By: Dennis Cook
Opeth & High On Fire :: 10.06.08 :: The Grand :: San Francisco, CA
Opeth is THE metal band for the jam scene. If you read no further then at least you won't be able to say you weren't warned. In terms of nosebleed level technical skill, unremittingly sturdy songwriting, fiery dynamics, varied setlists, wide ranging moods and plain ol' charisma, Opeth are one of the best units going today, in any genre, and while they might be filed under 'Metal' in the record store their brand of heavy music is so intercut with downright pretty sections and gorgeous soloing that anyone with an appetite for diverse, intense rock could likely find much to love.
Walking into The Grand Ballroom, through a sea of black t-shirts emblazoned with flaming skulls, upended graves and all manner of wildly calligraphic logos, one felt opener High On Fire well before entering the musty, decidedly human air inside the auditorium. Gone are any vestiges of leader-guitarist-singer Matt Pike's seminal sludge rockers Sleep, replaced by Motorhead thud and a boogie boner you can spot a mile away. For something that slaps one around so thoroughly, High On Fire are a good time, kinda like rough sex with consenting adults that don't mind a few dings for their troubles. Based on the grousing around me, for some in attendance, the trio – filled out by bassist Jeff Matz (Zeke, Holy Terror) and drummer/co-founder Des Kensel - nailed too many balls to the walls. They were a sharp contrast to the headliners, who truck in complex, shifting compositions punctuated by but not always driven by heaviness. High On Fire, on the other hand, slams one against a flat surface and rifles through your folds a bit.
Pike plays with all-out guitar heroics, real foot-on-amp, reaching for the sky glory roadin', and he's pumped up by Matz's blindingly fast bass licks and Kensel's double kick drum attack. What made the assault even better were the pauses and well placed stops that left one hanging in the air like Wylie Coyote without an Acme jet pack. Sickening dives were salvaged at the last moment by guitar upswing but only when our nose was millimeters from smashing the ground. That's some tension control! Pike's barrel-chested growl was just another blunt instrument they swung at the packed crowd, a weapon in an arsenal full of brutish, spit soaked tools for getting the job done. Shirtless and punching the air, Pike brought their short set to a close and it was easy to join him in waving one's fist in salute. Quality hard stuff in an era of watered down offerings.
|Matt Pike - High On Fire :: By Taija Lynn|
The last time I'd been at the Grand was for Return To Forever (see review here) and it wasn't long into Opeth's set that I found myself thinking that there was WAY more in common between that venerable group of jazz top notches and the Swedish rock quintet than one might think. Both share a high-minded approach to their genre that refuses other's definitions of what they do and forges new pathways for the music to flow into. Both feature fantastic musicianship and thoughtful compositions, and both feed heavily upon the audience's reaction to their work. For all of metal's supposed meanness, Opeth is incredibly personable, especially bandleader Mikael Åkerfeldt (vocals, guitar), who chatted amiably between songs and actively engaged hecklers (few) and overly exuberant fans (many) with humor and talk show dexterity.
At one point early on, the opening line from Scott McKenzie's iconic "San Francisco (Be Sure To Wear Flowers In Your Hair)" could be heard coming from the stage which quickly segued into Åkerfeldt addressing the crowd directly: "Hello! Some of you may have the pleasure of seeing my ass crack tonight. We are Opeth from Sweden and we are going to have a good time."
Each Opeth album is part of a larger geography, a new kingdom discovered in a land they've been mapping out since 1995's debut, Orchid. Each has the detail and romance of a Dungeons and Dragons supplement but little of the fruity mysticism and devil baiting silliness that infects most metal. Instead, Åkerfeldt has injected maturity and emotional richness into a field not known for either. Their newest release, 2008's grand Watershed, provided the backbone of the show, giving them ample opportunities to show off their chops in loud and soft ways. As Åkerfeldt pointed out, there are what some might call "pussy moments" in their music – full blown, highly sincere slow tunes and positively goopy instrumental sections – but each part was played with such heart and conviction that it all worked. Brilliantly. Their lack of preconceptions, their unwillingness to be straight-jacketed by metal's name and rep, meant a flowering of their sound that bested any performance I've seen them give in the past ten years.
When Åkerfeldt or relatively new guitarist Fredrik Åkesson took off I had a hard time imagining some kid into Umphrey's McGee or even the Derek Trucks Band not losing their shit over Opeth. There's real love of superhuman skill and hyper passionate playing here, and that could translate VERY well to folks who've ended up in the cul de sac de jam, wondering what else is out there. Talking with people outside during a small break, I found TV On The Radio and White Stripes fans as well as the predictable Metallica and Testament enthusiasts. Listen past the scream vocals on some pieces, be patient during the sonic avalanches and you'd soon find Åkerfeldt actually has a melodious singing voice and inviting guitar style that both – and I shit you not – reminded me of vintage Peter Frampton. Anyone who's really spent time with Frampton Comes Alive, old Humble Pie records or even Pete's early solo albums will know what a massive compliment this is.
Opeth is rounded out by Martin Mendez (bass), Per Wiberg (keys) and Martin Axenrot (drums), and they truly play as a whole, letting solos rise as they served the music but never in acts of pure show or ego. They grapple their big ideas together, and watching them live convinced me that this is perhaps the finest lineup Opeth has ever had. Some purists may argue this point, still attached to longtime guitarist Peter Lindgren, who left the band in 2007, but, put simply, Åkesson is a far more richly varied and incisive guitarist, and his stamp on older material poured fresh blood into them all night.
"We've done a few miserable songs and quite a few ballads," said Åkerfeldt. "We're going to do a ballad from the Damnation record . It's a song we've neglected for many years and it's called 'Hope Leaves.'"
With that, Opeth launched with gravity defying force into what was a four-minute and change album cut and stretched it into a minor epic packed with beautiful touches, many of them from Åkesson and keyboardist Wiberg, who swung his head around like Dethklok's Nathan Explosion for more than two hours. And so it went until the fat lady sang – songs pumped up or focused in as fit their mood, landscapes traversed with great confidence and power. If I speak in generalities forgive me. It's hard to wrap the mind around something so fully formed, so utterly itself, so completely well executed. After this concert I consider Opeth a not-to-be-missed act, an experience and not just another show. Now you really can't say nobody told you.
Here's live staple "Bleak" from the Roundhouse in London in 2006
Opeth is currently on tour in North America. Dates can be found here
JamBase | San Francisco
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