February 23, 2006
Chuck Eddy’s got me reading Are You Morbid, the memoir of Celtic Frost frontman Tom G. Warrior (check for the interview next week), and it’s full of this type of thing: “We can’t even afford a damned four-track recorder. Us, the mighty Celtic Frost, inventors of avante-garde heavy rock!” I like to imagine that the dudes in Opeth think in sentences like these. Over fifteen years and eight albums, the Swedish band has been doing everything it can to make its death metal more epic and symphonic, tempering its screams with stretches of lullaby dove-coos and prog flourishes, rarely recording songs that aren’t ten-minute-plus multi-movement works. It’s tough to imagine a band like Darkthrone playing a show like the one Opeth did last night, selling out an ornate seated venue and thus making moshing impossible so the band could do a full-on career retrospective, playing tracks from every one of its album, going chronologically forward from its debut.
Opeth’s pretensions can get them in trouble; Ghost Reveries, their pretty-great 2005 album, has a song called “Hours of Wealth” that’s all watery blues-guitar noodles and impressionistic New Age piano and lyrics about “once I am sure of my task I will rise”; it should be playing on the Road House soundtrack while Patrick Swayze practices tai chi or something. But more often, their sweeping pomp gives their metal a sense of wonder and majesty. Even their demon-roar surges are more pretty than brutal, and their solos are more about glacial melody than technical wankery. Their thing is gentle grandeur, not pulverizing force. I hadn’t heard them before Ghost Reveries, but judging by last night’s show, they came into the game with their aesthetic fully formed. The band hasn’t switched up its style much over the course of its career. Instead, the variations come within the songs themselves, as the band is fully capable of packing in triumphant Iron Maiden twin-guitar leads and vaguely Middle-Eastern synths and pseudoclassical acoustic flourishes and disco hi-hats and Sabbath bass-thuds and eerie floating pianos and furiously churning blastbeats and reverbed-out psychedelic organ-haze into a single track. The fluffy quiet parts could get to be a bit much, but the set never stayed boring for more than two or three minutes at a time, more than I can say for Opeth’s alt-rock counterparts Sigur Ros. As soon as they’d taken one of their healing-crystal lulls as far as it could go, they’d charge into another unforgiving death-groove. The newer stuff, especially the Ghost Reveries material, seemed more confident than the early work, like they’d been fully committed to their basic idea from the beginning but they’d slowly been growing into it since then. It’s hard not to love a band willing to sound as ridiculous as Opeth often does in its relentless search for transcendence; they give prog a good name.
Given the meticulously funereal sonic architecture of their songs, I was expecting a truly theatrical stage show: capes, candelabras, smoke machines. But no, the band just walked out in black jeans and T-shirts at 8:30 and played pretty much straight through for two and a half hours. Other than a troupe of ballerinas that Shawn Bosler tells me I missed, there was no opening act. The band didn’t make any attempt to seem larger-than-life; frontman Mikael Akerfeldt’s stage patter is all self-consciously goofy broken English: “Are you standing up? Good!” He talked about stuff like the production on the second album like it was VH-1 Storytellers, and the devil horns only came out once. I guess it’s appropriate; it’s not like this band needs any help bringing the epic.
Stream: “Ghost of Perdition”
Stream: “The Great Conjuration” video