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Opeth's art of metal

Swedish heavyweights say goodbye to genre conventions



It's been well over a year and a half since Opeth released its last album, Heritage, during which Sweden's best-loved progressive death-metal band has been touring more or less non-stop throughout North America, Europe, South America, Japan, Turkey and India. Now the group is finally ready to go back in the studio — but not before one more U.S. tour.

"It's how you make a living, man, that's the job now," says frontman and principal songwriter Mikael Akerfeldt. "The music industry has changed quite a bit. Putting out a record is like an excuse to go on tour. To keep the momentum up, we have to go on tour, go on tour, go on tour. We're going to be at 250-odd shows for this album, which is a lot. And we're a pretty hardworking band."

Still, that touring has paid off, earning an international legion of loyal fans who otherwise might never have heard of Opeth.

"We were pretty much an underground band," says Akerfeldt. "We had to build it. The only way you can do that as a metal band is to go out and tour. We're not on TV. We're not on the radio. What that means is we've been touring for 10 years."

Formed in Stockholm in 1990 as a doom-laden metal outfit, the group gradually incorporated elements of progressive rock and even folk into its sound. A dynamic vocal presence, Akerfeldt has no problem alternating between death metal screaming on heavier, darker material and a soft breathiness on quieter songs. Plus, he's long been considered one of the best metal guitarists on the scene.

While Opeth has sold more than 1.5 million albums worldwide, the group didn't get around to touring the U.S. until 2001. In fact, it didn't find commercial success over here until 2008's Watershed, which reached No. 23 on Billboard's Top 200 albums chart. Since then, Opeth has been an established name in metal, albeit one that constantly evolves its sound.

"I refuse," he says. "If I have a new idea, I use it. I don't have to ask 'Is this metal?' I like to think we're one of the bands that's difficult to figure out."

That's particularly the case with 2011's Heritage, a lighter, more meticulously arranged recording that marked a departure from the band's past. There are no death growls to be found.

"A few people scratched their heads," Akerfeldt acknowledges, "wondering what we were doing."

Still, most of the Opeth audience went along with the change. "It's impossible," says the musician, "to progress if you only listen to Judas Priest anyway."

Which is not to say the band ignores its fanbase's wishes. A metal devotee since childhood, Akerfeldt recalls how, when he was going to shows, he wanted to hear faithful renditions of his favorite songs. In the end, it's always a balancing act.

"We try to play the songs as they sound on the record, to deliver the sounds that people have heard and know," he says. "But we've done some experiments. We've transformed a very heavy death metal song into an acoustic song. It makes it interesting and fun for us."

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