By Martin Popoff
It’s Been a Long and action-packed journey for Swedish progressive rockers Opeth. So long in fact, from the likes of 1995’s “Orchid” and its followup “Morningrise,” that the band has been wholly transformed.
Indeed, once a death metal band with progressive tendencies — replete with barking, growling vocals emanating from the bowels of mastermind Mikael Åkerfeldt — Opeth is now a purely progressive rock band with nagging and dark thoughts, Åkerfeldt singing clearly, even crooning, at times downright delicate.
And he can joke about it. In one of the many self-deprecating cracks from his pulpit on stage recently in Toronto, he looked over at his virtuosic bassist Martín Méndez and said he recalled a time when the band wore “death metal clothes” such as leather jackets and tight black jeans, proudly asking the bassist if he remembered what size upside-down cross he wore. Méndez sheepishly motioned with his hands an indication of a good six to eight inches, whereby Åkerfeldt said, chuckling, “Yes, not just those little ones you can buy at the store.”
Now signed to Nuclear Blast and celebrating “Sorceress,” its 12th album, Opeth is a long way from its Gravely Entombed past (although the band still celebrates it proudly live), playing the likes of Radio City Music Hall and, in Toronto, Massey Hall, where Rush’s “All the World’s a Stage” live classic was recorded in 1976.
“Yes, I know,” Åkerfeldt told me, fully aware. “We’re proud to be playing a venue with so much history,” adding, but this time from the stage to his adoring Canadian fans, “To be honest, we play so many shows and we forget almost all of them. But this one is special. This one we will remember.”
Toronto promoter, Noel Peters, who has been with the band for a dozen local shows over the years, has helped bring Opeth to this level, with the Massey Hall stand three or four years in the making.
Peters recalled, “Mikael and I sat down for shots after a show at the Sound Academy years ago, and I asked him, ‘How do we bring you to the next level in Toronto? Where would you like to get to as a step-up from what we’ve been doing all these years?’”
There was only one answer — Massey Hall. So nearly three years in the making, Opeth was treating the packed house to some of the most thought-provoking, fan-crafted, dark prog rock currently available on the planet.
“A bit more straightforward and more freely recorded,” is the way longtime drummer Martin “Axe” Axenrot described “Sorceress,” a record steeped in King Crimson, Van der Graaf Generator, Uriah Heep, Krautrock and myriad other inspirations from deep within Åkerfeldt’s famed vinyl collection of curios. “Bass and drums are recorded more live than usual, where you play the songs a couple of times and you decide on the best take. And that’s it — it’s more pure.
“As you know, Mikael is a real record collector and he gets a lot of inspiration from prog rock, jazz and old ‘70’s hard rockers,” continued Axenrot. “Everybody in the band has a pretty wide spectrum of influences. For example, ‘Will O The Wisp’ had ‘Jethro Tull’ as a working title, because, obviously, you can hear the Jethro Tull influence (laughs). Sometimes we don’t know where he’s gotten a certain style, but, in general, I think the album is a bit rougher and dirtier than, say, ‘Pale Communion’ (2014) was.”
Always looking to celebrate the sounds of the ‘70s (or at least from somewhere around 2002’s “Deliverance” and 2003’s “Damnation” forward), Opeth recorded at the storied Rockfield Studios in Wales. Queen, Black Sabbath, Budgie and Rush all worked there, and ... well, that’s pretty much Opeth right there if you chuck in a little Amon Düül II.
“It was 10 days or maybe two weeks to get everything done,” said Axenrot of the sessions. “We recorded live, drums and bass, in three days, and then we put on guitars and keys. We play through a real mixing board, so it’s analog recorded, and then it goes into a digital hard drive. We also worked a lot with the drum room to get a sound, using a bigger room for a more boomy sound, but also a smaller space when we wanted a tighter sound. But overall, like I say, I think we got a dirtier, groovier sound, even bluesier, but also heavier.”
The references weren’t just prog though — you can’t shake a lifetime’s love of heavy metal that easily.
“No, we had a song that sounds like Uriah Heep,” said Axenrot. “We thought one song sounded like Ozzy Osbourne. And we have a shuffle-based song where the opening, I thought, was a bit like Judas Priest’s ‘Dissident Aggressor,’ with that great drum fill.
“But no, Rockfield is a very legendary place,” Axenrot continued. “It’s a family that owns it. Kingsley (Ward) and the daughters are working there, cooking food, and it’s almost like a horse ranch.”
But bands have famously said there wasn’t much to do there but work!
“Yes, it’s true, agreed Axenrot. “There are just one or two pubs in the main small city, but it’s pretty cozy. I like that kind of atmosphere, the countryside, myself. It’s very isolated, but you can focus on what you should do. And you could sit in the sun, and it’s relaxed — there’s no one else there.”
Which suits Axenrot just fine, something he made clear when asked how much the ex-death metal band has injected itself into the art rock community.
“We’re not hanging out with bands so much,” he said. “I live in the countryside myself now, so I’m rarely seeing anybody. When I’m off tour, I don’t enjoy cities so much. I like to have it quiet and I like to go fishing and stuff. But sure, when you’re on tour you can hang with people. In New York, sometimes Mike Portnoy (ex-Dream Theater) comes out to say ‘hi’ if he’s off tour. Steven Wilson (ex-Porcupine Tree) comes out sometimes, and he’s a prog guy also.”
The drastic transformation of the band into a respected prog rock institution has also caused a sea-change in the band’s fan base.
“It’s an older audience nowadays than when I started,” reflected Axenrot. “I played in many bands before, and in the extreme metal world they didn’t have many ladies in the crowd. But Opeth has nearly a 50/50 audience, male to female. Plus now you have your 60-year-old dad bringing his 12-year-old kid. It’s very diverse. The venues also have gotten better (laughs), with better sound. I like the theatre feeling more than just playing in a garage somewhere.
“Yes, there’s always going to be a few,” Axenrot continued, noting the systematic elimination by Åkerfeldt of extreme metal vocals in the band’s songwriting and performance, still a heated area of debate in Opeth circles. “I mean, there are so many opinions. Every person has their own opinion and it’s their right to have an opinion. But I usually like bands that do what they love. When I want to see bands, I want to see them do what they want to do, not what I want them to do. I have no ideas for any other band, what they should do. I mean, why judge somebody else’s art?”