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Favouring lengthy prog-metal with meandering acoustic guitar interludes, epic themes and, at times, guttural vocals, Scandinavian gloom merchants OPETH were all the rage from the 90s onwards. Death metal steeped in the occult and self-proclaimed “most evil band in the world”, they lived and breathed their personification of this depiction and finally made the grade on a global scale with their 2008 “Watershed” moment… in time.
Formed spring 1990 in Stockholm, Sweden, the story goes that young vocalist David Isberg – also of Casket and Procreation, respectively – befriended Eruption’s bass player Mikael Akerfeldt. However members of the original OPETH were none too pleased when rehearsals kicked off, and in sympathy with their own bassist they chose to bail. The band name incidentally was derived from “Opet”, inspired by a fictional city in Wilbur Smith’s novel, The Sunbird.
During the course of the next few years, drummer/percussionist Anders Nordin joined up. Bassist Nick Doring and guitarist Andreas Dimeo lasted only one gig before Johan De Farfalla and Kim Pettersson filled their shoes; temp Mattias Ander replaced Johan who wasn’t quite ready to commit full-time, before Akerfeldt’s buddy Peter Lindgren was drafted in. When rhythm guitarist Pettersson found it a trial, Lindgren was happy to switch instruments as bassist Stefan Guteklint filled the vacancy.
In 1992, Isberg duly dropped out thus leaving creative guitarist Akerfeldt to take up the mic; the first casualty was Guteklint who left early in 1994 when Candlelight Records signed the band. De Farfalla sessioned on the long-delayed debut, ORCHID (1995) {*7}, and solidified his tenure thereafter. Bookended by audacious epic monster tracks, `In Mist She Was Standing’ and `The Apostle In Triumph’ (`Under The Weeping Moon’ and `The Twilight Is My Robe’ also clocked in at the 10-minute mark), the emphasis was on guttural growler Akerfeldt and Co’s sustainability over off-kilter melodies and naval-gazing instrumental prowess.
With EDGE OF SANITY’s Dan Swano on hand to produce follow-up set, MORNINGRISE (1996) {*7}, and a tour with death metal veterans MORBID ANGEL, OPETH were fast becoming Sweden’s most promising prog-metal act. The set featured five full-on tracks over the 10-minute mark; the eerie but Celtic-tinged `Black Rose Immortal’ stretched to 20.
A subsequent deal with Century Media resulted in a US licensing deal for their first two albums as well as a transatlantic release for 1998’s universally acclaimed MY ARMS, YOUR HEARSE {*9}; its title – if not the music – reminiscent of NICK CAVE’s classic “Your Funeral… My Trial”. By this point, Nordin had been replaced by Martin Lopez (ex-AMON AMARTH), whilst De Farfalla was sacked; he became a teacher and politician. Of the unified concept set itself, the rather raucous rituals were subtly matched by acoustic interludes that added ‘Sabbath-esque spice to the proceedings; check out `April Ethereal’, `When’, `The Amen Corner’ and the textured `Credence’ (featuring Akerfeldt’s “clean” vox).
In fact their schizoid “cleansing” continued on subsequent Peaceville Records concept album, STILL LIFE (1999) {*9}, their first with Uruguay-born bassist Martin Mendez. Thus a smorgasbord of WISHBONE ASH-esque prog rock or guttural black metal commenced; OPETH’s extremes were quite unique at a time when the genre stood accused of stoic representation. If Mikael’s stark ethos was rather murky, then the tale of an unrequited love for the enchanting Melinda was simple. And a case of heaven or hell, a whole contingent of fresh fans admired the beauty and the beast of `The Moor’, `Face Of Melinda’, `Moonlapse Vertigo’ and `Serenity Painted Death’.
Switching to the evergreen Music For Nations roster (Koch International in the States), BLACKWATER PARK (2001) {*9} had a treat for fans of STEVEN WILSON, who added back-up singing (and all-in co-production skills) on `Bleak’, `The Funeral Portrait’, `Harvest’ and `The Drapery Falls’. The set’s title had its roots in an obscure German prog-rock combo, but that’s as far as the musical correlation went; Mikael’s otherworldly growls or contrasting heartfelt dramas as experimental as any metal act had achieved up to now.
For both 2002’s DELIVERANCE {*8} and 2003’s belated companion piece DAMNATION {*8} – recorded at the same time – Mikael risked alienation in separating their most heaviest pieces from lighter efforts. Despite initial worries, and despite including one soft instrumental cue that bore the name of an early GENESIS number (`For Absent Friends’), the first of these possessed all the band’s prog-metal panache and pummeling one had come to expect; from `Wreath’ to `By The Pain I See In Others’, nihilistic and brooding. The second of these sets comprised eight shorter cues from `Windowpane’ (at 7 minutes) to `Weakness’ (at 4) that indeed sounded in the vein of stalwart producer WILSON; in fact Steven – a fifth member if truth be told – contributed the delicate `Death Whispered A Lullaby’.
It was only a matter of time that OPETH’s hard work would bear fruits, and after switching labels to Roadrunner, and adding keyboardist Per Wiberg (ex-SPIRITUAL BEGGARS), the quintet’s next offering hit Top 10 on home soil, and Top 75 in the UK and US. The Jens Bogren co-produced GHOST REVERIES (2005) {*9} pulled no punches in its tour de force of dynamic death metal. Though there were moments of grandiose melody over gothic grunting, the main objective of this Satanic-themed set was to get back to basics. Indeed, there was probably no better source than COMUS and their “Diana” classic to inspire `The Baying Of The Hounds’, whilst the witchcraft and sorcery elements were never far from the mind-blowing `Ghost Of Perdition’, `Reverie – Harlequin Forest’ and the choppy `The Grand Conjuration’.
Proving beyond doubt their live prowess, OPETH’s THE ROUNDHOUSE TAPES (2007) {*8} – in awe of IRON MAIDEN’s “The Soundhouse Tapes” – gave them a well deserved breathing space between studio sets. With a re-vamped `When’; that this time around opened on POPOL VUH’s `Through Pain To Heaven’/`They Danced, They Loved As Of The Old’, the double-CD showcased the best of OPETH, and guaranteed further interest upwards and onwards.
While previous guest drummer Martin Axenrot (ex-Triumphator, ex-Witchery, ex-Nifelheim, ex-BLOODBATH) had replaced Lopez prior to this concert recording, there was another appointment thereafter when long-time servant Lindgren moved aside for Fredrik “Kulle” Akesson (ex-TALISMAN, ex-KRUX, ex-ARCH ENEMY) on 2008’s transatlantic Top 40 set, WATERSHED {*8}. A fusion set that embodied the old school classic rock ethos into their pastoral-meets-prog metal, OPETH were now appealling to a mass audience by way of `The Lotus Eater’, `Burden’, `Hessian Peel’ and `Hex Omega’.
On the back of a DEEP PURPLE/“Concerto For Group And Orchestra”-styled IN LIVE CONCERT AT THE ROYAL ALBERT HALL (2010) {*8} – a double-DVD/triple-CD package featuring among other quintessential creations, Blackwater Park in its entirety – 2011’s jazz-rock infused HERITAGE {*7} found OPETH re-uniting with STEVEN WILSON. Here on Wiberg’s last entrance before his departure to KAMCHATKA, the group’s mix of Mellotron, dynamic drums and the odd self-indulgent moments from Akerfeldt (WEATHER REPORT’s Alex Acuna played percussion on `Famine’), comparisons to KING CRIMSON /“Larks’ Tongues”-era stuck like mud to `The Devil’s Orchard’, `The Lines In My Hand’ and `Haxprocess’.
The Top 20 breaking PALE COMMUNION (2014) {*7} introduced keyboard wizard Joakim Svalberg (ex-YNGWIE J. MALMSTEEN, ex-Qoph). If the ye olde jazz/prog-rock aesthetics had not been totally excavated on their previous effort, then Akerfeldt journeyed to its very core on some dazzling melodic metal cues such as `Moon Above, Sun Below’, `Eternal Rains Will Come’ and the CAMEL-meets-WISHBONE ASH-esque end piece, ’Faith In Others’.
Visionary Akerfeldt was still on song for 2016’s platinum-selling SORCERESS {*7}, an album – their first for Nuclear Blast Records – marrying elements of classical and prog. Comparisons to GENTLE GIANT on the psychedelically-titled `The Wilde Flowers’ was yet another link to early prog that must’ve irked old muckers intensely, whilst JETHRO TULL’s “Thick As A Brick” possessed the very soul of `Will O The Wisp’. Even other unaffiliated song titles such as `Chrysalis’, `Persephone’, `Strange Brew’ and `The Seventh Sojourn’ had their roots buried somewhere in the mire of the hard-rock and prog community.
Marking time in anticipation of their next studio entry, the concert album GARDEN OF THE TITANS: OPETH LIVE AT RED ROCKS AMPHITHEATRE (2018) {*7} documented just how big the group had become in its near 30-year existence. 2019’s flamboyant but ultra-heavy IN CAUDA VENENUM {*7} proved to be another calculated effort to meld – full circle – old and nu. From the POPOL VUH-like `Garden Of Earthly Delights (intro)’ to the URIAH HEEP/“Bird Of Prey”-stalked `Dignity’, OPETH reached for the stars, only to fall slightly out of sync; and the US Top 50, having breached the UK Top 20. A truly wondrous second-generation prog act with a penchant for past glories and/or a foot stuck in the quicksand of time, OPETH and tracks such as `Next As Kin’, `Charlatan’ and `Universal Truth’ yo-yo’d back and forth between spaceships, time and `Continuum’ (the title of the set’s penultimate piece).
© MC Strong/MCS/2001/GMD2 // rev-up MCS Oct2019

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