Mikael Åkerfeldt can’t recall who said it, but there’s a quote that continues to inspire him: ‘A real musician doesn’t take advice.’
“I’ve always liked that,” the Opeth leader tells Prog down the line from his home on the Swedish archipelago. “What that says to me is that if you consider yourself a musician, it has to all come from within. All music genres are saturated with groups copying the latest big fucking band, so it’s important to remember that the word ‘progressive’ should say it all.”
It’s an issue he feels is particularly vital for metal and prog bands. And, considering they’ve often combined the best of both worlds over their quarter-century lifespan, it’s one that’s very pertinent when it comes to Opeth.
“It doesn’t mean that you should copy Genesis or King Crimson and think of yourself as a progressive band,” he adds, warming to the theme. “Because for me, it’s not a genre – it’s the true meaning of the word. Progressive music is something that pushes things forward. That’s why today I really value music that I can listen to without finding obvious references for it. That’s what makes me sit up straight and go, ‘OK, what’s happening here?’ There are probably shitloads of people out there who just want to listen to a contemporary version of Genesis, but my personal view is different.”
It’s a dictum that’s served him well thus far. Since joining the embryonic version of Opeth in 1990, taking over as frontman and creative axis after the departure of founder member David Isberg two years later, Åkerfeldt has produced a body of work driven by a restless disregard for conventional boundaries. Calling them a progressive death metal band even sounds reductive. Here was a group who, with 1995 debut Orchid, announced themselves as purveyors of a new kind of Scando-metal, fluctuating between grunting vocals and deft acoustic interludes. These were epic songs freighted with both anguish and antipathy; songs as beautiful as they were brutal.
Opeth’s trail, which has been well documented in these pages over the past few years, has now led to their 11th studio album, Pale Communion. If 2011’s predecessor, Heritage, signalled a forward leap by way of a more open collusion of prog, folk and heavy rock – marked by knotty riffs, sparkling instrumental runs, itchy time signatures and growl-free vocals – this new one is another major shift. It’s more cohesive than Heritage, for starters. And although it’s certainly no less complex, there’s a discernible emphasis on vocal harmonies and a more pastoral appropriation of the doomier end of folk music. As with Heritage, there are ringing echoes of 2003’s Damnation (the black sheep in the Opeth fold) in Åkerfeldt’s wholesale reliance on clean vocals. Above all, it’s perhaps their most organic album to date.
“We wanted to sound like a band of humans,” Åkerfeldt states. “I think we got caught up in new technology for a couple of records, where you could basically fix everything in the studio. But now we’ve left it sounding more natural, as opposed to having something more mechanical, with the robot-y sound that’s popular in metal today. We recorded the album at Rockfield Studios and decided that if you go in there, you should just put all your trust in yourself, rather than the engineer.”
This, it transpires, is a key detail. While Åkerfeldt says he has no regrets over the exacting rigour of previous Opeth recordings, he does admit that they deliberately steered away from making everything “sound perfect” on Pale Communion: “In the past we’d cut various takes together to make a perfect version of each individual song. But with this one we mostly did one or two takes. Once we had the sound, we just went for it in the studio. And sometimes if I fucked up while I was playing and no one noticed, I just continued like nothing happened.”
Åkerfeldt cites one of his favourite albums, Judas Priest’s 1976 opus Sad Wings Of Destiny, as a major signpost. “That one was also recorded at Rockfield and there are mistakes in it. There are a couple of things on that record that are ‘untight’, but that’s one of the reasons why I love it. It has a human quality to it.”
The whole album was cut in “ten days or so, like an old-school recording”. And while there are familiar spores of classic Opeth in the heavier, guitar-ripping tunes like Cusp Of Eternity and Voice Of Treason, the band’s love of pure melody is a more striking element of Pale Communion.
“I only got some idea of what I wanted to do after I wrote the first song,” Åkerfeldt explains, “which was Faith In Others. The vocals carried the melody and I figured that even if we have a lot of disharmonic stuff happening in our music, the melodic sense has always been there. I guess
I wanted to take that to the next level. Heritage was all over the place and schizophrenic, and that’s the stuff I like, but Pale Communion definitely has more hooks. I think these songs are easier to understand than the ones on Heritage.”
As with its forerunner, Pale Communion was produced by Åkerfeldt himself and mixed by long-time ally Steven Wilson. The pair’s creative partnership has blossomed in recent years, culminating in 2012’s more esoteric side project, Storm Corrosion, and its self-titled album.
With both men being rabid collectors of vinyl, it was only natural that each would introduce the other to new music – or at least music they hadn’t heard before. If Pale Communion standouts like River and Elysian Woes carry a distinct tang of CSNY, there’s a reason for that.
“David Crosby’s If I Could Only Remember My Name  was introduced to me by Steven Wilson a few years ago,” says Åkerfeldt. “And then I went into the whole Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young territory, which I hadn’t done before. Being a death metal kid growing up, that was old man’s rock. It was out of bounds;
I wasn’t interested in that stuff. But hearing Crosby’s solo record got me into his way of writing vocal harmonies. Actually, the original plan was to make a record with only vocal harmonies, but that didn’t happen.”
This fresh appreciation of vocalese may appear somewhat odd for a man who once professed to disliking his own voice so much that he would often try to bury it deep in the mix of Opeth songs. Åkerfeldt is still modest about his talents in this regard, though he does admit: “I’m more confident now. Even though I’ve been the singer in this band for nearly 25 years, I never really saw myself as one. I guess I have aspirations that go higher than my ability. My favourite singers are David Coverdale, Paul Rodgers, [Ronnie James] Dio, those kind of guys. That’s how I want to sound. Obviously I can’t, but I’m trying. “So with this record, I thought I shouldn’t be afraid of pushing it and delivering the vocals with the emotion they’re supposed to have. There was a point where I was only singing death metal vocals and it was so much easier for me. But I took that to a level where
I felt like I wasn’t really creating anything new. So now I’m just concentrating on the clean vocals. Maybe that will make listeners feel a little more uncomfortable on Pale Communion, but I think it’s my best vocal performance on record so far.”
If all this may sound a little disarming to any of you diehard Opeth fanciers, some things are unchanged. Lyrically, Åkerfeldt still remains the master of existential doom, pouring his anxieties into the new songs. The intricate, ten-minute Moon Above, Sun Below, for example, sounds like the soundtrack to one man’s journey through an earthly prison. Its proggy passages, rapturous at times, convey a tale of a wretched soul trying to escape a ‘forest of flesh’. And while River finds Opeth in truly stately form, even flirting at the fringes of 70s AM rock, its message is overridingly bleak. ‘Because when you have no one,’ sings Åkerfeldt at his most despairing, ‘No one will care.’
Such intimations, Åkerfeldt tells Prog, “are nothing new for us”. Even the album title dips its toe into the dark stuff: “I wanted to sum up the lyrics, because the album is some kind of confessional. I felt like Pale Communion just worked. And it sounds cool. It was also a reference to death, like a pale companion.”
But there’s only so much premeditated angst to go about. Åkerfeldt is refreshingly candid when it comes to discussing the band’s lyrical concerns. “When it comes to many of the songs in the Opeth camp, the so-called ‘classics’, I don’t even know what they’re about,” he laughs. “It’s just bollocks, really. I could still tell you what most of the songs on Heritage or Watershed  are about, but with the older ones I often can’t remember. I usually find myself writing in the heat of the moment and only afterwards do I try to make out what it actually means.
“But the new songs are more personal in the sense that I’m writing about immediate things that are happening around me. Many of them are about my private life, which has been troubled, off and on. And I have a tendency, when I start feeling down, to foresee things as becoming catastrophic. My mind takes on a life of its own and the tiniest thing can escalate into a massive problem. There’s probably some term for this. With these lyrics I found that I was writing about stuff that wasn’t necessarily true, I was just imagining the worst that can happen. And it bounces between pleading and desperation, like on the song River, to ‘Fuck it, I can make it on my own.’ It’s all a bit schizophrenic.”
Given a decent tailwind, Pale Communion could potentially be a very big album for Opeth. Their current line-up – with Åkerfeldt, guitarist Fredrik Åkesson, pianist Joakim Svalberg (who replaced Per Wiberg post-Heritage in 2011), bass player Martín Méndez and drummer Martin Axenrot – seems to be both stable and highly capable. And the signs are certainly good: Heritage recorded first-week sales of nearly 20,000 in the US, peaking at No.19 on the Billboard chart. In the UK it reached No.22, while also placing high throughout Europe and in Australia. In short, it was their most successful record to date. Sales were also spiked by a major tour of the States, where they shared top billing with Mastodon.
Another notable feature of Opeth’s work is their presentation. Their album covers are often laden with symbolic images of the world they perceive. The burning theatre on Heritage, for instance, is supposed to represent the decline and failure of civilisation. Conceived by Opeth’s regular designer Travis Smith, Pale Communion depicts a trio of paintings on what looks like a dungeon wall, lit only by a solitary shaft of sunlight. Each painting contains a Latin quote. The first one comes from Sweden’s 17th-century Lord High Chancellor, Axel Oxenstierna: “Don’t you know, my son, with how little wisdom the world is governed?” The other two are hardly filled with hope, either.
“I knew from the get-go that I wanted Latin text on the cover,” Åkerfeldt offers. “And the fact that one of the guys was Swedish was cool. The quotes were basically something that would fit together with each individual painting. The original idea was to have a triptych. They’re supposed to show a journey through life that starts pretty good and ends shit.”
He can’t help but allow himself a quiet chuckle at this statement, perhaps at the irony of it all. The eternal pessimist, presiding over a world that, on a wider scale, might finally be ready to open itself up to that band of his. “The main thing is that I feel like I’m still learning,” he says. “And that’s very important to me, to make myself feel like I’m actually progressing.”
I think this is where we came in.
Pale Communion is out on August 26 via Roadrunner. See www.opeth.com for information.
THE PATH TO ENLIGHTENMENT
Mikael Åkerfeldt Picks Five Albums That Point The Way to Pale Communion.
Bryter Layter (1970)
“Going into writing and recording Pale Communion,” explains Åkerfeldt, “I was listening to a lot of my favourite records, stuff I’ve been into for years, like Nick Drake. Even when it’s melancholic and sad, his music makes me feel good. His ultimate ‘good mood’ record is Bryter Layter. That one will do it every time.” There are strong echoes of Drake in the melodies of River and the deft interplay of Eternal Rains Will Come.
If I Could Only Remember My Name (1971)
The emphasis on vocal harmonies is a major facet of Pale Communion. One of its key signposts is David Crosby’s first solo album, recorded in the wake of CSNY’s Déjà Vu and featuring guests including the Grateful Dead, Joni Mitchell, Grace Slick and Graham Nash. “I was familiar with a couple of his songs with The Byrds,” says Åkerfeldt, “but it was that solo record that got me into his way of writing vocal harmonies. If I Could Only Remember My Name has had a massive influence on me over the last couple of years.”
First Utterance (1971)
“Since I discovered Comus a few years ago,” says Åkerfeldt, “they’ve been part of my inspiration, just like Judas Priest and Iron Maiden. They’re so important to my musicality – it’s folk music with death metal lyrics.” The influence of Comus’ debut album is particularly marked on songs like _Elysian Woes _and Moon Above, Sun Below. “People still don’t write those kinds of lyrics today, unless you’re Cannibal Corpse or something. Those lyrics are pretty heavy, like wild British fairytales. [Comus frontman] Roger Wootton’s voice sounded like it was three or four different singers. I know the album by heart. If I’m drunk and someone puts that record on, I’ll air guitar to it.”
One of the wiggiest, most percussive tracks on Pale Communion is Goblin, a meaty instrumental that serves as a tribute to the Italian prog lords of the same name. Åkerfeldt discovered the band while he was working in a record shop. “They did a gangster film called La Via Della Droga , which has a lot of swinging drums on there,” he reveals. “Agostino Marangolo was the ace drummer who also played on my favourite Goblin record, Roller. I thought it was fantastic, a great air-drumming record. Roller is really rock fusion. It’s a bit hipster to be into Goblin right now, especially in Stockholm. People who are into occult metal seem to love them.”
Sad Wings Of Destiny (1976)
Along with Iron Maiden and Kiss, Åkerfeldt’s early musical education was provided by Judas Priest. As with Pale Communion, Priest’s second LP was recorded at Rockfield Studios in Wales. One of the album’s more endearing qualities, he says, is its fallibility. “My favourite records aren’t perfectly recorded. Some parts of _Sad Wings Of Destiny _sound __like they should’ve been redone, for example. But it wouldn’t have become a better record if it was perfectly on time everywhere. I love the human side of things and that’s what I wanted on Pale Communion.” RH