Screen Shot 2017-02-02 at 5.30.08 PM

Prog, Jazz Fusion & Death Metal In High Culture: A Chat With Opeth

For more than 25 years, Swedish prog-metal band Opeth have been a major force in heavy music. Led by creative mastermind Mikael Akerfeldt, Opeth continue to push boundaries and experiment within their unique marriage of death metal and folk. Since controversially dropping their trademark death growls from 2010’s Heritage onwards, the band have found new ways to grow, fusing retro jazz and prog elements into their sound, recently resulting in last year’s dynamic Sorceress. As the band gear up for another eagerly anticipated Australian tour, including a special one-off three hour set at the Sydney Opera House to showcase the juxtaposing Deliverance and Damnation albums, guitarist Frederik Anderson took some time to talk us through how he’s grown as a musician through the band’s stylistic change, as well as why their upcoming set at the Opera House is set to be a career highlight.

What are you up to?

I’ve just done six interviews in a row and you’re the last one! I’m home in my apartment in Stockholm, hanging about in the morning. After this, I can just go back to shredding on the guitar!

Do you play constantly when you’re not on tour?

Yeah, I try to play a lot. I like to prep for the tours and go for the set list. I’ve been nerding out on some classical guitar solos as well, trying to keep my playing chops fresh. I try to keep the mentality from when I was 16 or 17 – always wanting to play.

Do you ever try and get away from music when you’re not on the road?

I do think it’s good to step away from it a little bit for a couple of days at least after a big tour. Lately, I’ve been picking the guitar up faster than usual. Sometimes I might have a break for like a week but I’m in this guitar phase right now where I’m just enjoying playing the instrument. It’s good to have a break though and find some new ways in your playing to inspire you.

The style of Sorceress follows the same 70s jazz fusion sound that the band explored on Heritage and Pale Communion. How did those albums challenge your own playing personally as primarily a death metal guitarist?

Mikael writes pretty intricate riffs which are demanding, but when it comes to lead playing it’s inspiring and there are a lot of different styles. Will O’ The Wisp goes for a very Celtic kind of vibe, and then you have the solo in The Wilde Flower which is a far more shred-based kind of solo in the traditional metal vein. The variation between the songs puts the test to you. It’s a challenge to always be thinking about what will suit the song and what will be tasteful for the song.

Which songs from the record did you find particularly hard to perform stylistically?

Both me and Mikael were struggling on the song Era which has this intense syncopated beat that just goes on forever. It’s endless. I had this blood blister on my index finger where I was holding the pick, so every time I hit the frets I was hitting this horrible blister, it just got bigger and bigger. When you listen it sounds pretty simple, but simple things can be far harder than technical things sometimes.

In Opeth’s heavier days there was much less emphasis on solos. Was there any reason you chose to go down a more technical route?

It’s really up to Mikael, he writes everything. He’ll say, “I want you to play a solo there”, and I’m a guitar nerd so I love getting asked that. It depends on the kind of song, but on this album Mikael wanted me to play more than on previous records. But there has to be a purpose.

Theband are also using more keyboards at the momKeyboards have also become a big thing with the band’s live setup as well as studio recently. What new possibilities did that open up when recording Sorceress?

Well, Mikael decided to add them into our stuff more prominently after the Watershed album. Our old player Pier Wilburg was in the band since the Lamentations live DVD, which was when we started using keys live, and we started using keys more in the studio on Ghost Revelries, which you can hear on songs like Baying Of The Hounds. Mikael is a big fan of the old 70s prog and heavy rock stuff which has lots of Moogs and Hammonds and Mellotrons and all that spooky sound hat you can create. It’s been a big part of the sound since Blackwater Park but not to the same extent. I think after Watershed we changed a lot of stuff. Some riffs which were meant to be played on the guitar underwent a style change and were played with the keyboard sound instead, which created a cool different vibe. The previous album had more keyboards but Sorceress is more guitar based. Mikael writes all the keyboard parts as well, he spends a lot of time thinking about it. He knows what he wants to hear and he figured it out with a modern technique, and then our keyboard player has to figure it out, although sometimes he will remind Mikael that he doesn’t have 12 fingers.

How long did it take you to warm up to that change of style? Were you always a fan of that sound?

I was always a fan of it. I grew up with Black Sabbath and Rainbow era Dio. I’m also a big fan of Rush and King Crimson. I’m a metal head at heart, we all are, but it wasn’t too strange to change it. I do remember when Mike brought it up, right before we did Heritage – it was a bit of a shock. But I heard the songs and it made sense. To put growls in the songs for the hell of it would have been cheesy, it would have become a gimmick. I can understand that some people are frustrated, but we’ve done three albums and the metal element is still a huge part of our sound, we don’t shy away from that. It’s just none of us wanted to stagnate and to repeat ourselves. Mikael felt that he took the extreme metal thing to its peak on the Watershed album so now we are just thinking about how to do things in different ways. That being said, Sorceress is getting a bit more heavy, but I think the new stuff and the old stuff go well hand in hand in the live situation. They feed off each other well and create a good dynamic.

Turning to your upcoming tour, the band are doing these special one-off shows around the world showcasing the Deliverance and Damnation albums, one of which will be in Sydney. Those albums came out before you were in the band, but what is your opinion of the Opeth of the early 2000’s?

Deliverance is probably my favourite Opeth album right now. We are playing songs like By The Pain I See In Others and we had never played it live before, and it’s challenging but so enjoyable! I practised the songs so much at home that I felt like I was a part of the song, even though I wasn’t, to get the right type of feel to it. We had to get it to melt into the DNA. Playing songs from Damnation such as Death Whispered A Lullaby are also really enjoying because they are such atmospheric songs. It’s a lot of fun, as well as going older stuff like material from Still Life and Morningrise. It’s always a challenge to nail everything, and sometimes you stand there onstage and just think “How the hell are we going to remember all this stuff?”

To wrap up, the Sydney show is going to be at the Opera House which is a high cultured venue where you might not traditionally hear a death metal band in full flight. The band have also played the like of Royal Albert Hall and Radio City Music Hall in the past. What’s next on your quest of bringing metal to the cultured?

I think on this previous tour we even played some of these more classical concert venues, and that’s great so we don’t alter the set at all. It’s awesome for the acoustic listener in those places, so when we play cities we are trying to play different venues every time because the venue really frames the show. It makes the night special and different for us and the listener. Just to be able to play the Opera House is something that I would never believe would be happening- it’s just mind-blowing. Of course, you have big goals like playing Maddison Square Garden, but there’s nothing wrong with having big goals. It would have been great to play Hammersmith Odeon in the UK or the Budokan in Japan, but the list goes on. However, it’s very difficult to top the opera house. That’s the highlight. You can play places that hold more people but I reckon it’s very prestige and the fact that we are the first band in the metal community that gets to play there is also a very big thing for us. It was the same with the Royal Albert Hall. We got to do death metal growls in a posher venue and it felt rebellious. I remember Mikael walked up to the mic in the Royal Albert Hall and was just like “Can I say cunt in here?” We’re just a bunch of silly boys.

Opeth will be touring Australia alongside Caligula’s Horse over the next week. See below for dates.

 Opeth Sorceress Tour Dates
Saturday 4th February- Tivoli Theatre, Brisbane
Monday 6th February- Sydney Opera House, Sydney *SOLD OUT* (Caligula’s Horse not appearing)
 Tuesday 7th February- 170 Russell, Melbourne *SOLD OUT*
Wednesday 8th February- 170 Russell, Melbourne
Friday 10th February- Thebarton Theatre, Adelaide
Saturday 11th February, Metro City, Perth
Image: Supplied