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Live Reviews

Opeth in NYC: Progressive Rock or Jazz Metal?

By Published: October 25, 2008

Akerfeldt introduced the third song of the gig as follows. "How are you feeling—are you OK?" in mock concerned tones. "It's one of those things I'm supposed to ask because I'm on stage and, you know... We're going to continue with an obscure song that we don't really like—we don't really like playing it— it **** sucks—from the Still Life album (Peaceville, 1999)—a song called "Serenity Painted Death."

An alternately light, then grimly darker, piece evolved, metal "growl vocals" opening proceedings but soon giving way to Akerfeldt's very appealing straight voice in a later section. Like the majority of Opeth's tunes, this number is written in several parts. The album that the song is from, (Still Life), tells the story of a tragic character who, as an outsider in his village, suffers an unfair fate by the end of the record. The album is sometimes singled out by fans as Opeth's best to date, though there are many candidates for "best album" in Opeth's catalogue. Some tracks from the album have jazz qualities, including the band's ballad of some fame, "Face Of Melinda," on which a fretless bass was used to provide a more jazz-like feel. Jazz guitar-style licks decorated a central section of the tune, sandwiched between dark-metal figures in octaves (an Opeth trademark—the octaves are played by Akerfeldt; guitarist Akesson, a lead guitar specialist, plays the more statospheric lead guitar parts).

An interesting feature of Opeth is that each band-member has pretty much an equal role in the music: in many bands, often the drummer is at the back hammering out a backing, but Opeth's stage set up had each musician positioned as if each were to have an equal sonic role; in the case of drummer Axenrot, the configuration resembled an Indian ensemble in which the tabla player is obviously front stage. And so the audience's attention was occasionally drawn to the punctuating role of the drums, while Akerfeldt waited for his entry, or to the keyboards (although probably less so in their case). There was one moment in the performance where an unexpected beautiful minstrel-like flash erupted from the guitar (or rather, amp!) of Akesson, or when a guitar-sounding figure turned out to have been played by Wiberg at the keyboards—all this, of course, testament to the creative composing of Akerfeldt (in these cases, to his spacing and changes in instrumental texture).

At the end of "Serenity," Akerfeldt explained why the band "doesn't like playing" the song: "The reason we don't like playing that song is it's so *** hard to play!" Laughter fills the venue as yet another Akerfeldt joke hits its mark. But he is right: it's a difficult piece with a lot of intricate parts. Part of Akerfeldt's humor is in his delivery: his mock-concerned speaking tones again asked: "Is it sounding all right so far?" A rhetorical question for sure! The guitar sounds were perfect, and the mix, sculptured by the enormous mixing desk in the centre of the room, excellent. Opeth has a wonderfully smooth guitar sound; on recordings Akerfeldt uses an "ebow" device (a prog-rock guitar effect from the 1970s and now rare). On tour he replicates the sound with various effects settings that do the job live, though it is not a precise replication. He has said he does not take the ebow on tour for fear of losing it!

"So good," remarked a member of the crowd near me. He was referring not just to the music but to the whole Opeth experience, filled out as it is by Akerfeldt's humour. And Akerfeldt continued the entertainment by sending up the lyrics of the somewhat stereotypical '70s and '80s German band the Scorpions: "'Encores to eleven than chinese food. Back to the hotel' ... Profound!," ended Akerfeldt.

The next song was a very attractive slow number, introduced by the singer. "This next song is considered a ballad ...". When Akerfeldt announced that it was from the mellow and relatively acoustic album, the deliberately obversely-titled softer acoustic album Damnation (Koch, 2003), my neighbour was guessing it was the album's opening track "Windowpane." It was in fact the clever "Hope Leaves," a melodic song sung to softly jangling arpeggios and an occasional walking bass.

"I think it's a pretty good song. My voice might sound a bit like Peter Criss in Black Diamond—(during the gig Akerfeldt often catered to his original musical metal "base" by referring to metal bands, not all of them familiar to this writer)—but I'm going to try to sing it ... but I want to see lighters. I want to see Motley Crue tour, 1986 ..."

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