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.


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