarist and founder Mikael Åkerfeldt – have been wowing metalheads with their unique blend of musical power, ambience and intricate songwriting.

The band began as a child of the anarchic Swedish death metal scene in the early 90s, spearheading the underground movement with contemporaries like Katatonia and Edge of Sanity. But even in its early days, Opeth stood out from the crowd.

“The difference back in the day was that our songs were really long,” Mikael Åkerfeldt recalls of his group’s early gigs.

“On our [first] record [1995’s Orchid], we had seven or eight ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’-length songs. Really long songs, lots of dynamics, lots of acoustic guitars, clean singing, instrumental bits and pieces, which in Sweden at the time, wasn’t so common. It was more cool, so to speak, to be brutal. We were never the most brutal-sounding death metal band, we always focussed a bit more on other things.

“The only thing that we really nicked from the death metal world was the vocal style. The rest of the music, it was more to do with Scorpions and Iron Maiden and the early days.”

The unique Opeth and the lengthy tracks they would create, understandably, left many live crowds baffled during their rookie years.

“People tended to clap in the middle of the song because they thought the song was over,” Mikael laughs.

“There was a quiet interlude in the middle of the song and people started clapping. At first I thought it was because they were kind of like a jazz crowd, who would clap after solos and stuff like that, but they probably just thought that was one song and we were going into the next song. But it was convenient! My memory’s shit so we didn’t really have to write a setlist because it only consisted of three songs.”

For another sixteen years after Orchid, Opeth would make a living out of revolutionising extreme metal, continuing to make insanely long, heavy songs with some elements of clean singing as well as acoustic guitars and gloomy, audial melancholy. They would create such masterpieces as Morningrise (1996), Blackwater Park (2001) and Ghost Reveries (2005) before, after much deliberation, they decided that something needed to change.

“It wasn’t a decision that we sat down and discussed,” says Mikael of the band’s evolution in sound.

“The decision happened on its own; it happened in the middle of a creative process actually, because I was writing what was going to be our tenth record [2011’s Heritage]. It was kind of heavy, like a continuation of the stuff we were best known for: very dynamic music and mainly screaming, death metal vocals.

“But I guess I was fooling myself when I was writing that kind of stuff. I was fooling myself that I liked it and that it was the right thing to do. I played some stuff to Martin Mendez, who plays bass in Opeth, and he said something along the lines of ‘This is not what we should do.’ He didn’t say ‘This is not good enough,’ he just thought it wasn’t interesting, and he was right. We kind of milked that sound to the very end.”

The Opeth that came out of the recording of Heritage was a different band to the five men that went in. The album was cleaner than anything they had ever done before, with the death metal overtones, heavy riffs and dark atmosphere disappearing in favour of a more ‘70s-inspired rock style.

“It was liberating,” Åkerfeldt continues.

“It was fantastic, I have to say. I feel more free; I’m not gonna say anything bad about metal, because I love metal, but we felt shackled in that kind of sound that we had created and I wanted to move on a little bit. And once we dared to make that step, it felt like a rejuvenation and I lost all fears of everything. Now it just feels like I can focus on writing good music and I don’t necessarily feel the need that we, as a band, have to fit in anywhere.”

However, it was a change that didn’t leave the band without anxiety.

“Even though I love those early records, I want to expand my singing. But I was afraid, a bit nervous people will completely stop liking us and we’ll be reduced to nothing and have a job cleaning toilets. I guess I was a little bit afraid for our career, but that was the biggest warning sign; to cater to a career could have been the worst thing I think I could have done. I need that type of honesty when I write music otherwise it’s going to end up being shit, I think.”

Any metal fan of the modern era knows that a heavy band changing its musical style is often met with backlash from narrow-minded elitists spewing that “The old stuff is better.” And Opeth’s drastic new direction – while being mostly met with open arms – has doubtlessly had its fair share of detractors.

“I don’t know what the purpose is for people complaining, I don’t know what they want to achieve other than being seen,” says Mikael.

“It’s not like a complaint is going to have me going ‘Oh fuck, you’re right! I’ve just written shit music for ten years. Once you said that to me, I’ve realised and woken up!’ It’s not going to change anything.”

But surprisingly, not only is the front-man unaffected by the naysayers, he seems to welcome them.

“It’s probably better,” he continues, “I think we’re in a good spot that people get so upset, that they feel they need to go and complain somewhere about what we do year after year. That must mean that we’re doing something right.”

Regardless, the defiance to conform that has fuelled Opeth for over a quarter of a century will once again return at the end of September, when the band unleash their twelfth album, Sorceress. The record – while slightly heavier than Opeth’s previous two – undoubtedly cements their new status as melodic, progressive rockers, featuring influences from folk music as well as old-school riffers like Deep Purple. Yet, Sorceress also continues the spirit of classic Opeth by sounding, in Mikael’s own words, “old”.

“All of our albums sound a bit old because most of the stuff I listen to in order to get some inspiration to write is old music,” he explains.

“It’s much easier to find an old reference in our music than a reference to today’s music scene. I like old bands, old music, music from a time where it felt like it was more free. There were some categories floating around and some people trying to put artists in categories, but really they didn’t know what they were talking about.”

Touring in support of Sorceress will begin in the States, before Opeth goes on to hit the UK, Europe and Australia in late 2016 and early 2017. While out on the road, the band will play three especially famous venues: London’s Wembley Arena, Paris’ Le Trianon and the Sydney Opera House.

“We tried to play the Opera House a long time ago, but they wouldn’t let us,” explains Opeth’s singer.

“They probably thought we were filth, that we don’t belong in those fine venues. But I guess they checked us out, and if you check where we’ve played, we’ve done some really, really, really prestigious venues all over the world, and I like that kind of framing around the show.

“If I could decide, we’d only play those really nice venues because we’re not the most animated band on-stage and I think those types of settings are perfect for us. You get a little bit for free when you’re in a beautiful place like that.”

While the shows at Le Trianon and Sydney will be prestigious in their own right, the Wembley gig won’t exactly be a night to miss. The band will play two sets in London, the first covering the new Sorceress album and the second centring around the twinned Deliverance (2002) and Damnation (2003) records.

“They were fairly popular records, so we figured we could do something. So perhaps it will whet the appetite of some people who wouldn’t come otherwise,” Åkerfeldt concludes with a laugh.

Opeth’s support act for Wembley is yet to be announced, but the band say that the group in mind for the spot has “no similarity at all” with the headliner and is not from the UK.

As Opeth look proudly into the horizon, where a bright future awaits, it becomes apparent that their journey so far has been one that has revolved around musical maturation. The band defies trends consistently in favour of allowing themselves to continually grow and adapt, to the point where Mikael Åkerfeldt believes that an album like Sorceress would not have been possible from the band twenty years ago.

“I know I had a slightly different personality back then because I was younger and cockier, but many of the influences are intact. I loved Deep Purple and I loved ‘70s hard rock. I didn’t have as much knowledge about progressive rock as I do now, so maybe some parts of Sorceress I wouldn’t understand. But other parts I would’ve loved, I think.”

With the Opeth story being one full of twists and turns, no-one can accurately guess what the future holds for them. But that unpredictability is just one of the many reasons why rock addicts truly adore this band.

And always will.

Opeth’s new album, Sorceress, will be available physically and digitally via Nuclear Blast Records on 30th September.

Read more about Opeth and their 2014 album Pale Communion in our “10 MORE metal albums that anyone can love” list.




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