I doubt many in the world of extreme music would contest Opeth as one of the most ground breaking and influential bands of the last twenty years. Mikael Akerfeldt and co providing some of Progressive Death Metal’s defining moments throughout a career spanning ten studio albums. With this years “Heritage” album, there appears however to be a definite split amongst Opeth fans, as Akerfeldt takes his primary prog rock influences, producing a homage to his youth and while “Heritage” isn’t the first time he’s rejected the metallic growl, in favour of clean vocals, the case with 2003’s Damnation, a feeling pertains for some, this is a step too far from the Opeth path. Personally, “Heritage,” unless something extraordinary surfaces between now and December 31st, is my album of the year, I’m transported back to my teenage years, surrounded by vinyl records of King Crimson, Deep Purple, Rainbow, Rush, Emerson, Lake and Palmer or Yes with their iconic Roger Dean sleeve art. Arguments and on occasions, even fights broke out in the school common room as we prog rockers, defended our musical maestros against The Sex Pistols, The Clash, The Stranglers, The Dead Kennedys, Anti Nowhere League or Crass. Those punks couldn’t play, where were the twenty minute guitar and drum solos, how could you compare Sid Vicious to Chris Squire as a bass player and you having a laugh, Dave Greenfield tops the best keyboard player poll in Sounds and not Rick Wakeman, the world’s gone mad!!!
In the confines of the Manchester Academy, the Opeth faithful gather, a hint of nervousness palpable with hushed discussions based around the set lists from earlier gigs in the tour, appearing to eschew more metal aspects. Not the easiest of arenas for support band Pain of Salvation to enter, although with their many years of experience, an enthusiastic response is garnered after thirty minutes, running through a range of styles commencing with a doom ambience, through classic rock, saving the progressive variations until the end which ultimately won over a good proportion of the audience. While not exactly awe inspiring, Opeth’s country men provided solid early evening entertainment.
As the lights dim and purple spots pick out the faces on the stage backdrop, which replicates the “Heritage” album cover, the anticipation is palpable. Immediately the band take their places, the tone of the evening is set, the opening riff to “The Devil’s Orchard” exploding from the stage as Opeth blast through track two from the latest record. Followed immediately by “I Feel the Dark,” again from Heritage, with the back catalogue initially represented by “Face of Melinda” taken from 1999’s “Still Life” the mellower approach is apparent, and indeed, not a single death growl is uttered from Mikael Akerfeldt throughout the night, a very reserved set in Opeth terms offered, incorporating completely clean vocals. This apparently doesn’t appeal to all, as a small, but visible amount of audience members make the decision to leave mid-way through the gig, deciding their personal 11/11/11 musical remembrance service, will take place elsewhere. To ignore the albums and tracks which brought adulation in the first place is a dangerous game to play, although in general, triumph, mainly because they are an incredible collection of musicians and given time, the new material time is extremely strong. I could quite happily stand and watch the rhythm section of Martin Mendez and Martin Axenrot alone, bass and drums outstanding contributors when manipulated in this manner, I have however learned over the years, a drum solo isn’t the greatest of ideas and could readily wish back those five minutes of my life.
Tonight’s performance is not without insecurities however, lead guitarist Fredrik Akesson appears nervous, especially in the early stages, furtively glancing into the crowd not confident of a positive response especially during a trio of acoustic numbers, talking within the crowd completely audible above the music. Even the ever confident and calm Akerfeldt almost losing his cool on one occasion, a shouted request is met with a curt “no” although he quickly recovers, changing the subject skilfully to early tours the U.K, playing to two or three people at The White Horse in High Wycombe, comparing the old days to the large attendant crowd tonight, which is met with rapturous applause. Although Opeth produce a brilliant evening of progressive rock music, “Slither” a song written for and dedicated to the late, great Ronnie James Dio and “Hex Omega” being personal highlights, there’s an almost pervading sense of Swan Song to the proceedings. Akefeldt appears to be unshackling himself from his past, ready to walk a different path, even encoring with “Folklore” another new song, if you want to accompany him, all well and good, if not……..that’s your decision, not his.
Yes, Opeth have changed tack in previous years, particularly in 2003 with “Damnation,” this time conversely, something feels different, “Heritage” perhaps the beginning of a new era, under the Opeth name, I’m not sure? The band has maintained a revolving door policy over the years, perhaps not too much therefore should be read into keyboardist Per Wilberg being relieved of his duties back in April, as symbolised on the album cover by his head falling off the tree. Joakim Svalberg, well worthy of mention filling the position on keys admirably, taking the prog rock references even further, with Rick Wakemanesque looks, dressed in retro brown leather bomber jacket and Pink Floyd t-shirt. Who knows, Mikael Akerfeldt will probably astound everyone by producing an album incorporating the most deathly of death metal and Opeth will evolve once more……. Or is that just wishful thinking.