If Wembley Arena inspires thoughts of Simply Red gigs and overpriced lager, that’s probably because it’s true – the ginger crooner is playing a week after this gig, and the beer still requires a small loan. However, for one bitter, sodden autumn evening, this auditorium is housing a sublime bill that questions if Mr O2 is a secret progger. For the two acts embarking on this audacious event, it’s kind of a big deal, even if the stage, as Mikael Åkerfeldt bravely alludes to later, is pushed forward, cutting the arena into half its size.
Anathema, grasping the opportunity to play to thousands, execute the same zest and humility as they would anywhere else. While it could be said that a show like this demands a little nerve-induced reservation, there’s none of this from the Liverpudlians. They might as well be playing the back room of the Dog And Duck, with Vincent Cavanagh heckling the crowd to clap along. The band ripple with conviction as they play a set perfectly catered for the lofty settings that makes songs like Untouchable irresistibly tear-jerking.
Here and there the atmospherics sound a little bruised by the impact of an enormous PA system, but Thin Air circulates the arena like an eagle flying through a canyon, and A Simple Mistake grows from a delicate, shimmering start to a climatic demonstration of vocal unity and mournful guitar hooks, harnessing the epic potential of such an emotive song.
Leaving us on a teaser from their forthcoming album in the shape of Springfield, Anathema wrap up their support slot, take the obligatory crowd pic and wave goodbye with a cheerful “Ta-ra.”
“When people ask me what it was like to play Wembley, I will say… intimate,” says Åkerfeldt, poking fun at the half-size arena.
Jokes aside, you can tell the frontman is chuffed to be here, despite admitting that he’s “fucking tired” after an earlier ferry crossing. Under the banner of An Evening Of Sorcery, Damnation And Deliverance, tonight promises to be a celebration of Opeth’s newest endeavour, plus a plunge into the past. But there’s an early treat in the shape of the rarely played Ghost Of Perdition that causes jaws to hit the floor. A few minutes into the show and Opeth are sounding incredible. Glimmering with cut-glass clarity and enormous power, the fan favourite explodes to the joyous rapture of the audience.
For anyone who thinks the frontman can no longer growl… he really can. This is a mix of clean and harsh vocals at its very best. And if Åkerfeldt is knackered, it doesn’t show. There’s a biting display of proficiency from a band who are acknowledging their heavier past in very fine fettle.
The first part of Opeth’s set is chock full of turns spanning the band’s history, including Demon Of The Fall and the epically dark The Drapery Falls. Heir Apparent from Watershed is a doomy masterpiece, showing that bassist Martín Méndez and guitarist Fredrik Åkesson are just as capable at handling the metallic onslaught of hard-hitting riffs as they are of nimbly navigating delicate pastoral fretwork. A couple of takes from Sorceress blend in with the heavier numbers, and during The Wilde Flowers, a group in the standing area break into a ballroom dance. But it’s Cusp Of Eternity that raises the bar, sounding tremendous amid lights and lasers.
The latter half of the night is dedicated to Damnation and Deliverance, but after such a storming first set, it’s hard to top the momentum and songs like Closure and Death Whispered A Lullaby fall a little flat. It’s by no means a bad performance – Opeth are way beyond putting on a poor show these days – but it doesn’t have the excitement that a set of hits has. It doesn’t help that Åkerfeldt has few good words to say about the albums, describing the recording as a hellish experience that made him sick, and referencing By The Pain I See In Others as a “piece of shit song”.
Ultimately, though, Opeth couldn’t sound slicker and they really benefit from the combination of arena acoustics in an intimate setting, while the prowess of their 2016 material proves they’re better than ever.