Opeth Still Pushing Boundaries

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From their beginnings as one of heavy metal’s most brutal groups, Swedish band Opeth has seen their music move into a more distinct progressive territory. This musical versatility and their flawless execution of said music will be on full display when the group takes the Casino New Brunswick stage tomorrow night.

From his home in Sweden, Opeth founding member, guitarist and lead vocalist Mikael Akerfeldt says the group’s musical progression from their 1995 debut Orchid through 2011’s Heritage has been completely natural and was heavily influenced by the music that he was exposed to while growing up.

‘I was born in 1974 so it was natural for me, once I was old enough to get into the new wave of British heavy metal with bands like Saxon and Iron Maiden,’ Akerfeldt begins. ‘As I grew older, I backtracked, getting into bands like Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin and the Beatles. Once I turned 14 or 15 years old, it was then that I got into heavier music, thrash, speed metal and death metal bands.’

Those latter influences would shine brightly in some of Opeth’s earliest material. The group’s early sound was heavily influenced by the occult and the burgeoning Scandinavian death metal scene. As their career has progressed over the past two decades however, their music has shed some its relentless brutality in favour of more of a progressive sound that would appeal to fans of prog-rock pioneers such as King Crimson and Yes.

The group’s newest record, Heritage, wears these progressive influences proudly. Amidst a constantly shifting rhythm, flawless guitar work and Mikael’s passionate vocals, the group’s desire to move their sound forward is evident. Ironically, Mikael says that for the band to move forward, they continued looking over the history of music.

‘Ever since we got our first record deal in the early ’90s, our sound was drawing from older and older influences, getting into psychedelic music from the ’60s, as well as the progressive rock from the ’70s. I think that is where we really found our sound, fusing heavy metal with those progressive influences.

‘I like to think that all of our records are progressive to an extent though,’ Mikael says. ‘Heritage sounds the way it does because it is the five of us setting up and playing live. So many records these days are computerized; they almost don’t sound human in some ways.’

Not everyone has been jubilant with the shift in direction that Opeth has taken over the last decade, even though it has been a gradual shift. One could argue that for every fan who might have abandoned Opeth because Mikael opted for a considerably more melodic approach to singing, they might have gained an almost equal number of fans thanks to their new approach.

‘This band has been going for a long time. When we were younger, there was this natural tendency to want to play faster and heavier. I’m 38 years old now and from a career standpoint, we have all matured enough to understand that you couldn’t keep going if you are going to put boundaries on your music.’

And while they continue to push musical boundaries in the recording studio, touring is a vital part of Opeth’s continued success.

With album sales having been in arguable free fall for the past decade, groups are undertaking tours more than ever. Mikael doesn’t begrudge touring but says that the process of writing new music is a big passion.

‘A lot of bands can’t make money simply by putting out a new album and so they use new albums as a means to promote a tour and that is in turn how they generate money. That is definitely the case for Opeth as well but I’m not in it for the money.

‘The creative process of making music is what I love the most. It is hard to explain the feeling of writing a piece of music. It is really incomparable to anything else. We will never abandon the creative aspect of making music and become strictly a touring act.’ Mikael admits that Opeth have the best of all worlds at this point in their career. Not only do they have a loyal following who have continued supporting the group over their two-plus decades of making music, they are also in the fortunate position of having virtual carte blanche when it comes to musical direction. Opeth is a group which has based its career on doing things their way.

‘We are lucky because we have been around for 23 years now and after more than 10 albums, there is still a demand for the group. We have never been a singles band and we have never been a commercial, radio-friendly type of group. We don’t really feel much pressure from our record company either. Even with the record industry having changed so much over the last decade, we feel as though we can put out the type of music and albums that we want to release.’

Article published in April 23, 2013 edition of the Times & Transcript