Tag Archives: Mikael Åkerfeldt

It’s Prog Jim, but no pale imitation

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Some fine rock albums have been released this year: Pixies’ Indie Cindy; The Arcade Fire’s Reflektor; Elbow’s The Take Off And Landing Of Everything; Mex’s Dr Jekyll & Mrs Hyde; Bushman Bros. Condensation Fear (of which more later) and Mastodon’s Once More ‘Round The Sun. I’m tempted, on first impression to say that Opeth’s just-released Pale Communion has earned its place on the top of this distinguished pile… and then some.

Much of previous album Hertitage (2011) sounded like Opeth were trying to be a different band: out with the metal, in with acoustic, jazz-folk meanderings. If their previous ‘departure’ album, Damnation was merely Opeth without the loud bits, that album pointed the way down stranger paths, often veering miles away from anything resembling rock. If you’re not familiar, imagine Talk Talk‘s Spirit Of Eden meets Nick Drake. Even when metal did occasionally rear its head and holler – as on Slither – it sat uneasily amongst the other brooding, wandering compositions. Being an homage to metal of yore, and the – then – recently-departed Ronnie Dio in particular, it exposed a little of trad metal’s roots in the R’n’B scene which was a proving ground for Dio and his contemporaries. It’s perhaps noteworthy that this is something that Scandinavian ‘extreme’ metallers have, historically, eschewed doing; especially whilst labouring under the moniker ‘black’. But if the album had soul – and even the harshest of prog/metal critics must surely acknowledge that singer, Mikael Åkerfeldt possesses a spine-tinglingly soulful set of pipes, when resisting the temptation to growl like Cookie Monster – it was rather of the ‘tortured’ variety.

So it surely comes as a surprise to come across a track like Goblin, five tracks into PC: as if relocating a Dirty Harry car chase to ’70s Stockholm streets in winter, Opeth have never sounded so groovy. There’s an element of homage/pastiche (most writers have reached immediately for the song’s Italian namesake – I’d also venture Barrett Martin‘s Tuatara soundtrack collective, and also the instrumental breaks featured on the last Steven Wilson album) but not a whiff of ripe Gorgonzola. And PC is full of such statements of intent.

Opener, Eternal Rains Will Come has the feel of fellow Swedes, Katatonia when they dial back on the metal, replete with sweet melancholy, albeit pushing the ‘prog’ further than they’ve yet dared. It’s three minutes before we hear any vocals: a knotty, stuttering instrumental section giving way around the two minute mark to some characteristic Åkerfeldt clean guitar melodies. Heritage also began with a three-minute instrumental but they have little else in common: this song – and album – are a very different proposition, despite my initial impression formed from hearing trailer single, Cusp Of Eternity. The latter – and second track on PC – would have fitted fairly comfortably on their previous release. Most everything else, not so much.

If Steven Wilson once purloined a little of Opeth‘s metal grit when he first hooked up with the band back in 2000, then River suggests Åkerfeldt has called in the debt: the two writers evidently share a certain melodic sensibility, but Opeth have never so closely approximated the bittersweet tone and structural development of a Wilson/PT piece. The harmonies are beautiful.

Voice of Treason‘s stabbing strings and twinkling Rhodes piano recall Apollo 440‘s most Stealth Sonic exploits at the start, before taking off on a thrilling crescendo that finally gives way to a few bars of quiet, almost spiritual reflection. This fades into final track, Faith In Others: also a cinematic, string-drenched piece it’s surely Åkerfeldt‘s best ballad to date. It’s a fitting closer that reminds me, in its emotional maturity and expert mastery of tension and release rather than style, of Marillion‘s latterday balladic excursions; such as Sounds That Can’t Be Made.

And yet, all musical reference points aside, the tone, melodies and arrangements are unmistakably Opeth. If Heritage represented Åkerfeldt‘s time in the wilderness, ruminating and expanding his musical mind in all directions; PC sees him digging deep, consolidating all that he has loved and absorbed over 3-plus decades as a music fan and bringing it to bear in the evolution of his own style.

Where Heritage was sparse, this is lush; and whilst the former’s twinkling, intriguing subtleties are still there, they here serve to augment rather than carry the songs. Åkerfeldt told it true: this album is very much about melody, but it also resurrects and reimagines what was great, dynamically about the band’s latter metal recordings; keyboards, strings and drums lending much of the weight once provided by guitar parts. Yoakim Svarlberg (keys) and Martin ‘Axe’ Axenrot (drums/percussion) really excel thruout; and on reflection I realise – as I suspect many fans will – that it was that dynamic range and richness, as opposed to the metal per se that was missed on Heritage. I’ve grown to appreciate and enjoy, if not really love the latter; but this… this is something else. If you’re an Opeth fan of old who lost the faith over the last couple releases I urge you reconsider. PC is stunning from start to finish – or as near as damn. To date, Blackwater Park has been my gold-standard Opeth release (honorable mentions for Ghost Reveries and Deliverance: silver and bronze) but with this album the band have crested a new peak of creativity.

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Cusp of release… almost.

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In case you missed the memo, Opeth are due a new album in a couple months and are now trailing it with Cusp of Eternity, track two from Pale Communion:

The full tracklist is as follows (see Prog magazine for more)

  1. Eternal Rains Will Come
  2. Cusp of Eternity
  3. Moon Above, Sun Below
  4. Elysian Woes
  5. Goblin
  6. River
  7. Voice of Treason
  8. Faith in Others

On this song alone, it’s hard to ascertain if Mikæl Åkerfeldt and co have made good on their promise of a record both, ‘more melodic’ and ‘darker and heavier’ than Heritage. In the vein of The Devil’s Orchard which trailed the latter, it purveys a slightly streamlined, sanded-down version of the classic Opeth sound – rich in characteristically-sombre melody, albeit shorn of the ‘Marmite’ growls – which walks a fine line between satisfying long-time fans and signposting a sound with broader rock appeal. On the strength of …Orchard, critics might have been forgiven for concluding Opeth had recorded their ‘Black Album‘, The reality turned out somewhat differently, as we now know: Heritage may be markedly less brutal, yet every bit as challenging for that: tracks like I Feel The Dark and Famine were never likely to trouble daytime radio listeners’ ears, never mind set fists-a-pumping in stadiums.

To my ears Cusp… would have sat quite comfortably on Heritage, had it been recorded at the time. Sure, the guitars are a little crunchier-sounding but the song is still recognisably a member of the same extended family of songs sired by Åkerfeldt and Steven Wilson during that fruitful period from 2010-12 which also includes Storm Corrosion and Grace For Drowning. One might even look back as far as 2008 and Mellotron Heart for signs that times were a-changing in camp Opeth. If that moody, idiosyncratic prog rock niche is your thing, Pale Communion is likely to be more music to your ears: Opeth fans of yore, yearning for a return to throat – and ear – shredding growls are liable to be further disappointed.

Dark Eternal Might

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Opeth have been, over the past decade-and-a-half, one of the most consistently interesting exponents of heavy rock music. Within the broad genre of extreme metal – itself a challenging, exciting and ever evolving scene – they’ve nonetheless stood out for some time, with a run of albums from Blackwater Park (2000) thru to Watershed (2008) that remain unbeatable. If Heritage (2011) fell a little short of that high watermark (to my ears anyway) it wasn’t for lack of ambition; rather that the band’s decision to scale back on the brutality and channel their love of smokey, retro psychedelia and acid folk robbed the songs of the light/dark dynamics that appealed to me in the first place. Much of that record I found initially discordant, meandering and forgettable. And Mikael Åkerfeldt‘s Death growls, which upon my introduction to the band back in the early 2000’s I had found impenetrable and initially off-putting, I found myself missing a great deal; and whilst his ‘clean’ singing voice is also a beautiful thing, woody and melancholic, he seemed to have misplaced his knack for writing memorable melodies and compelling song structures too.

As it happens, my appreciation for that album has grown over time: there are echoes of latter-day Talk Talk and Scott Walker in its subtle twists and turns; its complex, off-kilter rhythms that repeat listening has teased out. It’s actually a fine record in many ways, if one that – perversely, given the significant reduction in metal extremity – remains their most ‘difficult’ listen. So it was with some relief that I read in a recent interview that the upcoming (June 16th) release of Pale Communion marks a return to a ‘more melodic’ style, to quote Åkerfeldt, who elaborated ‘…I spent a lot of time on vocal lines’.  It also has ‘…a darker and heavier overall vibe than its predecessor’ according to Prog Magazine. Good news all round, then.

Read Greg Kennelty of Metal Injection‘s track-by-track-taster of Pale Communion here

(Though, as with the Åkerfeldt/Åkersson interview below, the album title and track-listing  had yet to be finalized at the time of publication).

Feel free to amuse yourself guessing which song titles correspond to the descriptions above.

Eternal Rains Will Come
Cusp of Eternity
Moon Above, Sun Below
Elysian Woes
Goblin
River
Voice of Treason
Faith in Others

P.s. whilst perusing the Metal Injection page, I chanced upon Mastodon‘s latest single release, High Road

This sounds fantastic! Effortlessly combining the bowel-stirring sludginess of their early albums with the instant hook of last album The Hunter without sacrificing the harmonic complexity and nuance of Blood Mountain and Crack The Skye. The Atlantans are a canny and ambitious lot, for sure. If the rest of the album is up to this standard our ears are in for a treat this summer. In the meantime I’m expecting Indy Cindy (Pixies‘ first new album in 20 years) to land on my doorstep in just over a week. Happy days 🙂

 

Charterhouse days re-revisited

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Fans of ex-Genesis guitar virtuoso Steve Hackett will be aware that he’s been revisiting the back catalogue of that band to an ever increasing extent in the last few years at his live shows. Hackett finds himself in much the same position as his old bandmate Mr Collins, insofar as he has continually enjoyed much respect from his musical peers (notably Eddie Van Halen who credits him with pioneering the tapping technique utilised to much-admired effect on Eruption) whilst being virtually ignored by the mainstream press. Unlike his former colleague, he has managed to avoid the frankly hysterical levels of media hostility and also in contrast to Collins and fellow guitarist Mike Rutherford he has continued to plow a musical furrow that prioritizes exploration, challenge and technique over singer-songwriting convention or radio airplay. For all the critical vitriol spat upon Genesis and Collins in the last two decades, their megastar status during the ’80s remains undeniable: indeed, their refusal to be swept away by the New Wave and actually grow in popular stature is undoubtedly at the heart of much of their, frankly unjustifyable vilification.

Whilst much of ex-Genesis singer, Peter Gabriel‘s solo catalogue has been defiantly progressive in spirit, and the Collins-led trio continued to dabble with long-form, complex composition right up to the end, Hackett stands apart among that band’s former membership with respect to his flying the flag for prog rock per-se; and revisiting the early Gabriel-fronted albums in particular. In 1996 he released Watcher of the Skies: Genesis Revisited which featured new studio arrangements of material from the first seven albums, plus two previously unheard recordings, to mixed but generally positive acclaim from critics and fans.

18 years later he’s doing it again, teaming up with a newer generation of musicians, along with some scene veterans. This second chapter of covers – imaginitively-titled Genesis Revisited II – features a dazzling array of contemporary prog talent, including Steven Wilson (Porcupine Tree), Mikael Åkerfeldt (Opeth, Bloodbath), Conrad Keeley (…Trail Of Dead) and Simon Collins (son of Phil); as well as long term studio and live collaborators including Amanda Lehmann, Nick Beggs and Hackett‘s flautist brother John; and prog-loving pop veteran Nik Kershaw (further boosting his prog credentials following last year’s guest spot on DeeExpus‘s King of Number 33).

As was the case with volume one, the new arrangements are variously similar and significantly different to the original versions. In general the songs sparkle with new embellishments; Hackett‘s playing is tighter and cleaner than in days of yore and, of course, the recording, production and mix are up to a contemporary standard in contrast to the sometimes woolly  sound of the ’70s. What really impresses, though, are the songs themselves: as much as Genesis was a leading exponent of the art/prog rock movement and as such, aspired to high standards of musicianship, they were always songwriters first and foremost. Consequently, whilst some of the more outre experimentations from the ’60s and ’70s has come to sound clunky and willfully obscure, Genesis‘ output for the most part stands up really well: even signature, symphonic extravaganza Supper’s Ready still boasts enough by way of melodic hooks and hummable tunes amongst the widdly-diddly to ensure that its 23-minute duration feels much shorter.

Genesis fans will undoubtedly love this; but even if you’re not a fan this is an excellent opportunity to dip your toe into the dark and mysterious currents of an exceptionally-creative and much-maligned chapter in British rock music.

And you can try before you buy: Prog magazine are streaming the album from their site here