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This article was originally published in issue #10
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Sweden’s Opeth have been on a long journey since the band’s beginning in Stockholm in 1990. Guitarist, singer and songwriter Mikael Åkerfeldt has welded together influences as diverse as Death Metal, Progressive, Jazz and even Folk to produce one of the broader palettes in Rock. He and second guitarist Fredrik Åkesson speak with Jason Constantine, while Levi Clay considers the band’s impressive history.
It was way back in 1990 that guitarist and composer Mikael Åkerfeldt formed Opeth in Stockholm, Sweden. The line-up in those first few years was unstable to say the least but by ‘93 things had sorted themselves out and the guitar duo of Åkerfeldt (who also handled vocals) and Peter Lindgren was well established. This partnership continued until 2007, when Lindgren was replaced by Fredrik Åkesson.
The band’s first effort, ‘95’s Orchid, really set them aside from the rest of the metal scene in that the tunes showed a rich variety of influences and although it’s certainly rooted in the death/black metal genre, the dual guitar approach, piano, acoustic guitars, clean vocals and dynamic contrasts meant this record was something new and exciting for the music fans of the day. Three more albums followed before the band really started to make a big dent on the scene, ‘96’s Morningrise, ‘98’s My Arms, Your Hearse and then ‘99’s Still Life.
Opeth has always been about Åkerfeldt and his writing which has developed a strong blend of Death Metal, Folk and classic Progressive Rock. The influences from bands like Death, Celtic Frost and Carcass are obvious when listening to Åkerfeldt’s riff style, but when you dig a little deeper you realize that bands like Pink Floyd, Yes, Grand Funk Railroad and even fusion bands like Weather Report play such a prominent role in Mikael’s writing that it would be impossible for Opeth to be just another Death Metal band. Mikael recently went on record saying that “I haven’t been listening to death metal since the early ‘90s.” So it’s no wonder that in recent years Opeth have become more and more like a band right out of the ‘70s.
These ideas are evident when you look at the band’s first few albums from the noughties, 2001’s Blackwater Park is often considered the perfect introduction to Opeth’s writing style. 2002 saw the release of Deliverance, which was Opeth’s heaviest outing to date. Five months later and they released possibly one of the most artistically bold statements ever, as Damnation featured no heavy riffs, no death growls and no fast tempos. It paid-off perfectly and a live album followed (Lamentations).
In 2005 Opeth released their first album with Metal mega label, Roadrunner. Ghost Reveries was a huge turning point in Opeth’s career as they had made it into the Metal mainstream. This doesn’t mean that their sound was compromised, in fact Ghost Reveries feels like the perfect balance between Deliverance and Damnation and, for me, to this day the album opener Ghost of Perdition is one of the band’s best songs from their best album. The tuning on this album is also a relatively hotly debated topic with many fans sure that it’s played in open Dm tuning (DADFAD) but I can say with complete confidence that it’s actually in open Dmadd9 tuning (DADFAE) which is a beautiful tuning to play around with.
From a playing perspective, it’s no secret that Mikael is very much a ‘play now ask questions later’ kind of guy. His compositions are only limited by his ear, and never his theoretical knowledge. There are videos out there where Mikael walks through songs like The Lotus Eater and will play a chord and then say “I have no idea what this is called” when talking about a diminished chord. There are some moments in his compositions where simple devices like a series of chromatically ascending minor9 chords and you don’t find that when you sit and worry about writing what is correct. In fact, when writing one of my own tunes a few years ago, when it came to the intro the only way I could get something I liked was to stop thinking and just play “something like Opeth might play” I’ve taken a great deal of pleasure in never analysing that chord!
2008 saw the release of Watershed, which delved deeper into Åkerfeldt’s Folk influences. This is when Åkesson joined the fold and he couldn’t have made a better statement as this album seemed so far removed from the heavy almost gothic quality of Ghost Reveries. Metal Edge magazine gave this disc its album of the year title.
It’s only fitting that we take a look at Åkesson, too, to get a grip of just the sort of guy it takes to back up a fiendish mastermind like Mikael. Åkesson first came to my attention when Chris Amott took a break from Swedish melodic Death Metal band, Arch Enemy. During that period Fredrik filled in, and anyone who knows Arch Enemy’s music, knows that Fredrik had some big shoes to fill! He features on 2006’s Live Apocalypse alongside Mike Amott, where he kicks all kinds of ass. Aside from this, Åkesson is probably most well known for his tenure in Talisman, with whom he put out seven studio albums over a period of 13 years. Fredrik is a solid lead guitarist and one look at his live solos reveals influences from Zakk Wylde to Shawn Lane. Fred is currently a PRS endorser and has his own signature SE model available.
Gearwise Mikael has also had a long running relationship with PRS guitars, of which he has played a wide variety of models. There is an SE signature model single cut available and, in Mikael;s hands, they are usually always tuned to standard tuning or drop D. Ampwise, Åkerfeldt recently signed a deal with Marshall (after a long time with Laney) and he’s opting for the Vintage Modern range.
This brings us to late 2011 and Heritage which couldn’t really be much further from what you might be expecting from one of the absolute kings of progressive metal. We’re back to the Damnation sound in that a lot of the extreme metal features are gone, most notably the death growls. The album opens with a beautiful piano track before moving onto The Devil’s Orchard which has a lot of Åkerfeldt’s diminished sounding harmonic devices and riff style, but the timbres used include sounds like you might expect to find on a Kansas or Deep Purple record. For me it’s the heavily keyboard (Mellotron in particular) driven sound that gives it that real ‘70s vibe. So far the record has been a smash hit and the band are currently out on tour with metal giants Mastodon.
Opeth are genuinely one of the most exciting bands to have your eye on because there really is no telling just what direction they will find themselves heading next. Mikael summarises it perfectly: “Right now I have a hard time seeing that I’m going to go back to writing Progressive Death Metal. I’ve done that for my whole life and I want to discover new ways for this band, and Heritage is a good start for us to collectively do that.” The only thing that is certain is that there will be a hoard of adoring fans eager to follow them on their journey as they know it’s going to be a good one.