The Porcelain Heart of Opeth

By: Dennis Cook

Opeth by Olle Carlsson
Though classified as “heavy metal,” there’s a lot more going on in Opeth than hoarse demon screams, wiggly-wiggly guitar acrobatics and gonad rattling rhythms. They’ve got that stuff, too, but there’s a melodic thread and beyond-genre thrust to Sweden’s Opeth that’s very much in tune with the thicker, creepier side of the ’60s freak rock explosion, bits of Blue Cheer and Vanilla Fudge emerging in Opeth’s elongated explorations. While getting happily eviscerated by them last year in San Francisco (see review here), I thought how well they would have slotted in at the original Fillmore West or Winterland on a bill with Grand Funk Railroad and The Troggs.

“Yeah, I think so,” chuckles Mikael Åkerfeldt, Opeth’s leader-mastermind-singer-guitarist, and a far, far more instantly likeable chap than you’d ever expect coming from metal’s dark cauldrons. “With the last album [2008’s stunning Watershed] we listened to lots of psychedelic music, so this is the perfect place for us. I listen to a lot of West Coast bands and also lots of U.K. psychedelia and prog-rock.”

Opeth holds their own with the best of the black t-shirt brigade but allows in the nuances and romance of early Yes and Genesis before things got too slick. They tap into non-metal sources in the continuum of heavy music, and in the process have created one of the most unique, ambitious sounds in their chosen field.

“The progressive rock scene of the early ’70s and some of the symphonic rock bands of the same period impressed me in the early days,” says Åkerfeldt. “For me, being a musician, I don’t see any reason you should have boundaries; that’s only going to limit yourself as a musician. Perhaps in the past I saw myself more as a metal musician, now I just see myself as a musician and I’m interested in all sorts of music. In my band I don’t want to have limits. We just put everything in there that we think sounds good. I’m older now and I don’t want to write music just to shock people now.”

The band has been on a steady evolution since they formed in Stockholm in 1990, with each subsequent album revealing further complexities and greater emotional and storytelling range. Each record, from early highlight Morningrise (1995) to fan-beloved Blackwater Park (2001) to the distinctive flowering of Watershed, contains a marbled-in urgency, where even the simmering builds and atmospheric sections are restlessly gobbling miles, always moving onward from where we presently find them. All of which makes for thoroughly absorbing listening, which they ably translate to the live arena. Even fresh on the heels of its release, the Watershed material was already mutating well in concert last year and it’s certain its traveled even further as the band embarks on their new North American tour, which began a few days ago (tour dates here).

Mikael Åkerfeldt by Daniel Falk
“There was something that happened while writing the songs for Watershed, where I said, ‘Fuck it,’ in a way,” says Åkerfeldt. “There’s obviously moments on it that hardcore metalheads will hate but it doesn’t really matter. That’s one of the beautiful things about playing in this band, we jump between styles and still make it sound like something that’s ours.”

Their openness to beauty actually makes Opeth’s heavier moments that much denser, that much more able to impact us on a deeper level following the prettier, calmer sections.

“One of the most important things in this band is the dynamics,” observes Åkerfeldt. “We use all the instruments. Our drummer can, obviously, play all the heavy stuff but he can also swing and play laid-back. And I use my voice in the same way. Good, clean vocals are just part of our sound. When I started with the band I only did the screams because I didn’t realize that we could put the clean singing into our songs in those days, and I didn’t have any confidence singing either. It took us a few years to incorporate the clean vocals. It’s on the first album but only as a spice. Then with time it became more integrated with our sound, so now it’s more 50-50.”

“First and foremost, when I listen to our stuff I want it to be good songs. I don’t want to get bored listening to it, either,” continues Åkerfeldt. “I have a tendency to write long songs, and having songs of the length we do requires that something happen at all times. But, I’ve never really struggled to make a song interesting. It’s been pretty natural. We don’t go out of our way to make things this way, it just happens on its own.”

Continue reading for more on Opeth…

Perhaps in the past I saw myself more as a metal musician, now I just see myself as a musician and I’m interested in all sorts of music. In my band I don’t want to have limits. We just put everything in there that we think sounds good. I’m older now and I don’t want to write music just to shock people now.

Mikael Åkerfeldt

Photo by Olle Carlsson

Unlike a lot of bands, in any field, Opeth isn’t trying to be or sound like anyone or play to a specific sensibility. They are creating the music of Opeth, and while touched by many influences their intrinsic demand for originality surfaces in all aspects of their music, a feeling that remains even with the earliest efforts.

Mikael Åkerfeldt by Olle Carlsson
“We’ve come to realize with some of the very early songs that playing them now they don’t feel old. Listening to the first couple of albums isn’t something I really enjoy, based on where I am today, but playing those songs live they have aged pretty well. We can still play them without laughing at ourselves,” offers Åkerfeldt. “We bring the past with us because we know there are people that only want to hear songs from the early albums. Depending on time constraints, we try to cover something from every album if we can, with the focus being the latest album.”

One aspect of Opeth that immediately stands out in the metal world is their use of keyboards, less for colorful shading and more as an additional bludgeon in their assault. Per Wiberg is a wicked, original keyboardist whose found a way to keep his instrument from being cheesy or intrusive in a genre that rarely knows what to do with keys. Wiberg has also collaborated with the Clutch guys in side project The Bakerton Group.

“I wasn’t really a fan of keyboards when I was young, to be honest. So, that’s something that came with me getting into prog-rock,” says Åkerfeldt. “When we did the Damnation album [2003] I pretty much fell in love with the sounds of the Mellotron, something we used a lot. We use the keyboard as a real instrument, whereas other metal bands will have keyboards just to create atmosphere if they have some space. We only use the old type of sounds like the Mellotron, the piano, the electric piano. Per would refuse to do those kind of soundscape sounds. He’s a player; he comes from a rock/blues background. So, he’s definitely not one of those keyboardists that will have a nice, spacey sound all through the song.”

Another infusion of fresh blood occurred in 2007 when Fredrik Åkesson replaced longtime lead guitarist Peter Lindgren. Simply put, Åkesson is an archetypal rock guitar hero tempered by near-jazz-like control and focus. There’s few wasted notes or empty, showy fretwork. What he plays counts, and he’s enlivened the entire Opeth catalog on their current ongoing world tour.

Opeth by Olle Carlsson
“We complete each other as guitar players in many ways,” says Åkerfeldt. “He’s a much more technical guitar player than I am. He’s basically a shredder, while I’m more of a slow type of player. I can’t play fast nearly as well as him, so it’s great to have him to lean on. With Peter in the band – and I loved playing with Peter – there wasn’t any space for him because he couldn’t offer anything I couldn’t do. From a musical point of view, with Fredrik we’re a much better band; there’s more we can do because we have Fredrik in the band. Before when I wrote a song and wanted a shredding, blazing guitar solo in this part or another, well, he can do that where before I was constrained by how fast I could play. It’s really great to have him in the band.”

Åkerfeldt has been a professional musician for close to 20 years now, yet there’s the sense in his music that he never grows bored with his craft, that there’s always more to do, different avenues to explore. However, he’s human like the rest of us despite the impression his work may give.

“After an album I always feel like, ‘That’s the last one.’ On tour I sometimes feel like a zombie; there’s no creativity in me at all. I couldn’t come up with anything if I started writing now [on the road]. But, it’s worked for 20 years now that after each tour I trust creativity will return. I can’t really say where it’s gonna go though. The best help for me is to listen to music, which I do all the time. I discover new bands or really ‘new’ old bands, since I listen to a lot of old stuff. I hear something and it can trigger an idea. It can be just a riff and that’s all I need.”

Opeth is on tour now and play Friday night in Omaha, NE and Saturday night in Boulder, CO. Complete tour dates available here.

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