Beauty & Brutality: Opeth bring both the progressive and the extreme to delight fans
There’s metal, and then there’s the metal I like … which tends to be the original 70’s bands I grew up listening to or more melodic styles, definitely not death or black metal. So when I heard Swedish death metal band Opeth were coming to Beijing, initially I didn’t pay much attention to it. But then a friend told me I’d probably like their new album, so I started listening to Heritage on xiami.com and quickly agreed. This album sounds more like the music I grew up listening to: Jethro Tull, Black Sabbath, Deep Purple and is nothing like what I’d expected when I heard the death metal tag. The more I listened to Opeth’s back catalogue, the more interested I was to see these guys live, even the heavier earlier albums didn’t scare me off! So Saturday afternoon I headed over to Tango with probably their biggest China fan, Kaiser Kuo, to meet the band and find out why their new album has taken a more Prog Rock direction. As a newbie to their music, I didn’t feel I’d do them justice writing this review, so here’s Kaiser’s take on the show, the band and the new album:
Kaiser on Opeth:
Let’s make this clear at the outset: I love Opeth. Don’t read what I have to say and expect me to be remotely dispassionate. The Stockholm-based ensemble has reigned as my favorite band now for three years now, and the albums Blackwater Park, Damnation, Deliverance, Watershed and Ghost Reveries have been my constant companions. When I learned they were coming to Beijing to play at Tango 3/F Live House, I whooped in delight and may actually have kissed one of the organizers from Painkiller magazine. It was late. I was at Temple, and I had a few double scotches in me.
I love Opeth for the reasons that I love the idea of Metal. Too many bands in that genre fall short of what Metal might be. No band but Opeth has, by my lights, so closely approached the Platonic form first hinted at by its early progenitors like Sabbath and Priest. No bands have explored the full range of human emotion that Metal (and only Metal, if you ask me) is capable of expressing: from delicate, ethereal beauty to crushing, violent brutality. Opeth has all the brains and all the brawn you could possibly want, treating the listener to the sublime to the savage. Revenge, agony, terror, bloodlust, horrific loss, Faustian bargains, sorrow, solitude—this is the stuff that Metal’s made of, and this is what Opeth serves up so deliciously. Unlike many other bands who’ve been classed as “Prog Metal,” their abundant chops are put to use judiciously, in the service of a big musical ideas and not for gratuitous, tedious heroics.
Mikael Akerfeldt has said before that he regards Judas Priest’s Sad Wings of Destiny as the greatest Metal album of all time, and so it didn’t take me by complete surprise that during soundcheck in Beijing, the band started playing the Priest classic Victim of Changes. Standing more or less alone in front of the stage as they did this was the kind of joy one rarely experiences in life. I managed to get invited to interview the band for a bit after soundcheck. A young woman from I’m not sure what magazine or website was there, and asked the usual questions about whether Mikael will be going back to the death growl after its conspicuous absence on the latest album, Heritage (2011). He was noncommittal, saying that he’s been a bit bored with it of late and enjoys melodic singing more these days. I chimed in with (probably equally unoriginal) questions like, “Working with Steve Wilson (of the Prog band Porcupine Tree) has obviously influenced Opeth in a more Prog direction. But would you say that the influence has gone the other way, too?” A bit of a disingenuous question, knowing that PT has gotten a whole lot heavier since Akerfeldt and Wilson began their association. Mikael said that they have every intention of continuing to work with Wilson. I asked Mikael where else he sees glimmers of more cerebral Metal on the scene and he pointed at bands like Mastadon (yup!).
Opeth took the stage just after 8:30, beginning the set with seven death growl-free tracks: The Devil’s Orchard and I Feel the Dark (both from Heritage), Face of Melinda from Still Life, Slither (the rocking tune on Heritage that Mikael dedicated to the late, great Ronnie James Dio), Credence from My Arms Your Hearse, To Rid the Disease (Damnation), and Folklore from Heritage. Then the fun really started, at least for those of us who’d really miss the brutal shit were they to dispense with it altogether: Heir Apparent (from Watershed, my favorite song and probably favorite album by Opeth) was followed by Baying of the Hounds from Ghost Reveries, then Drapery Falls from Blackwater Park, and finally Deliverance from the album by that name as an encore. The band was tight as you like, and even though I was up too close to the stage to hear the house mix properly, the sound was perfect, capturing all the sudden dynamic change that makes their music so powerful. Okay, Fredrik Akesson’s guitar amp was louder in the front than would have been ideal, but the guy has such great tone and plays so well that I’m not complaining. Martin Axelrot was in fine form on drums, moving from the delicate, almost jazz-like hi-hat and ride work called for on the quieter songs to the hard-hitting rib-rattling double bass rolls on the last five songs in the set.
If work didn’t require me to be here in Beijing all week, I would probably have bought a ticket to Seoul, or to Tokyo, to catch them again there. Do NOT miss an opportunity to see Opeth. To see them is to witness an elevated, intelligent Metal that will change the way you think of the genre.
Even as a newbie to their music, I’d have to say this will probably be one of my top shows of 2012, and Folklore from the Heritage album is quickly becoming one of my favourite songs. I am so glad I discovered Opeth in time to see them play live. While I’ll probably never be the biggest fan of the death growl, I can appreciate the 20 year progression that’s got them to where they are now and look forward to hearing where they’ll take this on the next album.