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.”
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