Opeth’s Mikael Åkerfeldt: My Life In 10 Songs

Mikael Akerfeldt
(Image credit: Press)

When Mikael Åkerfeldt joined Opeth in 1990, he was just a death metal-loving kid from Stockholm, but iver the next three decades, he honed the band into one of one of progressive metal’s most revered creative forces. His extreme metal days may be behind him, but his back catalogue is still littered with modern classics. Here are 10 of the finest songs he’s been involved in, in his own words.

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Opeth – Deliverance (Deliverance, 2002)

I couldn’t write Deliverance today. It was a sign of the times – everything about that record is based around 2002; from the sound to the Meshuggah influence while still being a distinctly Opeth record. It broke through the complexity barrier and became almost mainstream progressive death metal. Working with Steven [Wilson, former Porcupine Tree mainman and Deliverance producer] helped that – he came at things from a non-metal place so could bring great ideas for both production and songwriting.

Being in the studio around the Deliverance, Damnation and Ghost Reveries was a terrible time and I was not in a happy place, but that was all to do with what was happening in the band rather than my personal life. It probably didn’t help I didn’t have any songs written when we went into the studio, so I’d write all night and then record during the day. It was shit. I can’t believe looking back I let that happen, pushing myself to a limit where we were spending other people’s money on recording the record without actually knowing how it was going to sound. But it worked, even if I was a wreck by the end of the recording – my shit went grey after that recording, like it was plaster.

Opeth – Ghost of Perdition (Ghost Reveries, 2005)

I absolutely love playing Ghost Of Perdition live - there is a sense of excitement throughout my body whenever I know it’s the next song in the set. I know it’s going to fucking kick off in the crowd – this is the song that even if someone leaves our show saying, ‘The whole thing was horseshit’, they’d still go ‘Ghost of Perdition was great though’. It’s almost like a safety checkpoint in our sets. It’s very emotional and heavy, has all the right ingredients that a lot of people would refer to as ‘classic Opeth’.

There are a lot of old songs where I feel like I can actually hear the insecurity in my songwriting, but Ghost Of Perdition is one where I don’t feel that at all. By Ghost Reveries I’d kind of ascended to the de-facto ‘boss’ of the band which turned out to be both good and bad. It was good in terms of squeezing out some really good records – if I’d lived the democratic dream for the band I honestly don’t think we’d have put any of our records out around that time so I took control. But it also worked out bad internally for the band’s relationships.

Bloodbath – Mock The Cross (The Fathomless Mastery, 2008)

I didn’t write much of the music in Bloodbath. Mock The Cross was written by Per [Eriksson], who is now the lead guitarist in Ghost and I contributed the lyrics. It has this fantastic Morbid Angel vibe – which makes sense as he loved the band, as do I. If you know the song Where The Slime Live it has a little bit of that going on – fast, heavy and lots of grit.

It’s funny, Bloodbath all began with a three-song EP. We were piss poor at the time – it being the late 90s and all – and it was just myself, Jonas [Renkse] and Anders [Nyström] from Katatonia and Dan Swanö from Edge Of Sanity on drums. We just needed money, so we sold all the rights, publishing and everything to Century Media for £700 each.

We got money in hand, but didn’t own the songs anymore – we just had fun drinking beer and playing vintage death metal. I remember I got my money and Jonas borrowed it from me the same day and I never got it back. Bastard.

Opeth – Haxprocess (Heritage, 2011)

Haxprocess is interesting: it’s the only thing that was saved from my previous idea for the record that eventually became Heritage. We did Watershed and started writing another record that was similar to that, but ultimately decided to scrap it and start fresh.

Originally we went in with a lot of heavy, distorted guitars but Haxprocess came around this idea of an acoustic guitar playing very quietly; withdrawn but at the same time very intense in a weird way. We learned a lot doing that record; how to hold back and still make something in your face.

A lot of people really hated it when it came out, but in many ways, I see it as a very emotional record, very song-based as opposed to being written around complex structures you’d normally find in prog. But to me, progressive music is about being open-minded about a lot of different genres and Heritage was a mixture of both approaches. It has intricate musical passages, but also a mixture of genres we really liked. We knew we were going to change as musicians after the recording – and that’s exactly what happened, even if people threw shit on us for it.

Storm Corrosion – Happy (Storm Corrosion, 2012)

I ended up working on the Storm Corrosion album at the same time as we were working on Heritage. What really surprised us is, the Storm Corrosion record got into the charts, which is really fucking odd. Steven [Wilson, Storm Corrosion collaborator ] and I decided we wanted to write music together – it’s fun when we work together anyway, but writing with him was even more fun. We expected it wouldn’t be commercially viable – we had these images in our heads of the record labels moaning, ‘What are we gonna do with this piece of shit?’

That was our thinking, that nobody would want to hear it but the pretentious turds that wrote it. We wanted to make music that was like a early electronic music like Tangerine Dream and Scott Walker’s weird records, like Climate Of Hunter or The Drift. We also decided early on didn’t want drums either for the most part – create some drone shit with strange vocal methods, all very weird.

Happy is deceptive – it’s not happy at all – and the music is an attack on the senses. Beautiful, but also melancholic and almost evil in a way. I’m really proud of the album we made together.

Storm Corrosion - Ljudet Innan (Storm Corrosion, 2012)

Ljudet Innan means ‘the sound before’ in Swedish. We were going over the top with this sick music and we wanted to close the record with something beautiful. I’m not religious, but to me it sounds how I’d imagined heaven as a child – very serene. It’s a very sad song and has no rhythm – the only thing keeping tempo is the guitar, which I played on these high guitar strings. It’s funny, I was drinking wine during the recording and wrote my parts drunk, which is weird because I can’t play guitar drunk at all. But then, maybe that’s what made it sound so weird.

Steven’s genius was to piece together all these parts along with things he’d written. I think we may go back to Storm Corrosion someday – I’m seeing Steven again this summer, but I suspect it will be more wine than music. Storm Corrosion – whatever you call it; a band, a project is based around our mindsets. It sounds pretentious, but it was almost like we were in a trance when writing the music, like taking LSD and then going back to find out what we’d made once we came back down to normal.

Opeth – Faith In Others (Pale Communion, 2014)

On a personal level, Faith In Others is one of my finest moments. It was inspired by personal issues I was having around my divorce – the doubts and whatever. I never actually set out to write specifically about that, but it was the first song I wrote for Pale Communion and it turned into a stepping stone for things I’ve always been trying to suss out as a songwriter. It was only once the record was done and I looked back at the lyrics that I realised it was actually about me.

It’s a very delicate, fragile and extremely sad song; I got a lot of my emotions out in the open. Without sounding like a tit, it was almost like the stars aligned – often you’ll write a song and record it thinking ‘it doesn’t quite sound how I imagined it’ but this one came out perfect. That said, the only other person who’s ever told me they think it’s a masterpiece is Steven Wilson. Its actually the only fight we’ve ever had; Steven was mixing the record and I wanted to put some effects on my voice and he refused, saying it’d destroy the beauty of the song.

Opeth – A Fleeting Glance (Sorceress, 2016)

“We’ve never played A Fleeting Glance live and it got very little attention, but I was really happy with the song because of the structure and the notes we got from using the harpsichord. It’s the kind of thing you’d hear on late-60s Beatles records, very ‘summer of love’ vibes which we’d never done before. I think it still sounds authentic – it’s still Opeth, but we were just very clear with our influences – late 60s British music, which I’ve always loved.

I don’t necessarily consider myself a great musician, but there’s a guitar solo at the start of the song that I’m really proud of. I don’t think the song will age fast either – I can see it sounding fresh in twenty years. I love psychedelic music – or at least music that came out under that banner, like Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band which is a masterpiece – we even had Swedish bands copying that record when it came out – and something I consumed while working on Sorceress. I’ve been looking for more – finding stuff like The Kinks, the Stones… even though I don’t really like the Stones. Basically the stuff coming out on EMI at that time.”

Opeth – Sorceress 2 (Sorceress, 2016)

The first song I wrote for Sorceress was Wilde Flowers and I thought ‘this is good, but its not special’. I usually want that first song to set the tone and let me know where I’m going next, but I managed to find that record’s niche after a while, where some of our weirder songs could come out. 

Sorceress 2 is beautiful song; just guitars, vocals and a bit of mellotron. It’s almost like the story of how [Pink Floyd’s] Shine On You Crazy Diamond was written, where Dave Gilmour misplaced his fingers and came up with this crazy riff. I was playing guitar and not paying attention to where my fingers were and stumbled onto this super nice harmonic that became the verse of Sorceress 2

The closest it reminds me of is this Randy Rhoads thing, the acoustic bit of Diary Of A Madman in the beginning where he plays a similar chord. I was like ‘that’s mine.’ Although I didn’t actually steal it from him, it’s like the ghost of it comes up on Sorceress 2. Even if nobody ever hums Sorceress 2 like they do Shine On You Crazy Diamond I still feel like it came from that same place.

Opeth – Banemannen (In Cauda Venenum, 2019)

Literally translated, this song becomes ‘The Garroter’ – an executioner of sorts. I remember taking my children to school and I was humming in the car, thinking about our new record and I figured I should start trying to sing in Swedish.

Lyrically, I think its great; it was a lot easier for me to write in Swedish and make the words really mean something. But it’s also one of our more hated musical compositions. I was listening to a lot of jazz – my Coltrane records, Miles Davis and Pharoah Sanders – as I was writing for the last album.

It’s important for me that when we move into musical genres we’re not known for that we don’t just sound like a bunch of metal guys trying to play jazz, but I think this sounds legit. It’s almost jazz noir – very dark with these interesting structures that are weird as fuck. It’s very complex but also soothing to listen to – a song you can hum along to.

I was determined to try and make each song a masterpiece so I tried to listen to only masterful music – things like Kate Bush’s Wuthering Heights where you’re almost embarrassed to be trying to write guitar parts around it.

The 20th anniversary reissue of Opeth’s Blackwater Park is released on July 16

Rich Hobson

Staff writer for Metal Hammer, Rich has never met a feature he didn't fancy, which is just as well when it comes to covering everything rock, punk and metal for both print and online, be it legendary events like Rock In Rio or Clash Of The Titans or seeking out exciting new bands like Nine Treasures, Jinjer and Sleep Token.