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Opeth’s Martin Lopez and the Afro-Cuban Bembe


In last month’s Editors’ Choice, I argued that analyzing a band’s music solely through the lens of a single “artistic genius” often limits our understanding of the music and can lead to a pernicious willful ignorance about the music’s creators. Today, I’d like to put my money where my mouth is by taking a closer look at one of the band’s that I mentioned by name in that column: Opeth.

To the average fan, Opeth is essentially synonymous with Mikael Åkerfeldt, the band’s lead singer, guitarist, songwriter, and the only musician who has played on all of Opeth’s 12 albums. Without Åkerfeldt, there is no Opeth. Because of this, it is easy to assume everything that makes Opeth special emerges directly from him like Athena from Zeus’s forehead.

That isn’t necessarily the case. Åkerfeldt might shine the light on Opeth’s material, but his collaborators are the prism that gives that light color, and no hue has added as much life to the band as drummer Martin Lopez.

Lopez joined Opeth in 1997 for the recording of My Arms, Your Hearse and played with the band until 2006, when health complications made it difficult for him to continue touring. In the intervening years, Opeth went on a six album run that secured their legacy in heavy metal history, releasing records that codified their sound (Still Life and Blackwater Park) and expanded it (Damnation and Ghost Reveries). Lopez’s dynamic performance was key to that run. Fresh off a brief stint playing with Amon Amarth, Lopez brought a combination of lightning fast double kick work and a deep seated groove that elevated Opeth from a noodling oddity to prog metal titans.

Although it was Lopez’s abundant metal chops that earned him a spot in Opeth’s lineup, it was his incorporation of Latin jazz influences that separates him from Opeth’s other drummers. There are a few elements of his playing that you could point to here (his syncopated cymbal accents or his triplet-heavy fills) but there’s one rhythm that Lopez was fond of using that I’d like to focus on in particular; a 6/8 (a time signature comprised of two “three-counts”) Afro-Cuban groove called bembe.

As far as progressive metal bands go, Opeth’s music is uniquely well-suited to incorporate bembe. Mikael Åkerfeldt uses a lot of 6/8 in his writing, usually to give his music a lilting, folksy feeling, even when Opeth are playing at full force. The time signature’s omnipresence makes it as important to Opeth’s music as polyrhythms are to Meshuggah or the gallop is to Iron Maiden. As such, it is crucial that anyone drumming for Opeth know how to navigate the time signature in a compelling way. This is where Lopez and the bembe come in.

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As Bobby Sanabria explains in the video above, in the way that only middle-aged drummers with their top buttons unbuttoned can, bembe has its origins in the confluence of West African music and indigenous Cuban traditions. Like many rhythms translated from group percussion to drum set, there are a lot of moving parts that define the rhythm, but the Ghanaian asadua bell pattern should be instantly recognizable to anyone who’s spent time with Opeth’s body of work.

The bembe as Lopez plays it is functionally quite different than the one that Sanabria lays out. Lopez does away with the quarter note pulse on the hi-hat, which gives the original groove a lightly polyrhythm feel, and scraps the rim clicks and tom accents that were originally meant to imitate the sounds other percussion instruments. Instead, Lopez uses the asadua bell pattern as the groundwork and builds a more direct, rock-oriented groove around it. Typically this means his bass drum syncs up with the ride cymbal while his left hand peppers in ghost notes in between the bell and providing a standard backbeat on the snare drum. While this could be seen as a simplification of the bembe, the change is a necessary one.

Rock music, and especially the extreme variety of metal that Opeth were inspired by at the time, is so sonically dense that the details of a traditional bembe wouldn’t cut through with the same clarity. By strpping the bembe down to its most ear-catching elements, Lopez makes sure that his syncopations won’t get lost in the swirling chaos of the distorted guitars playing around him.

The bembe rhythm didn’t immediately become Opeth’s bread and butter the minute Lopez joined. In fact, it only makes one appearance on My Arms, Your Hearse during the climax of “When.” Lopez doesn’t quite commit to the pattern and breaks it up with a series of high energy fills that match Åkerfeldt’s outpouring of emotion. Here, the bembe rhythm serves as a disruption of Opeth’s groove, not as a groove in and of itself. It works marvelously, but only hints at the level of deftness Lopez would execute this rhythm later on.

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By 1999’s Still Life, Lopez had already refined his use of bembe to the point where he could sneak it into a variety of different settings. Lopez sneaks into his fills at the end of “Moonlapse Vertigo” and uses the pattern as a turnaround on “The Moor”. More importantly, Still Life features two uses of bembe as a bona fide groove in an Opeth song. First, Lopez tosses the asadua bell pattern over rolling double bass on “Serenity Painted Death” before settling into a more laid back version of the groove. He then displays the versatility of the pattern by using it during a subdued verse on ‘White Cluster.” Lopez had found his trademark lick and was ready to use it wherever he could, and barring the “blink-and-you’ll-miss-it” variation in “Moonlapse Vertigo” each version of the groove feels like an integral part of the song rather than an eclectic influence shoehorned in for novelty’s sake.

The bembe plays just as big of a role on Opeth’s next album, 2001’s Blackwater Park. The pattern makes a dramatic entrance near the beginning of the record. After bursting out of the gate with an stormy mid paced double bass pattern, opening track “The Leper Affinity” builds to an head where the band clears out save for a intricate 6/8 guitar riff. This is a classic technique for tension and release in heavy metal, establish a riff and then drop the hammer by bringing in the full rhythm section to support it. When Lopez enters, he forgoes any standard “breakdown” drum pattern and dives in head first with an insistent bembe. The rhythm also shows up as support for a guitar solo on “Funeral Portrait” and as part of the sweeping gothic epic “The Drapery Falls,” but it’s this moment on “The Leper Affinity” that stands out. That Opeth would choose to build tension and release it by consciously choosing this drum pattern reveals that they too knew how powerful this tool was. In featuring the rhythm this prominently on the opening track of their breakthrough album, Opeth coronated the bembe as a legitimate heavy metal drum beat.

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After Blackwater Park Lopez moved away from using the bembe as frequently. On Deliverance, Lopez’s most overtly technical performance, it only crops up twice: once in typical Opeth-ian fashion on “By The Pain I See In Others” and another over a stream of kick drum 16th notes on “Master’s Apprentice,” a fitting choice for that song’s “bench-press-a-tank” intensity. On Damnation, Deliverance‘s softer counterpart, the bembe doesn’t even show up once. The relative scarcity on these two records could be attributed to the band’s decision to highlight their disparate influence, leaning toward extreme metal on Deliverance and shifting entirely into Camel-esque progressive rock on Damnation. In parallel, Lopez’s high performance caliber during these sessions suggests he, too, was pushing out of his comfort zone to find new ways to approach Opeth’s music.

For his final record with Opeth, Lopez’s use of the bembe came full circle. As on My Arms Your Hearse, this rhythm appears on 2005’s Ghost Reveries only once, but this lone appearance demonstrates how both the drummer and the band have evolved. For all the previous examples, the bembe served as a way of supporting the rest of the band. No matter how distinct and exciting the pattern was, it was always meant to complement the real stars; Åkerfeldt and fellow guitarist Peter Lindgren. On “The Baying Of The Hounds”, Opeth invert that formula, ceding ground to Lopez and bassist Martin Mendez during one of the song’s softer moments. The Uruguayan expat rhythm section settles into their own inversion of the bembe. Instead of playing the asadua pattern on the bell of the ride cymbal, Lopez moves the pattern to the bass drum while Mendez locks into the same rhythm. This frees up Lopez’s hands for a more straightforward rock backbeat, and then a tasteful offbeat rhythm which drives the song into its next section.

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“When” introduced the bembe, and “The Leper Affinity” codified it. “The Baying Of The Hounds” reinvents it while the band tailor their arrangement specifically to accommodate the rhythm. By this point, Opeth had internalized the pattern and made it a part of their identity. Even after Lopez left the band, the bembe still occasionally makes an appearance, like on “The Devil’s Orchard,” proving that the Afro-Cuban element had become ingrained into Åkerfeldt’s songwriting. This is why thinking of Opeth’s music as a pure expression of Åkerfeldt and Åkerfeldt alone doesn’t paint the complete picture. Whether Lopez introduced the bembe to Opeth or not is immaterial; the way he performed the rhythm left an undeniable mark on how the band sounded and how they grew during his tenure. The Opeth bembe makes the case that Opeth aren’t just the product of a genre fusion between the worlds of metal and progressive rock, but a cultural exchange, the same type of global interconnection that gave birth to metal when the British working class combined the music of African American blues with the aesthetics of Italian horror films.

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Martin Lopez’s talents can now be heard in Fifth to Infinity and Soen.


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