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Opeth live review - Wembley Arena, London

Mikael Åkerfeldt and co prove it’s not the size that matters

A photograph of Mikael Akerfeldt on stage at Wembley
(Image: © Will Ireland)

“When my friends back in Sweden ask me how it was at Wembley, I’ll tell them it was intimate,” deadpans Opeth frontman Mikael Åkerfeldt, 10 minutes into his band’s performance tonight. “I just won’t tell them that it’s intimate because the stage has been moved forward 200 metres.”

Yes, Opeth are technically headlining only half of Wembley Arena, but the reduced size of the venue and the more personable atmosphere that results are both instrumental in making this yet another hugely memorable milestone in the Swedes’ increasingly illustrious history. In fact, it’s nothing short of a miracle that any band that specialises in labyrinthine, 10-minute prog rock epics is able to have Wembley Arena on their tour itinerary in the first place. And as an added bonus, this particular version of this legendary venue is instantly more appealing than the usual soulless fart-chamber. Ignoring the persistent icy draft billowing through the room, this is as warm and welcoming as Wembley has ever felt, and the acoustics are similarly transformed.

For possibly the first time ever in this enduring cavern, the sound is both thunderous and immaculate when none-more-fitting support ANATHEMA [8] hit the stage. Every instrument roars and/or twinkles from the giant PA speakers, and the Liverpudlians are clearly enjoying the peak conditions, grinning their collective way through songs that, in fairness, generally dwell at the opposite end of the emotional scale. Recent classics like Untouchable and Distant Satellites sound more immersive than ever with this level of sonic force and clarity, but it’s the closing brace of Fragile Dreams – still one of the greatest goth rock anthems of all time – and unexpectedly heavy new song Springfield, that receive the noisiest approval from an audience that, in truth, are probably all fans of both bands on the bill anyway. That’s value for money, folks.

Opeth set the stage lights for ‘autumnal’

Opeth set the stage lights for ‘autumnal’ (Image credit: Will Ireland)

Not content with giving diehard fans a support band that a) makes sense and b) isn’t rubbish, OPETH [9] approach tonight’s show like altruistic benefactors with all the time in the world. Clocking in at an opulent 90 minutes, their first set feels like an imperious march through the greatest hits. It begins with a rampaging clatter and chug of new album title track Sorceress, veers off into haughty progressive death mode for Ghost Of Perdition and then floors the old-school pedal for a ferocious Demon Of The Fall. One more new song, the woozily psychedelic The Wilde Flowers, gets a welcome airing, but it’s the moment that Opeth drop down a couple of gears for Face Of Melinda when they suddenly seem to reach a collective equilibrium that elevates the rest of the night to near-magical status. For all his self-effacing sarcasm and calm tolerance of a smattering of loutish, pissed-up hecklers (seemingly a regular phenomenon at Opeth gigs these days… bizarrely!), Mikael seems totally in the moment, lost in his bandmates’ harmonious clangour and – quite plausibly – slightly bewildered by the admirably disorientating and trippy light show that’s going on around him. The greatness of the current Opeth lineup must be beyond dispute by now; Cusp Of Eternity is almost indecently exciting, a lysergic rush of riffs and skewed melody, while The Drapery Falls and Heir Apparent are simply flawless. Ending the first ‘half’ of the set with a reassuringly brutal The Grand Conjuration, Opeth could easily piss off home now and no one present would have a word of complaint.

But no. There’s more. A second set drawn from the Deliverance and Damnation– albums whose turbulent gestation briefly threatened this band’s existence – takes Opeth’s time onstage tonight to a laudable two-and-a-half hours. A rare outing for the wonderfully morose Death Whispered A Lullaby and only the third ever live performance of By The Pain I See In Others are the biggest surprises on offer, both songs more than justifying their inclusion, but it’s the warped raga groove of Closure and the grim doom delirium of Master’s Apprentices (which Mikael introduces by cheerfully admitting that he “stole this from Morbid Angel”) that most incisively exploit the unexpectedly stunning front-of-house sound and the fortuitously enhanced atmosphere. It’s not hard to recall occasions when Wembley Arena has proved a calamitous step-up for bands who either weren’t quite popular enough to fill the seats required to make such an endeavour worth the effort or experienced enough to command a venue this size. But, as terribly earnest as it sounds, Opeth have consistently made extra effort to make every gig they play feel special in one way or another and Wembley has by no means been immune to their strange powers. Somewhat against the odds, as they end an extraordinary show with a precise and devastating Deliverance, it has become unthinkable that tonight has been anything other than a total triumph. These intimate gigs are brilliant, aren’t they?

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Dom Lawson has been writing for Hammer and Prog for 14 intermittently enjoyable years and is extremely fond of heavy metal, progressive rock, coffee and snooker. He listens to more music than you. And then writes about it.