In some ways, prog is not a genre that particularly requires visible figureheads – it’s all about the music and, some visual mischief aside, nothing more. But if one man embodies the unerringly brave and open-minded progressive rock ethos, both through his own creative achievements and through his ongoing obsession with the music of others, then it’s Mikael Åkerfeldt.
As frontman, guitarist and chief composer with Stockholm’s masters of progressive heaviness Opeth, Mikael has been at the forefront of the modern prog scene for well over a decade. He’s also done far more than most to propagate the notion that the great progressive rock bands of the 70s (and, indeed, the 80s and 90s) imparted a profound credo of artistic freedom and sonic distinction that holds true to this day, and can be applied to any idiosyncratic variation on those classic original prog themes.
His long-standing association with Porcupine Tree founder Steven Wilson, their recent Storm Corrosion collaboration included, and his well-documented obsession with all things analogue, vinyl and sepia-tinted have only served to reinforce the idea that Mikael Åkerfeldt is a true prog soldier, marching across the globe and blowing as many minds as possible. Scratch the surface of this self-deprecating Scandinavian, however, and you’ll soon discover that his obsession with prog rock runs far deeper than even his public persona would imply.
“I’ve always been a collector at heart – I collected Star Wars figures when I was a kid, I collected anything, and so it was just in my blood,” he tells Prog. “I discovered some of the original wave of prog bands through my record collecting in the early 90s. I was working at a guitar store at the time. In the early 90s, everyone was taking their vinyl into stores to exchange for CDs. I was compensating for not being able to buy records. When I was a kid I was piss poor. You got one record for Christmas, one for your birthday and maybe one for Easter. But now I had a job and some money!
“I’d never liked CDs. In fact, the first CD I bought was Dirt by Alice In Chains, and that was pretty late, wasn’t it? So I was into vinyl and there were a lot of great record stores in Stockholm and you could pick up a lot of records there for about three pounds each. So I was looking at these records and looking at the pictures on the sleeves, looking for bands that looked like Black Sabbath, basically! If they had the flares and beards and the record was from 1971 or 1972, that was what I wanted. I found a record by Yes and thought it looked cool, and then Genesis and King Crimson and so on, records that looked odd and I could afford. That was where it all started.”
While the majority of his adolescent friends - most of whom were also active in the Stockholm death metal scene of the early 90s - were still firmly entrenched in the pitch-black aesthetic of their scene, Mikael clearly felt an instant and instinctive kinship with the more colourful and musically explorative world of progressive rock. Coupled with his love of vinyl, this was the beginning of a passionate relationship with prog that had a massive influence on the way Opeth evolved from their early days as a moderately innovative melodic death metal band into the progressive behemoths we know and love today. As all music obsessives know, the discovery of new music is the end result of a process that can manifest itself in countless different ways. These days, the internet does most of the hard work for us, of course, but in Stockholm in the early 90s, the young Mikael Åkerfeldt was given a helping hand the old fashioned way.
“I’d buy some records and go back to the guitar store which was run by this guy who was around 60 and another guy who was the same age and they saw what I picked up and they were like, ‘Oh, that’s a really cool record! I saw them in ’72!’” he recalls with a grin. “Those guys just gave me loads of recommendations, like ‘Have you heard Camel? You’d love them!’ and so I’d pick up Camel records on my next lunch break. I ended up buying a shitload of records and became a fan of that type of music and it really helped my own band to progress.
“I came from a metal background and I played in a death metal band and I was influenced by Iron Maiden and things like that. Little did I know that Maiden were fans of Wishbone Ash and Jethro Tull, but when I picked up Argus by Wishbone Ash, I thought, ‘Wow! Maiden must have listened to this a lot!’ So that’s how I got into it and it just escalated from there. I thought it was really cool to be one of the first to bring these obscure bands back, you know?”
Widely acknowledged as one of the most productive and ground-breaking periods in extreme metal history, the Swedish death metal boom of the early 90s certainly threw up its fair share of significant bands and musicians, but even though he and Opeth proudly remained part of that scene, Åkerfeldt cut a somewhat peculiar figure as his fascination with progressive rock began to supersede his interest in more brutal sounds, much to the bemusement of his closest friends.
“Oh god, they hated it!” he laughs. “They weren’t into the prog thing at all. I got out of the extreme metal scene and I stopped buying those sorts of records. When the black metal thing started happening, I thought it all turned shit, to be honest. I picked up the Darkthrone record,* A Blaze In The Northern Sky*, which I liked, but that was about it. Then I got into progressive rock and it made me look a bit odd. I was still playing in a death metal band and I was filling in for Katatonia and we played shows with Dissection and all the black metal bands and I was wearing flares and had an old Gibson SG, you know? So I didn’t look right in those surroundings. But we all still hung out.”
Mikael’s best friend is Jonas Renkse, vocalist with fellow Stockholm-ites Katatonia, a band whose own career trajectory has evolved along similar lines to Opeth’s, albeit with those prog credentials only being established in more recent times. Ironically, however, Renkse was never that keen to share his friend’s love of Genesis, King Crimson and bell-bottom jeans.
“He wasn’t really into the metal stuff either. At the time, he’d listen to a few death metal bands but he was getting into the opposite to prog rock, the lo-fi singer-songwriter stuff like Will Oldham, and he was a big fan of The Cure,” Åkerfeldt explains. “He’d play me his lo-fi shit and I’d play him some of this prog stuff and he hated it! He did like Änglagård but he didn’t like Yes. But I kept playing it because we were drinking and I’d say, ‘Come on, listen to this!’ I think he’s warmed up a little bit to that kind of music now and I guess he doesn’t hate it as much as he did!”
Even today, with his reputation as a progressive rock titan soundly established, Åkerfeldt still insists that he remains a huge fan of heavy metal and has no intention of disowning the music that provided an invaluable soundtrack to his teenage years in Stockholm. A devotee of Judas Priest, The Scorpions, Iron Maiden and Dio, not to mention early death metal bands like Morbid Angel and Death, he still regards metal as a primary influence. It’s one he’s used as a central tenet of Opeth’s sound for the vast majority of their career – one or two slightly controversial albums aside, of which more later – but discovering the prog scene enabled him to find a more appropriate expression for his true feelings about music and its limitless possibilities. Prog is not for everyone, but for some of us it rings true on such a profound level that the only course of action is to surrender to it entirely.
“I connected with prog because as a musician I was always very promiscuous when it came to my relationship with different genres,” muses Åkerfeldt. “I fucked around a lot! I felt awkward trying to stick to one specific genre, which is what you were supposed to do being in a metal band. It wasn’t particularly cool to be all over the place. I always liked long songs too! My favourite Maiden song was *Rime Of *The Ancient Mariner, you know? So that was it for me. Both as a guitar player and as a songwriter, prog enabled me to feel it was okay not to stick to one genre. It was more interesting to mix it up a little bit, which is what we started to do in Opeth around that time. I always liked that warm production that they had back in those days, as opposed to the big 80s metal productions. Through listening to progressive rock, I also developed an interest in listening to other types of music like jazz and fusion and all that kind of shit, which I could hear in some of these bands, like, ‘Ah, that’s like Miles Davis!’ or whatever. It really helped me to develop my music taste.”
To get a true sense of exactly how obsessed with prog Mikael Åkerfeldt has become over the last two decades, you may have to wait for an invitation to his home in Stockholm. This writer had the pleasure of visiting the Opeth frontman a decade ago and even then his collection of vinyl albums was nothing short of insane and, tellingly, stringently preserved and policed: thousands of original pressings, gatefold sleeves, rare foreign editions of classic albums and near-mythical obscurities, all kept in strict order and as close to mint condition as possible.
Åkerfeldt’s collection clearly cost him a fortune, but it’s not merely a collection: instead, it represents a fanatical devotion to the unearthing of new music and the treasuring of musical artefacts that has had a profound impact on the way Opeth’s music has developed over their 20-year career. And while it’s certainly true that much of Åkerfeldt’s love of prog focuses on the aesthetics of its first wave of bands – the analogue warmth, the sartorial quirks – he is also an enthusiastic advocate of many of today’s less retrogressive progressive rock bands. For a start, no one has been a more vocal supporter of the recorded works of Porcupine Tree, as the vast fanbase Opeth share with Steven Wilson’s seminal crew would seem to confirm.
“I got into Porcupine Tree on their third album,* The Sky Moves Sideways*,” he says. “That was also one of those moments between me and Jonas. Anders [Nyström], the guitarist from Katatonia, had got that record from an American doom metal band, Solitude Aeturnus. Their guitarist, John Perez, was a big prog fan and he’d sent this record to the Katatonia guys to see if they liked it. Anders hated it so he gave it to Jonas who said, ‘I don’t like it, but I’ll give it to Mike.’ So he gave it to me and I went, ‘Wow!’ because it was a current band doing the type of stuff that I loved.”
One of the joys of prog, particularly for those of us who weren’t quite old enough to enjoy the genre when it first emerged, is that once you dig a little deeper and get past the usual legendary suspects, there’s a startling wealth of music to be discovered, reassessed and enjoyed, from all corners of the globe and in a dizzying number of peculiar forms. From the Italian scene of the 70s to the UK prog movement of the 80s to the Scandinavian revival of the early 90s and beyond, prog is a never-ending banquet and Mikael Åkerfeldt is a perpetually hungry connoisseur.
“When it comes to the 80s prog stuff, I never liked Marillion or Pallas,” he admits. “I don’t really know why. I was just after the type of sound from the 70s so I never got into those bands. I liked the 90s Swedish bands like Änglagård, Landberk and Anekdoten, of course. That was also the time that I met Stefan [Dimle], the bass player from Landberk, who owned a record store. He’s probably turned me onto 60 per cent of all the bands I’m into! And then around 1998, when we made Still Life, which was the most prog record we’d made up until that point, I started tape trading with an English guy, Russ Smith. He had a distribution company called Black Tears Distribution and he sent me a cassette with the band Cressida on one side and Forest on the other side. You could still hear the crackle from the vinyl, which was amazing. I started picking up lots of obscure bands from all over the world and Scandinavian bands like Culpeper’s Orchard and Life and Thirty Years War. I still love the obscure stuff. I’m always looking for it.”
With so much groundbreaking and obscure music flowing through his veins, it should never come as a surprise to Opeth fans that Mikael Åkerfeldt is reluctant to be pinned down to any one particular style. As much as his band established certain sonic trademarks with albums like 2001’s much-lauded Blackwater Park and 2006’s monumental Ghost Reveries, the Opeth catalogue tells a different story: one of constant evolution and an invigorating disregard for pandering to anyone.
As if proof were needed, last year’s Heritage album neatly encapsulated the way Åkerfeldt operates as a songwriter. Despite knowing full well that certain elements of the faithful would be horrified by the abandonment of death metal vocals and an almost wholesale leap into non-metallic, progressive rock territory, Heritage was still very much an Opeth record both in terms of design and execution. The tour that followed, wherein the band played lots of new material and other older tracks that fitted musically with the Heritage songs, polarised fan opinion. But good prog soldiers are trained not to give a flying fuck what anyone else thinks. Making music that dares to dream is about satisfying the composer’s artistic desires and nothing else. In that regard – not to mention the fact that it was also utterly magnificent – Heritage must surely be regarded as a triumph.
“A lot of people don’t have the need for change,” Åkerfeldt shrugs. “A lot of people see their favourite band as a McDonald’s restaurant – you go in and you get your fix of the same old shit. I will never be able to understand that. Even if we tried, we wouldn’t be able to make those fans happy, but they don’t realise that. People will always have their favourite record. I remember thinking when we made Ghost Reveries, ‘Everyone’s gonna love this album!’ but no they didn’t! So we made Watershed and I thought ‘Wow, we did it!’ and some people hated that record too. I’ve never deliberately tried to write for our audience. Even if we try to please the fans, they won’t be pleased. So we try to piss them off instead! [Laughs]”.
While he continues to fly the flag for progressive rock and the freewheeling mindset that goes with it, Åkerfeldt remains reluctant to be pigeon-holed. He’s happy being in a band that’s adored by both the metal and prog communities and he has no intention of trading on past glories. Whatever happens next in Opeth’s musical world, it will almost certainly come as a surprise, both to the band’s fans and, you may imagine, to Åkerfeldt himself. This is a man who admits to having bought over 500 new records to listen to during his last US tour, and so there will be no shortage of inspiration for the next album. Just don’t bother placing bets on what it will sound like. For the ultimate prog soldier, the thrill is in the journey and music is a question that will forever remain unanswered.
“I guess I’m a little bit of a rebel in that sense – I’ve always had a problem with any kind of authority, especially within music, and people saying things have to be a certain way,” he says. “I’m a traditionalist in one sense, like when I listen to Maiden, I wouldn’t want them to make a techno record, you know? But it’s almost been a problem for me sometimes because I can’t stick to a specific style for too long. Ultimately, that’s what makes us a progressive band, in the true sense of the word.
“There’s bands like us and Porcupine Tree and Radiohead who just change all the time, which is the stuff that I prefer, to be honest. But I’m okay if you define us a progressive rock band right now, but maybe next time we’ll be something else. And I guess that’s what being progressive means!”
LINES IN MY HAND
Mikael Åkerfeldt tells us his favourite five prog albums
CULPEPER’S ORCHARD - Culpeper’s Orchard (1971)
“They’re a Danish band. I’m not sure if it’s true prog rock, but it’s hard rock and very obscure and super rare. They turned into a country rock band later on but the first album has some resemblance to Sabbath and Tull and it’s fucking amazing! It’s not the most crazy record, but it has great songs, great players and a great sleeve.”
COMUS - First Utterance (1971)
“My friend Stefan at Mellotron Records turned me on to this. I get too much credit for those guys getting back together. It was more Stefan than me! I was expecting a folk album but it’s insane. The lyrics are extreme for the genre and Roger Wootton’s vocals are crazy. It’s a classic and I’ve never heard anything else like it.”
CARMEN - Fandangos In Space (1973)
“They were destined to become big. This was produced by Tony Visconti, they toured with Jethro Tull, and David Bowie was a fan. It’s amazing. It’s a crazy flamenco prog rock folk record! They had tap dancing on the record and castanets too! Everyone I’ve played it to has been blown away by it.”
CAMEL - Moonmadness (1976)
“They’re one of the greatest bands ever, of course. It sounds like a cross between elevator muzak and prog fusion. Andy Latimer is one of the best guitar players of all time. It always comes down to the songs, and these are fantastic songs and the guitar solo on Lunar Sea is mind-blowing.”
GOBLIN - Roller (1976)
“They never get enough recognition. They’re on the borderline of fusion and are such amazing players. This isn’t a soundtrack album like their better known records. Agostino Marangolo’s drumming is incredible. If you’re a prog rock fan, you need to pick this one up.”
Ten years ago, Opeth released the landmark Ghost Reveries album, Classic Rock magazine was there…