When singer/guitarist Mikael Åkerfeldt pits what he calls his "death voice" against the most brutal backdrop his bandmates can construct, Scandinavia's Opeth is as fierce as any group on the planet. At other times, though, Åkerfeldt comes across as downright sensitive.
Unlike one-dimensional metal maniacs, who compulsively growl about disembowelings from the eye of an aural tornado, Åkerfeldt is capable of writing dark, beautiful songs that casually explode genre conventions, and he refuses to affect a homicidal persona for marketing purposes. He dedicated two of Opeth's finest discs, 2002's Deliverance and 2003's Damnation, to the memory of his late grandmother, and the lengthy biography included on www.opeth.com sports a cuddly baby photo of his beloved daughter, Melinda, as well as a snap from the wedding of guitarist Peter Lindgren. (Despite Lindgren's black-metal roots, the bride wore white.) Moreover, the demeanor Åkerfeldt displays between tunes at concert appearances eschews codpiece cockiness or bogeyman bravado in favor of a comparatively quaint quality: thankfulness.
"We're grateful," he confirms, his accent light, his voice warm. "We're just these guys from Sweden, and we get to travel the world, and people buy our records. So we appreciate that they do that, and we don't have big heads, and we don't feel like we have to act like rock stars. We're not trying to be something we're not. We're just a band making music, and without the people who come out to the shows and buy our records, we wouldn't be able to do that."
Opeth Sounds of the Underground, with Lamb of God, Clutch, Unearth and more, 12 p.m. Sunday, July 31, Universal Lending Pavilion, $27.50, 303-830-8497.
Although contradictions like these endear Åkerfeldt, Lindgren, bassist Martin Mendez, drummer Martin Lopez and keyboardist Per Wiberg to the cult of followers who've supported them to date, there's a chance they may confuse the most extreme metal consumers. Nevertheless, Roadrunner Records, which hit the jackpot with Slipknot, recently signed Opeth to a long-term deal and plans to give a big push to Ghost Reveries, its debut for the imprint. The disc hits stores August 30, and a preview track, "The Grand Conjuration," strongly suggests that no compromises were made along the way. The ten-minute maxi-suite contains a thrillingly varied collection of elements: alternately deliberate and thrashy riffing, multiple tempo changes, inspired guitar heroics, stunningly precise rhythms, densely layered production, and vocalizing that ranges from gentle to vicious.
Åkerfeldt feels that Reveries as a whole is "much better than anything we've done before, and it seems funny to say, but I think the songs are better, too. I paid much more attention to these songs, every detail, and I paid a lot more attention to every vocal line, so they're deeper. And there are many parts that are progressive. There are parts that you've never heard from Opeth before."
Tinkering with a successful formula can be risky, especially when it comes to a style as generally conservative as metal, yet Åkerfeldt has built his career on doing just that. As he notes, "It wouldn't be a good idea for a band like Opeth to do what people expect. They expect a band like ours to do something unexpected and surprising. I don't think they expect us to stay the same, so I don't worry about changing. When I do something different, I'm more interested in finding out, ŒAre they going to get it?'"
In the beginning, the music Åkerfeldt heard at home was ultra-mainstream. "My dad always bought records like 'These Boots Are Made for Walking,' and Elvis," he recalls. No wonder he was so excited by his introduction to heavier stuff. According to him, "I was very young, and a babysitter was over at my house, watching me while my parents were at work. I was playing with Legos or something when she put on a cassette of Black Sabbath's greatest hits -- and I can still remember that voice going 'I-i-i-r-r-r-o-o-o-n-n-n M-m-m-a-a-a-n-n-n.'" He confesses that "at first I was scared by that kind of music. I remember putting posters of Eddie from Iron Maiden on my wall but then taking them down because they scared me too much. But it was like a horror film. You get scared, but you can't stop listening."
By sixth grade, Åkerfeldt had graduated from an acoustic guitar his grandmother had given him years earlier to an electric model. In addition, he'd become a student of metal, thanks to the older brother of drummer Anders Nordin, who "gave me his entire Judas Priest collection." With Nordin and some other pals, Åkerfeldt formed a combo called Eruption circa the late '80s, and when the project died in 1990, he and a skateboarding pal, David Isberg, wound up collaborating under the Opeth banner. Early on, the words they belted toyed with satanism, but Åkerfeldt never took the concepts behind these themes seriously. "That's just a natural part of metal," he says. "I still like to play around with occult topics in my lyrics sometimes, but that doesn't have anything to do with my personal beliefs." He was raised a Catholic, and went through the confirmation process because "all my friends were doing it, and there were a lot of parties and a lot of gifts. But I wasn't very religious then, and I'm still not."
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.'"
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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."
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.