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12th November 2012
With the release of Opeth's tenth studio album last year, 'Heritage', an exclusively clean vocal outing, coupled with a 2011 touring setlist that eschewed material from their back catalogue with death growls, speculation was rife amongst the Swedes' fanbase whether Mikael Åkerfeldt and co. had permanently abandoned the more extreme metal proclivities of their music. Not so. Rather, some misguided fans temporarily lost sight of the band's genuinely progressive aesthetic amidst the ephemeral controversy. Back out on the road for a run of European shows at the end of 2012, guitarist Fredrik Åkesson explained all to Metal Discovery a few hours before the tour kicked off in Nottingham as well as a discussion around what exactly constitutes, or rather should constitute, the perennially ambiguous label of 'progressive'...
METAL DISCOVERY: You’re doing six dates on the UK leg of this tour and the one in London’s been billed as an unplugged show – what prompted the decision to do one as a more acoustic based set?
FREDRIK: It was our manager’s suggestion actually, that we should do something different within the tour to just…do something different, to put it simply! But it’s not gonna be a full-on acoustic, unplugged thing; we’re still gonna play with electric guitars and there’s gonna be drums, bass and keyboards. But it’s a bit of a different show, let’s put it that way.
(Fredrik Åkesson on sporadic heckles during last year's 'Heritage' tour)
"There were a few incidents, more in America maybe. Some guy screamed to Mikael: “I challenge you to a duel!”"
Fredrik Åkesson backstage at Rock City, Nottingham, UK, 12th November 2012
Photograph copyright © 2012 Mark Holmes - www.metal-discovery.com
Interview & Photography by Mark Holmes
MD: Less heavy.
FREDRIK: Less heavy but still pretty moody.
MD: Will that be biased towards ‘Damnation’ material or have you re-arranged some of your heavier tracks into mellower versions?
FREDRIK: We play some stuff from there but, also, we play some stuff from the new album like ‘Häxprocess’ so some interesting versions of different songs. I don’t know if I’m allowed to say, but the show is pretty soon anyway, but we experimented with doing ‘Demon of the Fall’ for instance, an acoustic version. It sounds pretty evil actually! We do a 3-part vocal harmony over it.
MD: Was it a challenge to re-arrange any of those songs?
FREDRIK: It’s very difficult, especially for me, because I have to sing and the riffs are in different time signatures to the actual time signature of the vocal line. So it’s pretty difficult but it’s fun; it’s fun to try something different for those few shows.
MD: Are there any songs you tried to re-arrange that didn’t work so well as acoustic-based versions?
FREDRIK: Yeah, a few ones. We were working on ‘Death Whispers a Lullaby’ so we’re not sure if we’re gonna fit it in there or the heavy set of the tour. We’ve been rehearsing a lot now, you know. The two sets are almost totally different.
MD: With Opeth having such a heavy touring schedule, do you find it easy to slip in and out of life on the road?
FREDRIK: Yeah, it’s pretty easy. Today is special, of course, since it’s the first show with all the new songs and you have to check out all the gear…that’s why I was late for the interview!
MD: No worries!
FREDRIK: I usually adapt to touring as we do it so often. Of course, it’s difficult to adapt when you get home…it’s more difficult, I guess, just trying to come back to some kind of normal life.
MD: Normal sleeping patterns.
FREDRIK: Exactly! It takes a week or something.
MD: Like Amorphis said to me last year, it’s harder when they get home because they can’t wake up at three in the afternoon and say, “hey, where’s my beer?!”
FREDRIK: Yeah, and all the signs of where you’re supposed to go!
MD: Do you find it easy to balance the work aspect of being in a professional band with the fun aspect or is it just fun, fun, fun the whole time?
FREDRIK: Of course, it’s boring with all the travelling and there’s a lot of waiting. I try to play as much guitar as possible and I’ve brought a small studio piece of equipment but it’s hard to be disciplined on the road to actually work on songs. But I’m gonna try at least.
MD: To work on new material while on the road?
MD: Do you think that gives the material a different kind of vibe when you write it on the road?
FREDRIK: Not really. Maybe it’s always dependent on what inspiration you get. Some riff you come up with warming up, maybe your surroundings inspire you differently; I don’t know, possibly.
MD: When you have a well-rehearsed set to tour with, is it a matter of switching on the autopilot each night or are you always consciously thinking about what you’re playing and feeling the emotions the music?
FREDRIK: I’m always into the music but after ten shows maybe, you don’t have to think, it’s more in the muscle memory. But, yeah, it’s important to be in the zone, of course.
MD: I guess that varies between shows and dependent on how you’re feeling at the time.
FREDRIK: Yeah, but, somehow, you kind of transform…[laughs]… into something. Your senses wake in a different ways when you’re thrashing with the crowd…
MD: For an hour and a half and then back to normal!
MD: There was initially a bit of a stir caused by ‘Heritage’ last year amongst longstanding Opeth fans with the absence of death vocals but album sales and glowing reviews didn’t reflect that. Do you think some people lost sight of the fact that Opeth are a genuinely progressive band who actually progress?
FREDRIK: I can understand that point of view but Mike writes most of the material and he really felt that the band needed to do something very different to still go on. I think a lot of the fans probably believed he wouldn’t play any more of the death metal stuff…which we did on the first tour; we didn’t play any. But this heavy set we’ll play tonight, I think a lot of the old school fans will be very pleased with it.
MD: So there’s a lot of older material in there?
FREDRIK: Yes, it’s more heavy songs actually. There are only a couple from the new album.
MD: I was at the Birmingham show last year and there seemed to be more controversy about having no death vocals in the set than the controversy caused by the album, and you could hear people shouting out, “play heavier stuff”…which is where I think some people missed the point because some of the tracks were still very heavy but just lacking the death growls...
FREDRIK: That spanned the whole tour and I’m kind of proud that we fulfilled it and did a step back because now we’re doing an entirely different set. I think that’s probably as far as you can take it if you just want to do a concept. But, then again, on this tour we do a set without the growls as well when we play the Union Chapel in London.
MD: Did you get heckled much during the tour last year with just the clean vocal set?
FREDRIK: No, I think it was very well accepted. There were a few incidents, more in America maybe. Some guy screamed to Mikael: “I challenge you to a duel!” What?!
FREDRIK: But, overall, a lot of people who listen to Opeth are pretty open-minded and understand. It seems like that. A lot of people still showed up to the concerts. I mean, of course, it takes a while I would say. When we started the ‘Heritage’ tour in America when the album had just been released, it took people a while to digest this kind of style of the ‘Heritage’ album.
MD: Do you think that’s the same for each new Opeth album anyway because the music is challenging and takes time to…like if the album’s released one week and then the next week you’re on tour, people aren’t so familiar with the material so it always takes time?
FREDRIK: Yeah, and you can clearly notice that later on during the tour as it progresses, like three or four weeks later, people were more into the songs because they’re more familiar with them.
MD: And I think all Opeth albums are generally growers anyway, like they’re not a quick hit of three minute glam rock songs or whatever.
FREDRIK: It’s nice, you know, hopefully the lifetime of the album is a lot longer.
MD: Yeah, growers are the best kind of albums because they’re the ones you’ll still be listening to in twenty years’ time. You seem to have attracted a bigger contingent of the general prog audience more and more over the last few years – do you think having an album with no death vocals has helped attract a bigger degree of interest from the casual prog rock fan?
FREDRIK: Possibly, yes. Absolutely, I would say. You always hear that, “Opeth is very good stuff but I can’t stand the death metal vocals.” Maybe from some, if you can say so, older prog fans.
MD: Do you hear of any feedback from those kind of prog fans who say they prefer the clean vocal tracks to the ones with growled vocals? Like, do they backtrack from ‘Heritage’ and then check out the older material?
FREDRIK: There have been people who backtrack and like the growls…old prog rockers as well. So that’s kind of interesting as well.
MD: Or do they skip everything in-between and backtrack straight to ‘Damnation’?!
FREDRIK: [laughs] Yeah, exactly!
MD: Being as successful as you are, do you think Opeth have helped changed people’s opinions about what it should mean to be regarded as a progressive band in the twenty first century – that is, a band that actually progresses rather than imitates itself or previous progressive bands?
FREDRIK: Yeah, I think since Mikael is such a huge collector, if he’s in different magazines he’s very highly featured in talking about old bands that he’s into. So I think there’s a lot of Opeth fans he’s opened new musical doors to. Absolutely. And also the Opeth style, if that’s what you’re referring to, it’s definitely prog-ish but it’s still metal as well.
MD: Yeah, it’s prog-metal in essence. But a lot of so called prog-metal bands just imitate other prog-metal bands, like Dream Theater clones and whatever. Opeth are one of the bands, probably one of the few bands, who are genuinely progressive.
FREDRIK: Yeah, and when we were working on ‘Heritage’, Mikael wrote songs in the beginning that he felt was starting to imitate himself so that was also one of the reasons why ‘Heritage’ came about.
MD: So those initial songs were scrapped?
FREDRIK: Yeah, he scrapped them but it was really good stuff, I really liked them!
MD: Are they going to be kept in reserve for a future album?
FREDRIK: I don’t know if he remembers them!
FREDRIK: He deleted them.
MD: Do no demos exist or anything?
FREDRIK: No, he deleted them!
MD: Wow, now that’s genuinely progressive!