Within the field of modern progressive metal, it’s difficult to think of many bands that are more iconic than Swedish quintet OPETH. Formed all the way back in 1989, and first emerging in 1995 with debut album Orchid, the group quickly began carving out a niche within the world of death metal and over the years began to amass an enormous fanbase from doing so. Things changed in 2011 however with the band’s tenth album Heritage abandoning death metal entirely for a full-on prog-rock sound more closely related to the likes of KING CRIMSON, LED ZEPPELIN, THE DOORS and other bands way outside of the sphere they made their name in. Having furthered this style on 2014’s Pale Communion and most recently on last year’s brilliant Sorceress, we headed down to The Ritz in Manchester to see how it would all go down with their fans.
The task of kicking things off however, falls to Norwegian extreme-metallers ENSLAVED – a band with far more in common with the earlier work of tonight’s headliners than anything they’ve done recently. Opening proceedings with Storm Son from their recently-released album E immediately indicates exactly what the band are about, pummelling the ears of those in attendance with a precisely executed mix of furious death metal and cinematic almost-symphonic prog elements that might as well have come from the likes of PINK FLOYD at times. That the band can simply come on and open with a ten-minute epic speaks volumes about their confidence, and to an extent it works rather well, however as time goes on things seem to take a sudden dip. By the time the band reach their second track Roots of the Mountain, it becomes apparent that something isn’t quite right with the sound mix, as ENSLAVED’s usually hyper-precise sound becomes mostly reduced to an almost indecipherable barrage of bass and kick drum – overpowering vocalist Grutle Kjellson almost entirely at points. This never really seems to get fixed either, and the band’s set quickly becomes a bit of a slog as a result.
OPETH on the other hand, suffer no such problems. Coming onstage to a thunderous bellow of cheers and applause, the Swedes waste little time before ploughing straight into Sorceress, as the video screen back wall of their set lights up, and the wonderfully retro sound of mellotron fills the air, thanks to keyboard mastermind Joakim Svalberg. If what proceeded them was the result of technical failure on some sound engineer’s part, OPETH‘s set quickly proves itself to be the exact opposite, as all five of the band’s members seem intent on showing off their extreme levels of virtuosity as soon and as often as possible. Led by softly-spoken but charismatic frontman/guitarist Mikael Åkerfeldt, it seems like OPETH‘s main goal tonight is to show off as many of their different styles as possible – from the aforementioned retro prog of recent cuts, to the blisteringly heavy, and even the melding of both in tracks like Hessian Peel (airing for the first time tonight in four years). As you’d expect, the assembled masses proceed to lose their minds at any of the remotely heavy material, but even the softer material seems well-received by Manchester’s fans tonight – despite Mikael making dry and sarcastic jokes several times about appropriate times for trips to the bar and such.
On a pure musicianship level, there really is almost no faulting OPETH tonight, throughout any of their set though. Be it in the prog stylings of newer cuts like The Wilde Flowers, or the sprawling death-metal-meets-choral-chanting of Ghost of Perdition, every single member of the band seems to be performing at the absolute highest level possible. Setlist-wise, there’s even room for surprises too – the debut performance of sprawling near-11 minute long progressive behemoth Moon Above, Sun Below leaving the crowd captivated throughout, and making you wondering exactly how it’s never been aired in the three years preceding. Obviously though, things have to end on a far heavier note, and as the band lumber towards the end of their set they decide this time to sound off with preposterously heavy The Drapery Falls, from their landmark 2001 album Blackwater Park. It’s a brilliant reminder of just how powerful a force OPETH can be when they want to, and reduces the entire floor to a writhing mass of bodies furiously circle-pitting at points. That’s not even it though, as following the most brief of interludes, the Swedes return to melt everyone’s faces clean off with one last salvo in the form of Deliverance – 13 and a half minutes of the band’s almighty best, featuring Åkerfeldt in full-on death growl might, as he and the band finish off what’s left of everyone’s hearing with glee. Their recent material might have proved divisive amongst some critics and the internet at large, but tonight OPETH have more than proven their worth when it comes to both of their styles, and leave no doubt in anyone’s minds of the sheer brilliance they continue to produce, some 22 years after first forming.
Check out our photo gallery of the night’s action in Manchester from Em Coulter Photography here: