Discovering Opeth was a formative experience for me, as it was for a lot of metal fans in my age bracket. Like Meshuggah, who are among their few peers, Opeth have a bizarre gift for rendering esoteric progressive music accessible to neophytes. I vividly remember hearing “The Drapery Falls” from Blackwater Park for the first time in 2001. I was 14, and though “The Drapery Falls” is one of the wussier songs from that record, it gave me my first exposure to growled death metal vocals. My initial reaction was something along the lines of: “Isn’t death metal supposed to be faster?” Opeth won me over anyway. I still aspire to match Mikael Åkerfeldt’s growl, though I know I never will.
A lot of people who had similar experiences around the same time dropped their Opeth fandom as they aged. I never did, though my ardor for them has cooled as they’ve grown increasingly prog-oriented. They were one of my favorite live bands for a few years, but thanks to my growing interest in niché metal and their diminishing appeal, I haven’t seen them since roughly 2005. The return of death metal to their set struck me as a good opportunity to catch up with them.
Though this tour consisted of just Opeth and Katatonia, it easily sold out the upscale Music Hall of Williamsburg (capacity: 550; Åkerfeldt joked about the neighborhood’s latte content) on a Monday night. Katatonia’s 50-minute opening set confused me, as Katatonia always do. I know that a lot of true-blue metalheads love their later material. Can one of you guys explain them to me? When I listen, all I hear is dull modern rock with a nu-metal electronic gloss. Jonas Renkse sings in the same mopey tone on every part, and he has one of the flattest stage presences I’ve ever seen. How are most of these guys in Bloodbath? Would metal people like them if they hadn’t released a few seminal death/doom records early on? I’m all ears here.
Though Åkerfeldt has done a lot to distance himself from death metal lately, he has evidently not fallen out of practice with it. Opeth have always been a live powerhouse, but this performance did justice even to my nostalgic teenage memories. The band’s later material, which dominated the set, can sound buttoned-up and brittle on record. Live, the heavy parts from those albums hit about as hard as a progressive death metal band can hit, and the restrained segments adopt an improvisational flourish. Even Opeth’s questionable decision to rework “Demon of the Fall” into an acoustic number turned out pretty well, though the results reminded me a little of Dethklok in a blackout.
Åkerfeldt is one of the most stacked musicians in metal; his growls, clean vocals, rhythm playing, and leads are all among the best in the biz. He also remains a grade-A frontman and raconteur, needling both the Brooklyn crowd and himself with sardonic glee. (At one point he dismissed the main riff from “Master’s Apprentice” as “an obvious Morbid Angel ripoff.” I knew it!) The audience ate it up, demanding a solo from every musician in the band before the encore. After spending so many nights around jaded thirtysomethings who try to glare bands into finish their sets faster, it was refreshing to soak up the crowd’s unanimous enthusiasm. It’s no small thing for such a weird band to inspire that kind of zeal.
This tour is worth catching, especially if you’re one of those mystifying Katatonia fans. Check out the remaining dates here. The shuffled-around setlist from this date follows.
1. “Ghost of Perdition”
2. “White Cluster”
5. “Hessian Peel”
7. “Demon of the Fall (acoustic)”
8. “Harlequin Forest”
9. “Blackwater Park”