When a 16-year-old Mikael Åkerfeldt was asked to join nascent Stockholm death metal crew Opeth by its founder member David Isberg in 1990, he probably didn’t expect that he would still be a member of the band nearly two decades later, but it was obviously from early on that it was Mikael who had the talent and guile to weave some musical magic from that initial raw material.
By 1992, David had quit, leaving Mikael to take the reins and explore the craft of songwriting, inspired by his love for old-school death metal and, perhaps more significantly, the progressive rock scene of the early 70s.
Partnered by childhood friend Peter Lindgren and an assortment of drummers and bassists, Opeth sent out some early rehearsal tape demos in 1994 and were snapped up by Candlelight Records, who enabled the band to release their debut album, Orchid, a year later. With songs regularly exceeding the 10-minute mark and a sound that took death metal into ingenious, uncharted territory, Opeth’s elegantly melodic but frequently brutal approach instantly underground metalheads with a desire to hear something new and original.
Soon up to their knees in critical acclaim, Opeth spent the next few years consolidating their reputation as groundbreakers, with albums like 1998’s My Arms, Your Hearse – the first to feature Uruguayans Martin Lopez and Martin Mendez on drums and bass, respectively – and 1999’s Still Life showing evidence of Mikael’s maturing skills as a composer and his band’s increasingly powerful identity. But it was 2001’s Blackwater Park – produced by Porcupine Tree’s Steven Wilson – that finally took the Swedes to a new level of popularity and outright worship from the rock press.
After only sporadic touring in the preceding years, they took to the road with a vengeance and have barely paused for breath since. After signing to Roadrunner in 2005,Opeth have gone from strength to strength, with that year’s Ghost Reveries and 2008’s mindblowing Watershed helping to expand their huge global fanbase. One of the few bands with the ability to surprise while still getting our heads banging, Opeth inspire a level of devotion among their admirers that most bands would gladly lose a limb or two to experience.
Prog metal from a new dimension
Unlike many bands associated with the ‘progressive’ tag, Opeth have always been driven by a genuine desire to take metal forward to places it’s never been before, but even within their own mercurial sonic domain, they could reasonably have been accused of relying on their own tried and tested formula by the time they arrived at the studio to record Watershed, their ninth studio album.
Although the writing process was no different from before, Mikael Åkerfeldt was determined to take his songs out of that established comfort zone. Inspired by the brain-mangling weirdness of veteran crooner Scott Walker’s The Drift album and a straightforward craving for making the most “twisted” music of Opeth’s career, the prodigiously talented Swede duly pulled out all creative stops and gave birth to the most adventurous and jawdroppingly intense songs he has penned to date.
With a new line-up featuring long-time bassist Martin Mendez and keyboard maestro Per Wiberg alongside studio debutantes Martin ‘Axe’ Axenrot and Fredrik Åkesson on drums and lead guitar respectively, the Opeth showcased on the likes of the crushing prog-doom monolith of Heir Apparent and the dizzying ebbs and flows of Porcelain Heart was both revitalised and freshly inspired, with a real sense for forward motion and limitless creativity bursting from every sonic pore. With curveballs like acoustic opener Coil and the sumptuous Floyd-isms of monster ballad Burden, Watershed was a challenge for fans and newcomers ,alike, but it was on the scattershot dynamics and mould-mincing tangential leaps of album centrepiece, The Lotus Eater that Opeth really asserted their newfound lust for intensified evolution.
Quite unlike anything the band had produced before, the song married blastbeats to soaring clean vocals and funky electric piano licks to jarring dissonance,resulting in a startling reinvention of the Opeth sound and a tantalising glimpse into one possible future for this most distinctive of modern metal bands. Remarkably, the new songs work brilliantly live too, adding yet more layers to the Opeth live experience. What’s even more incredible is that Mikael may well be capable of surpassing this timeless masterpiece. Yikes.
MUSIC FOR NATIONS, 2001
Storming the gates of the metal mainstream
The album that raised their worldwide, profile and lifted them beyond the imposing walls of the metal underground, Blackwater Park was no radical departure for Opeth, but thanks to the gleaming warmth of Steven Wilson’s production and the gigantic hooks hidden within towering epics like The Leper Affinity and instant crowd-pleaser The Drapery Falls, it was simply the most powerful and memorable collection of songs that the band had produced. From the gentle acoustic stroll of Harvest to the title track’s sprawling feast of peaks and troughs, this was truly progressive metal, both deathly and not, bloated with inspiration and bona fide love for the art of music making itself.
This is frequently cited by fans as the greatest of all Opeth records. In truth, they’ve bettered it more than once since, but Blackwater Park remains a special record.
The Swedes perfect the prog recipe
Newly signed to Roadrunner and, as a result, expected to shimmy up the rock’n’roll ladder with greater ease than before, Opeth were on top form when they pieced together their epic and elaborate eighth studio album.
Arguably heavier and more wilfully proggy than ever before, songs like the labyrinthine crunch of Ghost Of Perdition and the organ propelled thunderstorm of The Baying Of The Hounds were simply the ultimate manifestation of the band’s trademark sound, with bells and whistles aplenty but also a strong sense that something approaching perfection was finally within Mikael’s compositional grasp. With more atypical moments like the jaw-shattering rhythmic cut and thrust of The Grand Conjuration and the psychedelic Beatles-saluting Atonement adding depth and diversity to proceedings, Ghost Reveries was an album of glittering delights, custom designed to be explored at one’s leisure.
MUSIC FOR NATIONS, 2004
The calm between prog storms
IN 2004, Opeth recorded not one, but two new studio albums. The first, Deliverance, was a flawed but fearsome affair, full of the sound of the band at their darkest and heaviest. In stark contrast, Damnation was Mikael Åkerfeldt’s opportunity to indulge his love of more delicate and mellow prog rock textures.
Bereft of huge riffs of deathly growls, the songs are predominantly acoustic and drenched in the mellotrons and Moogs of the original prog era. As with Blackwater Park, Porcupine Tree’s Steven Wilson was manning the mixing desk for Damnation, and also providing lyrics for the beautiful Death Whispers A Lullaby.
Elsewhere, Opeth whipped up a storm of wild raga rock on Closure, evoked the folk rock vibes of Fairport Convention on the sublime In My Time Of Need and stripped everything down to shimmering ambient vapour on the album’s icy closer, Weakness.
MY ARMS, YOUR HEARSE
The dark green shoots of genius emerge
Wholeheartedly embracing the warm tones and sepia-tinted atmospheres of prog for the first time, Opeth came of age on their third album. The arrival of a stable rhythm section, Martins Lopez and Mendez, certainly helped, but the main contributory factor was the exponential growth in Mikael Åkerfeldt’s songwriting.
From the widescreen whoosh of April Ethereal to the crackling embers of sombre closer _Karma and its grand attendant outro, Epilogue_, these songs sizzled with intelligence and soul, as Opeth audibly transcended their death metal roots and entered an entirely new musical world that they would effortlessly claim as their own.
And, in the fiery barrage of Demon Of The Fall, the Swedes had created their first bona fide live anthem; a timeless piece of metallic mastery that continues to be a highlight of Opeth gigs today.
A great start, now overshadowed
Avoid? OK, maybe don’t avoid Orchid completely. After all, it’s pretty fucking great. The problem is that in a catalogue of albums that doesn’t really have an obvious low point, Opeth’s first and most primitive record is destined to take up the critical slack. In fact, Orchid was a remarkable first effort from a band that were doing things differently from every one of their supposed peers, as if it was the most natural thing in the world to play music with this much charm and depth.
On the sweeping grandeur of Under The Weeping Moon, Forest Of October and The Twilight Is My Robe, the genesis of an all-time great metal band can be clearly heard, as youthful muscles are flexed and recently birthed ideas are given a tentative first outing. Unfortunately, this is only Opeth’s ninth best album. But buy it anyway.
This was published in Metal Hammer issue 196
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