Opeth have been regular visitors to our shores dating as far back as 2003. In that time, Australian audiences have witnessed the Swedish quintet evolve from progressive death metal to ’60s/’70s-inspired prog rock.
Tonight’s show was an interesting one as Opeth did their best to provide a varied set that acknowledged these contrasting styles. Did it prove a successful fusion? I happen to believe it wasn’t, and it boils down to Opeth’s reluctance to pull off the band-aid in the live environment. Mainman Mikael Akerfeldt has made a clear distinction in the studio by ensuring that death metal is of no creative interest to him anymore, and this is evident on Opeth’s last four studio albums. Now, I have no problem with an artist following their muse, but if you’re going to change has Opeth has, you might as well go all the way and not compromise, be it in the studio or live.
I was one of many that witnessed the Heritage tour when it rolled through Australia, when Opeth first abandoned their death metal back catalogue. It was a brave thing to do. They were heckled by quarters of their fanbase during the performance, but they didn’t waver, and I respected them greatly for sticking to their guns that night. It took guts to stand there and cop it from their fans, but Opeth did and walked off with their heads held high.
But since that tour Opeth have made steps to appease their fanbase by returning to their past, and that is proving to be an issue, because they are now defined by two distinctive eras: pre- and post- Heritage. Both offer much to enjoy, but there seems to be a chasm between what the band is presenting to their fans and what their fanbase wants. Judging by the show, it was painfully clear that fans want to bang their heads, but they’re not sure where and when they’re supposed to. They did in the end, but it took a while.
When the intro began I was ready to get up on my feet, but the audience remain seated. That wasn’t a big deal to begin with, but after the first song had been played and nothing had changed I was wondering what was going on. This is not a shot at the band or the audience in attendance, because I don’t care how people choose to enjoy a show; but with that said, I didn’t expect the crowd – myself included – to be sat in their chairs for 100 minutes and applaud politely between tracks! The thing is, I never felt the urge to stand up either. Sure, the odd punter screamed out their adulation for the band here and there, but it was definitely an interesting experience to watch the band in such a subdued setting.
I’ve seen many shows at the Palais – from Dream Theater to Foreigner – and they always got people on their feet. Opeth, despite Akerfeldt making a point of saying that the seating wasn’t put there by the band, couldn’t. Perhaps that’s a reflection of what the Opeth has become now: a band to listen to and enjoy a la the late Pink Floyd, the late The Grateful Dead, or Phish. Tracks such as Nepenthe, Moon Above and Sun Below shone in the live setting, but when the band switched to older tracks such as Reverie/Harlequin Forest or The Lotus Eater, it was welcomed – but lacked the power of old. I can only bring it down to Akerfeldt’s death metal vocals not hitting that sweet spot and the rhythm guitars missing the necessary crunch needed to cut through the mix.
It wasn’t until the encores that the energy in the room changed, and it felt more like a live event. Opeth returned to the stage with Sorceress which got the audience on their feet, and the band itself transformed, upping their delivery with Akerfeldt clearly enjoying himself. Final track Deliverance was the highlight of the night with the band and audience finally in sync and connecting. Opeth pulled out all the stops, with Akerfeldt really cutting loose, stalking the boards and leaving the comfort behind the microphone to venture out to the edge of the stage. It was the first time it felt like a rock show and not an Idol audition as Akerfeldt correctly alluded to earlier in the set. It was just disappointing that it took 110 minutes to get there.
There is no denying Opeth’s creativity, musicianship and single-mindedness in the studio. They are to be commended for their work as a band. It’s in the live setting where they appear to be having an identity crisis, as they find themselves caught between their past and their present material. It’s clear the direction fans want Opeth to pursue: they want the heavy material and death metal vibes. Judging by tonight’s encores, I think the band secretly do as well.