Sweden’s Opeth have come a long way in the past twenty years. Starting out playing death metal with growling vocals on the heaviest songs, their ambitious music mixed light and shade from the beginning. Recent albums “Ghost Reveries” and “Watershed” showed an increasingly strong 70s British progressive rock influence with Mellotron and classic 70s keyboard sounds. This year’s impressive “Heritage” took things far further in that direction with an album that was far more prog-rock than death metal. So there was a lot of anticipation when they came to London’s Brixton Academy. At a far bigger venue than they were playing a few years ago, the huge snaking queue outside the building was testament to their growing fanbase.
Support act, fellow Swedes Pain of Salvation impressed a lot, with a tight and energetic set mixing metal and hard rock with echoes of music as diverse as the quirky 70s proggers Gentle Giant to moments from Ennio Morricone’s spaghetti western soundtracks. They’ve been going quite a few years with several albums to their name, and it showed.
From the opening serpentine guitar riff of “The Devil’s Orchard” onwards, Opeth’s set drew very heavily from “Heritage”, eschewing the death metal side of their music entirely in favour of their progressive rock leanings and mellower material. There wasn’t a single cookie monster grunt to be heard all evening. They still reached back to earlier in their career with the atmospheric “Face of Melinda” from the 1999 album “Still Life”. A early highlight was an excellent “Porcelain Heart”, which even the lengthy and unnecessary drum solo towards the beginning of the song failed to ruin.
A three-song semi-acoustic interlude went back to some of their very early work, including “Credence” from “My Arms Your Hearse” (Is there a more Goth album title than that?), alongside the obscure “Throat of Winter” from a recent video game soundtrack.
I love Mikael Åkerfeldt’s completely deadpan manner between songs, with self-deprecating quips engaging with the audience while avoiding most of the typical rock frontman clichés. Although he did get the audience chanting Dio’s name to introduce the deliberate Rainbow tribute “Slither” featuring guitarist Fredrik Åkesson’s Blackmoresque solo.
A powerful “A Fair Judgement” and a thunderous rendition of “Hex Omega” from “Watershed” ended the main set. After the predictable encore ritual which Åkerfeldt proceeded to ridicule when they came back, they launched into what he announced as ‘some Swedish folk music’, in other words, the epic “Folklore”, undoubted highlight of “Heritage”, the incredible closing section a good candidate for one of the most exciting pieces of music I’ve heard all year.
The one big downside was the amount of chatter; I really don’t understand why people pay good money for a gig, only to talk all the way through the headline act. The somewhat muted sound didn’t help. Opeth have always gone for clarity rather than volume, but when you’re hearing between-song chants of “Turn it up”, perhaps this was a gig which I felt might have benefited from upping the volume a notch, if only to down out the talkers.
While it lacked the intensity and intimacy of many smaller club gigs, big corporate venues are the price you pay when a band you’ve followed for years have finally hit the big time. Although it seemed a few dyed-in-the-wool death metal fans weren’t so happy with Opeth’s recent direction, and I heard one dismissing the gig using Anglo-Saxon language on the way out. But for me, seeing five thousand people attending an out-and-out progressive rock show and the vast majority enjoying every minute was a joy to behold.