Love and Death

The yin and yang of Opeth, one of metal's most fascinatingly complex acts.

Lineup changes initially made it hard to get a handle on Opeth, but with 1998's My Arms, Your Hearse, the roster solidified around Lindgren, who'd joined in 1991, and new inductees Lopez and Mendez. Still Life, a disc from the following year, was greeted with widespread acclaim in the metal community, and 2001's Blackwater Park earned even greater praise. Porcupine Tree's Steven Wilson, a prog pro recently profiled in this space, produced the disc and contributed instrumental assistance on tracks that frequently juxtaposed musical hostility with passages of gorgeous creepiness. In Åkerfeldt's view, he and Wilson have more in common than is obvious at first blush: "With Steve, I understand what he's doing, and he understands what I'm doing. When he writes a song, I listen to a part and think, 'Oh, I know what he's going for there.'"

Next, Åkerfeldt decided that the group would simultaneously release two very different discs -- one devoted to balls-out sonic onslaughts, the other featuring quieter offerings. This variation on the approach used by the Foo Fighters on their In Your Honor double-album package issued earlier this year hit a roadblock when Opeth's then-record company, Koch, chose instead to put the CDs out months apart. Even so, this behind-the-scenes switch in no way lessens Opeth's accomplishments in regard to Deliverance and Damnation, which were both assembled under the auspices of producer Wilson. The former is a lethal, albeit impressively sophisticated, metal maelstrom, while the latter is moody, melancholy and entirely convincing -- the one Opeth platter capable of pleasing metal-phobics, Åkerfeldt's grandmother included. "She died before Damnation came out, and I was sad about that, because I think she would have loved it," Åkerfeldt notes. "I gave her all our albums, and she was always very excited to get them. But obviously, she was old, so I don't think she appreciated the death voice when I was singing."

Such tones are an acquired taste for a lot of far younger rock aficionados, too, and since Åkerfeldt sounds great when he's singing in typical fashion, he could hang up his throatier rumblings. But that's not on his agenda. "What I like about those kinds of vocals is their emotion and their aggression," he allows. "If you love aggressive vocals, that's about as far as you can go. It's something I've always been able to do, and the screaming doesn't hurt my vocal cords. Sometimes the singing is harder on them than the screaming is."

The I's have it: Sufjan Stevens.
Denny Renshaw
The I's have it: Sufjan Stevens.

At the times he's bellowing, Åkerfeldt concedes, he sounds like "a monster," but he shows no signs of being one on a personal level. When drummer Lopez began experiencing anxiety attacks last year, for instance, Åkerfeldt cashed in a plane ticket and sent him home to get the help he needed before returning to his kit -- and he kept concerned fans abreast of Lopez's situation on the band's website, too. Åkerfeldt divulged this information because, he says, "we had to cancel some shows, and to me, it's better to tell the truth about why than to make up a lie. And a lot of people care about Martin. We all do."

Death metal doesn't get any more sensitive.

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