OPETH: "A Bleak Harvest"

Interview by Dr. Abner Mality

A cold wind is preparing to blow across the land, bringing with it the smell of decay and ancient sorrow. Opeth is coming to the USA! Hailing from the frozen but musically fertile land of Sweden, this fourpiece is one of the most critically acclaimed bands in the metal underground today. The band seems to fit in no category except its own.

By mixing aggressive, complex metal with influences such as Gothic, folk and progressive rock, Opeth has created some extremely challenging and melancholy music. The overall feeling is gloomy yet lush and the band's lengthy songs, often exceeding the 8 minute mark, range from subdued acoustic moments to raging death metal. Opeth has now unleashed their fifth album "Blackwater Park" on the public. For their first ever tour of the US, they've gone out on the road with the brilliant Nevermore for a powerhouse package.

Thrash-head and I recently caught Opeth at a historic night at the Hard Rock Cafe in Chicago (it was the first ever REAL metal show at the renowned tourist trap). After witnessing them live, I can honestly say that this band is like nothing else in metal today. Totally devoid of any of the standard cliches, their live performance is extremely intimate as opposed to the usual cock rock/death metal posing. Lead singer Mikael Akerfeldt (he of the glorious growl and silken croon) is a subdued but funny frontman. The performance demands a lot of attention from the listener, as Opeth create advanced soundscapes with intense emotion and musicality. The crowd responded to their unusual approach with a lot of appreciation.

Therefore, with "Blackwater Park" in the stores and the band conquering the US, the time was right for me to speak to a friendly and articulate Mikael about the band's steady rise as well as his immense collection of vinyl LPs...

Wormwood Chronicles: You're playing the US for the first time. What do you think the big difference will be between US and European fans?

Mikael Akerfeldt: There is a difference! We've only played in the States once before, at the 2000 Milwaukee Metalfest, and the fans there were screaming a lot more. But they were standing still. The European fans were going nuts but they weren't screaming as loud. That's the main difference. We have high expectations coming over here because the Milwaukee gig was pretty much amazing.

WC: Opeth has a very intricate sound on record. Are you confident you can recreate that sound live?

MA: You know, we started this band in 1990 and we've always been playing basically the same kind of material. We're getting used to it now... It's not strange or out of the ordinary for us, we just pull off the songs as best we can.

WC: On "Blackwater Park", a lot of the material goes from acoustic to electric and back again. Will that give you any problems live?

MA: We don't have acoustic guitars live. We just basically play the acoustic bits with very clean electric guitar. We just switch from distorted to clean

WC: You've got a song "Harvest" on "Blackwater Park" that is almost entirely acoustic and laidback. Would you have any problems playing something like that live for a Metalfest type crowd?

MA: I don't think so. We have five albums out and the people who are seeing us I hope are Opeth fans who want to see us playing Opeth songs. I think they pretty much want to hear some of the mellower stuff from us. I'm not sure we're going to play "Harvest", though, because that track almost requires acoustic guitars. We have played another mellow track live, though. That was "Credence", from the 3rd album "My Arms, Your Hearse". I think we might play that one on the tour.

WC: Could you see yourself playing with non-metal bands in the future, do you want to expand into that area?

MA: Well, we are a metal band. so it's easier if we go out with metal bands. It depends. We're not gonna go out with KC and the Sunshine Band, y'know! It's got to be some kind of "rock" band. We're going to be doing a show here in Sweden with Porcupine Tree, they feature the guy who produced "Blackwater Park" (who is Steven Wilson-Dr. Mality). They are almost like RadioHead in style, which is more rock than we are. But I think it's a good match. I can't see us playing with U2 or anything like that, though.

WC: The press release for "Blackwater Park" described you as being "cold, dark metal". Is that an accurate description or is there more to Opeth than that?

MA: You've got hear Opeth to know what it is. We basically say that we are a metal band. I'd feel stupid saying that we were "progressive forest metal" or something like that. At the end of the day, we're just a metal band but we have many different influences..It's hard to put your finger on exactly what style we are playing. You've got to hear it for yourself and make up your own mind.

WC: I read where "Blackwater Park" was the actual name of a very obscure band. What can you tell me about that?

MA: Yeah! I'm a vinyl record collector so I'm on the hunt for obscure stuff. Mostly 60's and 70's stuff. There was this German band called Blackwater Park that released only one album back in 1971. It's super-duper hard to find. I found it myself, payed a fortune for it and it's a good album. It's not like we named our record after them as a homage, we just thought it was a good title. The band itself sounds a lot like Uriah Heep or Deep Purple.

WC: I like to hunt down obscure stuff myself. I just got the remastered version of "Mystification" by Manilla Road...

MA: Yeah, I know 'em! They're pretty cool. I work in a record store and I think we had one Manilla Road vinyl LP and it went for $40. Pretty expensive...I'm usually looking for stuff from the UK or Krautrock stuff...

WC: Like Gong?

MA:Oh yeah, I like Gong, but it's a bit too funny for me. Kinda dated. I liked a band from the UK called Cressida who put out 2 LPs in the 70's on the Vertigo label. They're absolutely amazing but totally obscure, nobody's heard of them. It's a shame because they were a great band.

WC: Well, I've got an original Vic Vergat! But we better move to another subject, because we could spend all day on this(laughter). I'm always amazed by your tremendous vocal range. Is that something that comes naturally to you or do you have to work hard at it?

MA: When I started in the band in the late 80's, it was a pure death/thrash band and I was the singer. I started out with the death grunts. I've developed that style thru the years and I've learned as much as you can about that. I can go as deep as I want and as high-pitched as I want. The "normal" vocals are more interesting because you never completely master them. I'm still learning, I'm still a beginner with that style. I'm going to experiment more with them in the future, maybe.

WC: The contrast keeps the listener more interested...

MA: Yeah, I think so,too! And that's what we want to create. It's an important part of Opeth. We do that with the music, also. We have those very aggressive distorted parts that contrast with the mellow acoustic bits.

WC: Your death vocals reminded me a lot of Nick Holmes in the early Paradise Lost. They were deep and growling but you could really understand the individual words...

MA: Yeah, cool! That's important, I can't stand when it's just "BLURRGGHH!". I've always been a fan of Chuck Schuldiner(Death) and David Vincent (old Morbid Angel). David Vincent is probably my biggest idol in the death metal vocal realm. Nick Holmes was very good in the beginning, also...

WC: Your lyrics are very poetic. They transmit emotions but they don't really seem to tell a concrete, "A to B" type story.

MA: No. I feel these kinds of lyrics go along with the music. I work a lot with my lyrics. I'm not very "straight", if you know what I mean. I tend to be a bit cryptic. If I have a simple line, I rewrite it so it's more open to interpretation. Everybody can get their own idea on what it's about. I don't know why but this approach suits the music.

WC: Was there any author or poet who was inspirational to you as far as your lyrics go?

MA: Not really, I don't read that much. I get bored very fast when I read so it has to be immediate, it has to keep my attention. If I read a book, it's always a twisted book, like "American Psycho". That inspires me, in a way. I don't read really deep stuff like Solzhenitsyn. People think I read a lot of poems and stuff. I don't. I read fanzines like yours!(A man of fine and discriminating taste!-Dr. Mality)

WC: Are you going to continue in your total death metal side project Bloodbath?

MA: Well, there are plans to do a full-length Bloodbath album but I'm not really that involved. I'm just the singer. It's really Anders from Katatonia's thing, it's his project. He comes up with the music. I gonna put down some screams on the record. We do Bloodbath just for the fun of it, because we are huge death metal fans.

WC: Your main focus will always be Opeth.

MA: It is. It's my main band.I've been striving for years to reach the position where we're at now with Opeth. I'm not going to leave that for anything.

WC: Do you think your current line-up is the ultimate Opeth line-up?

MA: Yeah, I do, actually! It feels really good, it's stronger than the first line-up we had. I think we've developed a lot over the years and everybody seems very happy to be in the band.

WC: Have you guys ever had what we call a Spinal Tap moment?

MA: (sighs) Ummm... well, we don't play live very often. I can think of some weird stuff that's happened to us, I don't know if you would call it Spinal Tap stuff. Me and the drummer got held up in customs in the States, they asked us tons of odd questions. Like, "what are you doing here in the US?". Well, we told them we had come over to watch our favorite band, Opeth, play live.(laughter). Strange stuff happens all the time when you're on the road, the whole experience seems to be Spinal Tap to us.

WC: What was the last CD you bought?

MA: Shit, I don't buy CD's that much, I'm a vinyl collector. I usually buy 20 at a time. One of the last ones I got was by an Australian band called Master's Apprentice, which was like psychedelic rock.

WC: What was the last concert you saw?

MA: When we were doing press in London, The Haunted and Nile were playing so we went to go see them. I didn't get that much out of Nile because their sound was poor. They're so brutal, you have to have a good sound for a band like that.

WC: Any final words for the fans here in the States?

MA: Just check out "Blackwater Park" and watch out for us on tour, we are looking forward to checking out the States! I can't add much more than that. "Blackwater Park" is a truly epic dose of gloomy metal that will put a smile on your face while making you feel like slitting your wrists! And don't pass up Opeth when they hit the road with Amorphis, Nevermore and Shadows Fall! It will be a bleak harvest,indeed!