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Opeth in NYC: Progressive Rock or Jazz Metal?


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Opeth's sound is varied and very addictive, and it may be that Akerfeldt's long-form songs are the way forward now for popular music.
Nokia Theater
New York City
September 18, 2008

On almost the last official day of summer, Swedish band Opeth brought civility, intelligence, wit, good musical sense and of course rock to New York. In fact, leader and main engine of the band Mikael Akerfeldt said, in his affable, slightly professorial manner after the first couple of tracks, "We're going to have a rock and roll party—all night long!" The 2,100 seat venue roared its approval.

Opeth came into being in 1992 in Stockholm, when Akerfeldt was asked to play bass by a friend in a metal band. Personnel changes followed, and Akerfeldt became the main figure in the group. Soon the band was ready for its first album, and the twenty-one-year old Akerfeldt led the band to the completion of their first record, Orchid (Candlelight, 1995). The genre was "officially" death metal (a more moody, slower form of thrash metal), but the stylistically versatile Akerfeldt (his mother had played him the gamut of '60s and '70s music as a child) was already writing music much wider in style (and influence) than the standard dark metal to that point. Acoustic guitars were included in the sound, and attractive harmonies. Opeth has always painted a picture far broader in scope and depth than just "metal."
Akerfeldt is a composer, as is evident from the length of most of Opeth's songs, which are usually at least seven or eight minutes long. Music of that length can only survive if it is "composed," that is, split into successive sections that work together, like classical music movements.

The Nokia Theatre, just off Broadway in midtown Manhattan, is set up in an almost futuristic way, with two or three groups of television screens spaced every few rows back among the seats. It's not unlike sitting in an airliner. The front area, lower down, is for standing. A tape of Nick Drake (it sounded like "Riverman") played briefly as the time for Opeth to come on stage approached. Then there was a burst of Led Zeppelin's "Whole Lotta Love," but the track only got as far as the riff before Opeth arrived.

The lights revealed the huge "orchid"—the title of the band's first album—an embellished signature "O" letter that Opeth places behind the band members for its gigs: the big "O" has a tail that make it look a bit like an artistic—looking onion.

Opeth is now five pieces: two guitars (Akerfeldt and recently-acquired lead guitarist Frederick Akesson), long-time bassist Martin Mendez, and the relatively recent additions keyboardist Per Wiberg (he began to tour with the band in 2003 and also plays in a Stockholm blues band) and drummer Martin Axenrot, who joined in 2006.

The "previous" Opeth—Akerfeldt says it is now really a new band—included the much esteemed—even loved—musicians' guitarist Peter Lingren and virtuoso drummer Martin Lopez. But Lopez left due to anxiety attacks on tour, and Lingren in 2007. The handling of the change in personel, and Akerfeldt's acknowledgment of it being a new band, is supported by the new prog/jazz/classical feel to the band's music. To "real" musicians, different personnel means different music, even when playing the previous music. Like Duke Ellington or Miles Davis (but unlike most rock bands, who often break up if key members leave), Akerfeldt acknowledges that new band members will mean some kind of change in the music. For example, Akesson plays more virtuoso guitar than his predecessor. And so the performance of older songs will change.

It was Opeth's second appearance in New York this year, as they are a very popular band with their fans, and sell-outs are commonplace. The fans' judgment may be well-placed, since there's a case to be made that Opeth is currently "the best band in the world," which is exactly what one of the support bands (High On Five) called them before leaving the stage. Opeth's sound is varied and very addictive, and it may be that Akerfeldt's long- form songs are the way forward now for popular music. Opeth's music might be characterized as a kind of classical music played by rock cum progressive jazz-rock musicians.

The band took the stage in jeans and T-shirts, and began with two songs from their recent album. The first number, "Heir Apparent," was very heavy at first, but changed to a unison passage of prog-rock style jazz guitar by the two guitarists. The track ended over a slightly moody B minor, G, E minor and F# chord structure. The second song was the popular live favorite "The Grand Conjuration."

After these numbers, Akerfeldt made his first stand-up comic joke of the night (the first of many), promising the "rock and roll party all night long." However, Opeth gigs are invariably a rock and roll party, no promises required: interesting, creative and eclectic songs unfolded, interspersed with the near genius wit of the singer—all to the participatory receptiveness of the crowd.

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 ..."

"Hope Leaves" is a more conventional song, written in one main verse section that is repeated before an instrumental end section, instead of many different sections. One of the main features was a stunning fluid solo by Akesson to finish the piece, ala Mick Taylor of the early '70s Rolling Stones—but it was the opportunity also for more Akerfeldt jokes after the song. "I [...] love Frederick too," he said. And then, as if as an afterthought: "And If you don't like Frederick (delivered in a quasi—Monty Python announcer voice), ... you're a bitch!"

It was also time to "introduce" relatively new drummer Martin Axenrot (who joined in 2006): "Yes, there he is," said Akerfeldt as Axenrot waved to the crowd somewhat shyly with both hands raised outward: "... the Buddy Rich of death metal!" Buddy Rich? The breadth of Akerfeldt's interests and influences was probably well illustrated right there.

Opeth's latest album is Watershed (Roadrunner, 2008): the album entered the Billboard Top 200 at number 23, and the opening song was from it. Akerfeldt introduced the album: "... and we'd like to play a song from that very album right now!" More hilarity from the crowd at this comical statement.

"Yeah, you sound excited," continued Akerfeldt like a stand-up comedian playing the crowd. "Let's see if we can play this one—it starts something like this". Akerfeldt began crooning a medieval sounding chant—like melody accapella. Then the band came in.

Later in the gig somebody threw a coin on stage. "Yeah thanks, a coin. Great," Akerfeldt lamented. He struck a funky chord. "For that, I'm going to play the Doobie Brothers!" He strummed a few funk-like chord rhythms, before finishing up: "It would have been ugly!"

The next track was from the band's second album Morningrise (Candlelight, 1996). Akerfeldt: "It was (pauses for effect) ... 'minstrel' metal (emphasis on both words)". He has said that when the band recorded the album he visualised the music as being played by lutes, and band members brought in chess sets to play between takes! The excellent and descriptive "The Night And The Silent Water" was the song in question. The whole introductory sound of the guitars and their parts evoked the title. Classical! [A blog read by this writer fascinatingly claims that at one point a fan (apparently overheard by the blogger, who was at the gig) said "Did you hear that passage into the diminished seventh. That was incredible!"]

As Opeth songs are usually at least seven or eight minutes in length, after only a relatively few atmospheric and drama-filled tracks the end of the gig was fast approaching! (The concert was ten songs, over about one hour forty minutes).

A more straight-forward traditional dark metal Opeth favorite, "Demon Of The Fall"—"A different type of 'Fall,'" said Akerfeldt—ended the main part of the gig. The band then returned to play many fans' favorite Opeth number, the typically multipart "The Drapery Falls"—from the Blackwater Park album (Koch, 2001)—as an encore. And then the curtain (metaphorically) fell on a brilliant and entertaining occasion, an Opeth gig at the Nokia.

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