OPETH - Breaking the Sorceress' Spell
October 20, 2016, a year ago
Opeth has helped extreme metal progress since their mastermind, Mikael Åkerfeldt, first strapped on a guitar. Early recordings like Morningrise (1996) and My Arms, Your Hearse (1998) were part of a beauty-in-darkness motif emanating from Europe. They meshed mellow segments with hard passages. Åkerfeldt’s vocals were both soothing and scathing. The Swedish band was quite progressive in its cope. Later albums expanded the progressive tag even further incorporating keyboards and fusing their music with jazz. Heritage (2011) and Pale Communion (2014) showed the group bury their death metal roots.
Some longtime followers bemoaned Opeth’s new direction. They missed Åkerfeldt’s savage growls and the group’s duality. Becoming a naysayer seems to be an overreaction as much of what defines Opeth is still present. Their songs contain a certain dark, somber tone that has always pervaded their music. Their harmonies are still in intact and Åkerfeldt still sings with a honey tongue. While the death metal is gone, the band is still heavy and dynamic.
This stylistic change hasn’t meant a massive decrease of fans. In fact, the last few years the group has grown immensely in popularity. Their recent appearance on the main stage at Ozzfest exemplifies this popularity. Opeth has never felt they needed to write music to appease anyone but their selves. Mikael Åkerfeldt makes that perfectly clear in the following feature. While he was surprised at some of the negative towards no longer having death metal screams, he is still content because he ‘s making the music he wants to make. On their recent album, Sorceress, he even plays some mind games with those riding the negativity train, tricking them to believing that Opeth is no longer heavy.
BraveWords: Sorceress has been out for a couple of weeks. Where does this album fit in your discography?
Mikael Åkerfeldt: “It just does. It’s the twelfth album. We made a little bit of a change in our sound a couple of records ago. It’s probably more of a continuation of those three records than the ones we did before. We’re really happy with it. We had a great time recording it. We had fun writing it. It feels like something we haven’t done before. I like that feeling. I don’t mind if we do a record that feels a bit rehashed. If it’s good, that’s ok with me, but I love when we do records that are a bit different than anything we have done. That’s the ideal situation for us. I think Sorceress is one of those records.”
BraveWords: One thing I see online is people saying you used to rip off Camel and now you’re ripping off Jethro Tull. What do you have to say to that?
Mikael Åkerfeldt: “Yeah, we’re ripping them off, but before we ripped off Morbid Angel. We’ve always been ripping off other bands, if you want to use that word. I’m not literally stealing riffs or songs, but I’ll call it ‘inspired by.’ I listen to so many kinds of music. People love to complain. I’d rather have them say we are a Jethro Tull rip-off band. That is actually a compliment to me. We don’t intend to sound like Jethro Tull, but I love them. They inspire me to write songs. Everybody in the band loves them, so it’s not really a negative comment, as far as I’m concerned.”
BraveWords: How does it feel to be on Nuclear Blast?
Mikael Åkerfeldt: “The name ‘Moderbolaget’ is Swedish for “mother label,” so technically Nuclear Blast would be our subsidiary. It’s really a license deal. We always had regular contracts before with labels we worked with in the past. This is the first time we’ve signed a license deal, which is a slightly different thing. We had meetings with lots of labels this year. They just came out on top, I guess. There are lots of good labels out there. I was surprised about the knowledge and passion about some of these labels that I figured were some bedroom labels. A lot of them were much more professional than I figured and passionate. That’s not really necessary to work with a passionate label. We just want them to do their job. Roadrunner were a bit like that. They weren’t really passionate, but they were good. Nuclear Blast is both. They are a big label and very, very passionate. The boss Markus Staiger is a character, a bit crazy. I demanded that he come to the meeting when we met with Nuclear Blast. He was like, ‘why do you want me to come?’ I was like, ‘because you’re the boss of your organization and I’m kind of like mine.’ I wanted to have that face to face. I’m a bit old school and he was too. He’s a character and very into what he’s doing. Everybody on that label are into metal/rock. I don’t think anyone is sitting on a position that Nuclear Blast is not a fan of, at least some of the stuff they put out. They are great. They are the best of the bunch, as far as I’m concerned.”
BraveWords: What were your writing sessions like?
Mikael Åkerfeldt: “It was pretty standard for me, like how I’ve been doing for some while. There was a time when we started that I didn’t even have a portable studio. I didn’t have anything to record on. There were no cell phones in those days to record on. There was nothing, so I had to write down ‘Morbid Angel rip-off riff four times,’ ‘Jethro Tull rip-off riff six times.’ Then I got myself a little Pro Tools rigs and I record demos now. I write all the instruments. We have a rehearsal room and right next to it is a little warehouse. It sounds big, but it’s not. It’s tiny. There is a lot of gear and shit there and in the corner is my studio. I just sit there and write stuff. Like I said, I write for all the instruments, and I record demos in sequence to songs in the right order. Then I hand the record to all the guys in the band the way I think it sounds good and how to get it to sound better. It’s a pretty good sounding demo. I think so, at least. I want them to be a bit intimidated by the music. I want it to sound human. I want it to sound really good, so they get psyched about being part of this, making it better and putting their imprint on the music. That’s basically it. I have a good work ethic. I go to the studio and leave my kids at school. I go down the studio at 8 o’clock in the morning and work until I have to pick them up.”
BraveWords: There are two Sorceress songs on the album, “Sorceress” and Sorceress 2.”
Are these songs connected? Are you telling a story?
Mikael Åkerfeldt: “Not really. I wanted that calmer “Sorceress 2.” I wanted that to be called “Sorceress.” Then I wrote the song “Sorceress” where I actually sing that word. I wanted that to be called Sorceress, too. There is no connection between the two other than they are opposites. One is really heavy. One is really soft. In fact they are both called “Sorceress.”
BraveWords: Is this kind of like what you did with Deliverance and Damnation, but a microcosm of it?
Mikael Åkerfeldt: “Yeah. That was an experiment. That almost killed us. I’m glad we did it. I wouldn’t do it again.”
BraveWords: Persephone is a figure of the seasons. She lives in the winter with Hades and comes back to the surface to bring Spring. Is this intro about her or was it more of a metaphorical thing?
Mikael Åkerfeldt: “More of a metaphorical thing because a lot of the songs on the record deal with love, not love like ‘Baby, I love you,’ but more the negative, the paranoia that comes with really caring for someone, the worries, insecurities. I came across the word ‘Persephone’ and we have a different saying. It’s not the same spelling. I had to check out what it was. I actually found it mentioned on a Brit pop record. I had to check out what it was. It just fitted with the stuff I had written so far for the record. Besides, I wanted that spoken-word section, too. It just became part of the concept of the record.”
BraveWords: “The Wilde Flowers” contains the lines:
“Blinding light as the flames grow higher Searing skin on a funeral pyre”
Is this your witch hunt song, your ode to bands like Witchfinder General and movies like Mark of the Devil?
Mikael Åkerfeldt: “That song is actually more about misanthropy. It’s something everybody has inside. You wonder, ‘What the hell?’ Just go on the subway in Stockholm and everybody is with their phones. You wonder if they have a life. Do they have people they care for? Do they go to jobs that they hate? Just how people are these days, they seem so detached. I’m in that position because I don’t have a ‘real job.’ I don’t have to go to work in the morning with everybody else. I’m really detached from that world. It feels like those people are detached from their own world. It’s like they don’t’ know what the fuck they are doing most of the time. They just do it. I’ve done a few lyrics like that in the past too. Blackwater Park dealt with that kind of thing. The second to last song on the record, Era, is also about those kinds of things.”
BraveWords: “Will o the Wisp,” a track you used to promote the album, contains lyrics about time and how precious it is. We’re forgotten after death, but we spend much of our life clinging to the past. How do these ideas fit with the song title?
Mikael Åkerfeldt: “Will o the Wisp is another thing I stumbled upon. There was a band called Will o the Wisp, and I had to check out what it meant. It’s basically a light that’s leading people astray into more dangerous territories. It’s about how you blame others for your own weaknesses.”
BraveWords: “Seventh Sojourn” is similar to “Closure” from the Damnation album in that the two songs have a gypsy-like quality, especially in the percussion. Did you revisit “Closure” to inspire you to write this song?
Mikael Åkerfeldt: “It’s actually Middle Eastern scales. I’ve been into that stuff when I got into Led Zeppelin, Rainbow and Deep Purple. Actually, it’s pretty common in metal. We took it one step further. I wanted it to sound a bit more authentic, other than just being a metal song with Middle Eastern sounding riffs. That’s cool, too, but I started searching for the source to these sounds. I stumbled onto some of those artists around the Blackwater Park record. I listened to what they deem as pop music in Iraq. To me, it sounded evil. I started listening to the percussion. Some of them are amazing musicians, so I emulated that kind of stuff. That’s the basis for both those songs. I didn’t go listen to “Closure” and thought that I wanted to do it again. It’s more about drawing inspiration from the same source.”
BraveWords: I don’t know if I would call it a guitar, but some of the picking on their stringed instruments is really fast, almost like black metal.
Mikael Åkerfeldt: “They have notes in between notes or quarter notes. If you push down on the fret and then the next fret, it’s like a half note between. If you bend the string, ever so slightly, you reach a note in between. They use that stuff a lot in Middle Eastern scales, which I think is super cool. It sounds evil to me. I still love the evil sounds.”
BraveWords: You present different styles of music on the record. “Persephone” starts the album with acoustic guitar and then “Sorceress” opens with a jazzy keyboard part. Tell me about how you decided to place these two songs together.
Mikael Åkerfeldt: “Persephone” was the last thing I presented to the band. It wasn’t even on the demos. I presented it to them when we were in the studio. I said I had a little piece that could serve as an intro. I love intros. I wrote this really simple piece that became “Persephone” and they loved it. It sounds a bit like Spaghetti Westerns to me. We thought it sounded that way and wanted to do more like it, put a Mellotron sound on there. It was named “Persephone,” but Martin Mendez (bass) called it “Pepe.” Then, after the next song was done, it felt like a so-called opener for the record. That was always intended to be first on the record. I just wanted to put an intro in there. That’s the title track. The fusion-esque beginning. I wanted to trick people a little bit. I wanted to trick people who hate us for loving that music. So we started with that thing and then I just wanted to go meat and potatoes (imitates opening, heavy riff on the song). So they may listen and say, ‘I hate this fusion. Turn it off!’ Then a friend would go, ‘Did you listen to the whole song?’ ‘No, it’s this fusion shit.’ If they only listened a few more seconds, they would get something heavy.”
BraveWords: Opeth has always balanced heaviness with melody and fused different styles. Like you said, this album is kind of connected to the last two albums. One thing you don’t do anymore is scream. Some of your older fans have turned their back on you for this reason. Do you think that’s unfair considering the bulk of your music is still genuinely Opeth?
Mikael Åkerfeldt: “I would say so. To be honest, I didn’t really think that would be such an issue to fans because I still do the screaming songs live. If that’s what they love, there are shit loads of bands they can listen to that scream all the time. There are bands that emulated our sound so they could get Opeth-like. If they want to, there is all sorts of stuff for them. I was surprised that people thought there wasn’t more to our sound than the screams. Once you took that away, it’s not Opeth anymore. That seems to be the general idea for those that hate us now. I was the same. If I compare it to my own tastes, there was a time in my life when I was younger that I only wanted to listen to death metal. I wanted the screams. If there weren’t any screams in there, I wasn’t interested. It doesn’t matter, not interested. This was me searching for a musical identity. I was like fifteen. I found that identity in death metal, but it was such a brief period of time. I was only listening to that music. Soon I got back into my old Rainbow records and Deep Purple. I love this more. At that time I started the band and we were a death metal band. That is part of our sound. That is our roots, still. Since we started recording records, I wasn’t consuming death metal records much. I was maybe listening to what some friends were doing, seeing what their new record sounded like. I liked some of it, of course, but to me Opeth was much more than just the screams, so that was why I was so surprised that people acted so fiercely.”
BraveWords: I think part of the reason they miss it is due to the duality.
Mikael Åkerfeldt: “That’s fine. People can think what they think. They have free minds. Whatever they want is fine with me, but I don’t want people to come up to us and tell us we are doing the wrong thing because we’re not pleasing them. Nobody’s got us in their pockets. We are our own bosses. We never cater to the fans. The only reason we have fans at all is because we are lucky. We put out music that we love to play and love to listen to and there are other people around the world that like it too. We constantly put out music that we like. That is essential to this band. It would be weird if nothing has changed over the course of twenty-six years.”
BraveWords: Your popularity keeps building. Between the melodies and your voice, it seems so accessible. It just makes me wonder why you aren’t on the radio. Rock stations today figure prog ended with Rush in the 1980s. They don’t want to play any of it.
Mikael Åkerfeldt: “It’s much more politics now. Our manager and record label want us on the radio. We make edits so the songs aren’t too long and can be on the radio. I don’t care for that kind of thing. I would love to have us on the radio, cool, but it’s not something that is important to us. It’s more important to the record labels that want to sell more records. We have been played on the radio. Sirius XM Radio in New York plays us. Here, in the U.S., you have all the college radio stations that play us, but if you want to be on mainstream radio, it’s as corrupt as any government. Pay to be played, pretty much.”
BraveWords: Speaking of growing in popularity, you recently played Ozzfest in San Bernardino, California. You not only played the festival, you played third from last on the main stage. Was this the first major U.S. festival for you? How did it go?
Mikael Åkerfeldt: “Yeah, I think it was. We were on a touring festival, but it wasn’t really major. Clutch headlined, so it wasn’t Black Sabbath. Yeah, maybe it was our first festival here. It was horrible. I hated it. I said yes on the spot because it’s Black Sabbath. That’s why I said yes, but I hated it.”
BraveWords: Have you played with Sabbath before?
Mikael Åkerfeldt: “Yes, they are one of my favorite bands. If we are invited to play with them, then of course we say yes, but I hated the set up. It was just shit. Absolute shit. They were good, though. He (Ozzy) can be a bit all over the place sometimes, but he sounded pretty good then. We played with them in Helsinki a couple of months ago and he was great. He sang really well. It’s just he was standing, looking at the teleprompter. You don’t feel secure seeing them now because you’re waiting for him to fuck up. You’re surprised when he doesn’t. In all fairness his vocal lines aren’t that difficult to sing. It’s just that he’s older and damaged. I think the crowd should be happy there is a teleprompter.”