If you cut through Opeth, they’d bleed mellotrons. Or flutes. Or any classic tool of the prog trade. Since veering away from their metallic roots after 2008’s Watershed, the enigmatic Swedes – who first won over scores of fans with boundary-crushing death metal – have dived further and further into the swirly depths of progressive music.
Frontman Mikael Åkerfeldt has spent most of his adulthood cultivating an obscenely extensive vinyl collection, much of it proggy and/or pre-dating 1976. Now, five years after their ‘prog debut’ Heritage, he’s capitalising on the influence of all that fantastic plastic with more gusto than ever. Oh yes, Opeth have gone to the prog side, no question.
Their new album Sorceress – recorded at Rockfield Studios, Wales, with Royal Blood producer Tom Dalgety – continues this thread. Two songs were initially called ‘Jethro One’ and ‘Jethro Two’. One song, The Wilde Flowers, was named after the 60s Canterbury band, who never released anything but did end up spawning Caravan and Soft Machine, which pretty much started the whole Canterbury scene; another (The Seventh Sojourn) shares its name with a Moody Blues album. Give them some whimsical outfits and songs about dragons and these former metal men would be proggier than Yes at a wizard convention in Hastings – in capes.
I don’t hate people who hate Heritage. The people I do hate are the ones who try to tell me what to do.
“Steven [Wilson] played me a late Jethro Tull record, Stormwatch, that I didn’t have,” Åkerfeldt tells us in a velvety, very Swedish accent, over beers just round the corner from Prog HQ. “He was like, ‘Have you heard this record? There’s a song you have to hear – it’s called Dun Ringill.’ It’s late-70s Jethro Tull. I generally have a limit around ’75, ’76, because production went downhill after that. But that record made me want to write a song with a capo, up high on the fretboard, because it brings a nice ‘ringy’ sound to the guitar.”
Offstage, Åkerfeldt – the band’s singer, guitarist and songwriting mastermind – is easy, very likeable company, but not without an element of reserve. He swears relatively rarely, but when he does, it’s with relish. He’s tall and slim, with a big moustache that he calls his “70s porn director” look. And he’s infinitely happier talking about music than he is about anything personal. The merits of Jethro Tull, therefore, is an area he’s pleased to get stuck into – as is his bandmate who joins him here today.
“We listened to it [Stormwatch] quite a lot when we had our beer sessions over the last couple of years,” nods guitarist Fredrik Åkesson, a thoughtful man with a gentle voice, regal goatee and a giant crop of springy curls. “I’ve been obsessed by the song Orion on that record.”
“And Minstrel In The Gallery,” adds Åkerfeldt, “we played that a lot. I love that album. So I’ve been rediscovering some of these records that I’ve been listening to for a long time.”
This conversion to the prog side hasn’t sat well with all of their fans. 2011’s Heritage, their first record with no screamed vocals, prompted outrage from a very vocal contingent of metal purists, and they’ve never been totally silenced. Not that it’s done them serious harm. Their last album, 2014’s Pale Communion, hit the Top 20 in both the UK and the US. New waves of non-metal listeners have joined their fan base. And this year they’re headlining London’s Wembley Arena – no small feat for any ‘non-mainstream’ band, and especially not for one as unbothered about what sells as Opeth.
Indeed, their huge success (which has also seen them fill the Royal Albert Hall) is almost inexplicable in an age where things like social media optimising and crowd-pandering are supposed to be crucial for widespread outreach.
“For me, the only thing that’s important is to keep the music fun and interesting,” says Åkerfeldt, “and to develop and experiment. That’s what I think music should be. It should be fun. The idea of stagnating, of writing a record simply to feed a career, that’s scary.”
For now at least, they’re showing no signs of stagnating, as they demonstrate on album number 12, Sorceress – a beautiful hybrid of classic prog, folk touches and hooky hard rock riffs. There’s no concept, and most of the songs hover around the five-minute mark, but to our ears, it sounds the most cohesive of their prog albums. The songwriting seems sharper; catchier even.
“It is a bit more catchy, I think,” Åkerfeldt says. “But we’re still in the bubble, so to speak. I haven’t even listened to the final version yet. We did so many mixes – I listened to each and every one of them – so I needed some time to step back. But I think it’s a really good record. I’m really happy with the songs. I think it’s a very diverse record. I made a point of having each song as different as possible.”
Alongside his own collection of 60s and 70s classics and obscurities, Åkerfeldt has been ingesting his girlfriend’s jazz records – not a direct influence on the new record, but certainly a background factor in the creative process behind Sorceress.
“She’s a huge John Coltrane fan. And I had a nice little Miles Davis collection, so I’d been going through his musicians that play on those records, guys like John McLaughlin and Herbie Hancock,” he says. “But I don’t think it rubbed off on my writing.”
Instead, it’s bands like Mahavishnu Orchestra and Jethro Tull that you’ll hear on the record. The flute-tastic likes of A Fleeting Glance reflect their folky side, while Seventh Sojourn captures an alluring Eastern quality. With the title track, Åkerfeldt wanted to trick the metalheads who’ve hated his prog adventures but remain interested in Opeth nonetheless. Accordingly, it starts with a classic fusion-esque melee of Fender Rhodes keys and proggy timings. It has no place in 2016 whatsoever.
“I wanted the haters to go, ‘Oh, not that shit again!’ and turn it off,” Åkerfeldt grins, “until some of their friends tell them, ‘Why did you stop listening? It gets really heavy after a while!’ So it’s a bit of a trick. But we haven’t really played it yet. We rehearsed it once. It’s one of those ‘live tracks’, I think. It’s big, stupid rock, basically.”
“Neanderthal rock!” Åkesson beams. “After Watershed, this is probably the heaviest record we’ve done.”
The fact that Åkerfeldt paid a lot of attention to the drums for Sorceress goes some way to explaining this, after drummer Martin ‘Axe’ Axenrot, a deft all-rounder, revealed a particular penchant for classic rock. “We did a soundcheck at a show and he was fooling around, playing this meat’n’potatoes rock, this Judas Priest 1978 type of drumming,” Åkerfeldt explains. “And he’s so good at that stuff. So I was thinking a lot about the drums for this record, about what he loves to play. Because, like everyone, when something’s fun, you’re good at it. You play better. He can play anything, but he’s exceptional when he’s doing that kind of stuff. When I see him laugh, that’s when he’s at his best.”
This ‘meat’n’potatoes’ rock is an important dietary staple for both Åkerfeldt and Åkesson. Åkerfeldt has long professed his admiration for Ritchie Blackmore and Black Sabbath, and he began his lifelong vinyl obsession by collecting Iron Maiden records. Before joining Opeth in 2007, Åkesson – a violinist, initially, before he discovered the guitar at the age of 12 – played with Europe guitarist John Norum and melodic hard rockers Talisman, as well as the metallic likes of Arch Enemy and Krux. “I think it helped me a lot to have done all these different styles previously with other bands,” he says.
We wonder how much they listen to this kind of heavy rock fodder, which seems to add melodic beef and familiarity to their proggy cocktail. “Quite a lot actually,” says Åkerfeldt. “More than we listen to…” He thinks for a moment. “I want to say Yes, but I do listen to Yes quite a lot, actually. I think you have to understand that we are first and foremost hard rock guys, metal guys. That’s what shaped us in the beginning. So those records are immortal to us, the AC/DCs and the Michael Schenkers, Judas Priests…”
Åkesson: “Iron Maiden, Scorpions, Accept…”
“And many of those guys, in the early days, were really quite progressive,” Åkerfeldt says. “Like Priest, Sabbath, Deep Purple. They were labelled progressive rock, or progressive pop, on the back of the records.”
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Thematically, Åkerfeldt says the new record largely deals with love. Unhindered by the potentially squishy, sickly connotations the word carries, this chief idea splits into individual song vignettes, ranging from anger to melancholy.
“It’s mainly personal,” he says. “I’ve had a turbulent life in the last five or six years or so, though I didn’t deliberately, specifically write about that. Back in the day I used to start by writing mock lyrics about… beer! And then I’d translate them into something more meaningful, or something that looked good. But this time I started writing, and in the middle of the process I found many of these lyrics dealt with love – mostly the negative emotions you can get with a positive feeling like love: paranoia, insecurity, anger, jealousy, hate even. I didn’t set out to write these types of lyrics – it was only afterwards that I kinda knew what they dealt with.”
Just like his friend and collaborator Steven Wilson, Åkerfeldt isn’t forthcoming about his personal life. He’s divorced from his wife Anna, the mother of his two daughters, but doesn’t talk about it. Now happily settled with his girlfriend, he’s reluctant to say whether any particular incidents ended up influencing what he wrote.
“Well, again, it’s my recent life,” he says slightly awkwardly. “I’m not saying those lyrics are biographical or anything like that. But I’ve been troubled, and when you have these kind of weird thoughts, catastrophic thoughts, which I had… So what I wrote down is not necessarily something I experienced myself. I didn’t think too much when I wrote. I wrote each line down and thought, ‘Okay, that’ll work with the rhythm, with the vocal, that sounds nice.’ And then I finished it and became more and more angry every now and then, which I found interesting.
For me, the only thing that’s important is to keep the music fun and interesting, and to develop and experiment.
“I just know that when you’re in the middle of a chaotic relationship, or when you feel that you’re being mistreated or something like that, you get weird thoughts. Not necessarily about… [laughs] stabbing somebody in the fucking face, but you start acting weird. Love is like a mental disease, which everybody kind of wants to catch. It’s crazy when you think about it. I love ‘love’, but I’m also interested in how it can affect you; how this positive emotion that musicians have been talking about for years – ‘All you need is love’ – can feel so damaging when you’re in the middle of it. So that’s the basis for those lyrics. But they aren’t about anyone in particular.”
Indeed, simple glances at the news proved to be incredibly fruitful sources of inspiration too.
“The other day I heard about a guy who killed his pregnant wife with a machete in Sweden,” he tells us. “I assume that somewhere before this event took place, he loved her. So it’s an interesting emotion, and it’s interesting to see what it can bring out of seemingly normal people.”
In a wider sense, Opeth have never been publicity seekers for anything other than their music. Their recent 25th-anniversary book, the Book Of Opeth, chronicled their evolution without delving into personal issues or potential controversy. Nevertheless, after over two decades in the business and a rotating cast of band members (Åkerfeldt is the only remaining founder member), they must have had a diva rock star phase at some point. Right?
“Currently in the middle of it,” Åkerfeldt laughs. “But no, there’s a lot about this band that we kept under wraps, but we decided to… I mean, we did the Opeth book recently, and deliberately kept that down. But there’s been a lot… of that. A lot of that.”
Can you elaborate at all? “Well, [if I was going to] I would have done so in the book, wouldn’t I?” he says, only slightly defensively. “But there’s a lot of things happening in this band. I mean, we’re good people, everyone who’s been in the band has been good people, but there’s been massive trouble.”
And that’s all he’ll say on the matter, though he’s gleefully candid when we ask what the most ‘metal’ thing he’s ever done is.
“I threw chairs out of a balcony once – 25 floors,” he enthuses. “I think it was in Adelaide, maybe around the time of Deliverance in 2002. It was me and Per [Wiberg], our then-keyboard player, [Martín] Méndez and [former drummer Martin] Lopez were sharing a room and they were passed out, and me and Per were drinking on their balcony, so we decided to throw out the chairs. I thought we were closer to the ground. I was really drunk. The next day the hotel manager stopped us when we were checking out and said, ‘Didn’t you like the chairs on the balcony?’ We had to pay for them, of course.”
And then there was the time he poured vodka all over a major label exec in the US…
“I’d been drinking heavily and smoking mushrooms mixed with hash or something,” he recalls with some pride. “I don’t usually do drugs but I thought this seemed like a good idea. I got really crazy, and it was at an after-party in a hotel room in the US. I didn’t know anybody there. And the label manager for Century Media in America was there, and I grabbed him by his hair and poured a bottle of vodka in his face.”
“You do get a bit of an ‘evil eye’ when you’re drunk…” Åkesson says thoughtfully, stroking his beard. “When I started in the band, he used to jump on people and wrestle them.”
It’s an oddly endearing, childlike image – the tall, suave Åkerfeldt taking a running leap at some unsuspecting roadie or bandmate.
“But I’m very anti-violence,” Åkerfeldt hastily adds. “I’m not trying to hurt them. It’s childish playing, and I was drinking a lot then. I haven’t done it since I stopped drinking hard liquor.”
Hidden darknesses aside, Opeth haven’t had a great need for violence – certainly not as far as creative control is concerned. Slightly amazingly, they’ve never been seriously pushed around by label execs and the like, which has allowed them to remain in a progressive niche and build a substantial fan base entirely on their own terms. The only real opposition they’ve faced has been from fans, when they largely abandoned metal in favour of prog with Heritage. This year, onstage at the Be Prog! My Friend festival in Spain, Åkerfeldt commented on how much hate the album has received, and how he equally hated the people that hated it. Tongue-in-cheek, but it points to truth…
“I don’t hate people who hate that record,” he says measuredly. “The people I do hate are the ones who try to tell me what to do. So it’s more that I have a problem with authority to begin with. And I hate a lot of records, y’know. I’m not very vocal about it. I’m not going to assume that my personal wish will change what the organisation or band or whoever, what they’re doing. My opinion means fuck all to them, I know… And I would never go up to bands I look up to and tell them that what they’re doing is bad. But I’m a different generation.”
Has that less flattering side of the metal world made the prog community seem a bit more welcoming by contrast?
“I assume that the prog fans are generally a bit older,” says Åkerfeldt slowly, “and maybe more mature. They’re not necessarily so keen on hating; making it known that they hate this and that band. Maybe they’re like me – if they don’t like something, they just back off. They’re not actively repulsed.”
“I’m trying to think about the live shows we do and the reception we get to those,” muses Åkesson. “At Be Prog! My Friend, I saw a lot of young kids, metalheads, but they were totally into the proggier stuff.”
They hope to see a lot of said kids in November, when they headline Wembley Arena in London. Today they’re relatively tight-lipped about their plans, but they do tell us that there may be a special set specifically for the Wembley show. Unlike previous gigs, they’re looking to be more involved with the whole staging process.
“We’re working on a new stage set for this upcoming tour for the new album,” Åkesson says, “which includes this new lamp design. It hasn’t been used much. You can do a lot of spaced-out stuff with it.”
For such a classic, prog-loving band, Opeth’s stage shows have hitherto remained rather minimal. As they continue to embrace the musical daring of their prog forefathers, we wonder if there’ll ever be a visual side to match. As it stands, they’re not exactly talking [earlier Opeth album] ‘Blackwater Park: ON ICE’ à la Rick Wakeman.
“That’s the Achilles’ heel, the visual thing – everyone’s a bit uncomfortable with it.” Åkerfeldt gestures to his demure all-black attire – not a gimmick in sight. “I’m in my stage clothes now. I don’t mind bands with a strong image, and I wouldn’t mind if we had a strong image if it was something we were comfortable with, but we haven’t found anything like that yet. We’re trying to get the guys onstage to move a bit and have some sort of ‘look’, so no shorts, no free tour T-shirts from the support band… that’s as far as we’ve got.”
So no capes then? Or a giant peacock, like the one seen on the Sorceress album cover? You could get an inflatable one and have it float around the arena?
“Well, that could be done, of course,” Åkerfeldt nods, in a voice that says ‘but probably not’. “Mendez is an artist and painter, so he’s more into that type of thing. Whenever the guys in the crew start talking about the show and how it’s going to look, he’s the one who gets most involved.”
It turns out that Åkerfeldt has more important things than stage design to worry about. For such a long‑serving frontman, as adept at voice‑of-Satan metal growls as melodious straight vocals, he admits that his confidence is “pretty shit”.
“Our first show after we did the record was our first show in nine months, supporting Iron Maiden – in front of about 65,000 people,” he says. “I was nervous. I was doing some newspaper thing outside, and I felt calm but my legs were shaking. So yeah, I do get nervous.”
How do you combat that?
“I go onstage,” he replies, simply. “I go out there and do my best, but I don’t get pumped up or anything – no ‘Yeah!’ or fist-pumping. I’m not really rock star material in that sense.”
“We do a handshake before we go on,” Åkesson nods.
Off tour, it’s a little easier to relax. Both Åkerfeldt and Åkesson, who is also a father, currently live in the suburbs of Stockholm. Return trips home are spent with their children, barbecuing, cycling and jumping in the nearby archipelago, largely free of the demands of being in a world-famous band.
How often do you get recognised back there?
“Quite often actually,” says Åkerfeldt, “but it’s not like I need a wig or a disguise. But yes, people do come up to me.”
“But it’s not like Beyoncé,” Åkesson adds.
“No,” agrees Åkerfeldt, “not like Beyoncé.”
Sorceress is out now on Nuclear Blast. See Opeth’s website for details.