As one of the most dynamic contemporary progressive metal acts, Swedish group Opeth has deftly bridged genres, melded influences and defied categorization for almost 30 years. The group continued this trend with the release of “Sorceress” — its 12th studio album — on Sept. 30.
“Sorceress” sees Opeth continue the drift from their death metal roots in favor of folk, jazz and classical influences. The driving force behind Opeth’s sonic dynamism and continued innovation is also the only founding member in the group’s current lineup — guitarist, singer and songwriter Mikael Akerfeldt. The Hoya spoke with Akerfeldt on Oct. 9 about the group’s sound, direction and personal approach to making the new album.
While the metal genre is often more noticeably rhythmic and percussive than melodic, Akerfeldt’s use of acoustic guitars and intricate guitar harmonies has pushed Opeth into a league of its own. This is evident from the first note, often offsetting the album’s dark lyrical theme of all-consuming love.
“I have always been fascinated by the acoustic guitar. That comes from me working in a guitar shop that only sold acoustic guitars back in the day. We’ve always had acoustic guitars, but it has escalated more and more over time,” Akerfeldt said.
The album’s opening track, “Persephone,” sets a delicate tone for the album as an acoustic, classical Spanish melody, which promotes a feeling of romance underneath the somber lyrics, “a beloved name inside my heart, a fleeting glance became the start, a missing word I am still awaiting, a wretched deception I am creating.” The song’s biggest contribution to the album is its assertion that Opeth is doing more than appealing to a particular fan base; it is trying to locate a deeper meaning and purpose through music.
“I’ve been the main songwriter since the beginning, and I’ve always approached songwriting with the same intent. I’ve never written for fans or anyone else. It’s always been an attempt to write music that I would listen to,” Akerfeldt said.
His inclinations have clearly changed, however, as this sedate, sparkling introduction stands in sharp contrast to the group’s early work. Their 2003 debut album, “Orchids,” set the band on a course to stardom in an atmosphere in which instrumental brutality held sway. This album’s new approach is a reflection of the band’s humble sensibilities and refinement.
“It helps create a specific dynamic on the record. We’re not one of those bands with a macho attitude where we want to blow people away with heaviness or speed. We can do that if we want to, but there’s more to it than that,” Akerfeldt said.
This latent ability to amaze listeners instrumentally, however, is evident in “The Wilde Flowers,” in which Akerfeldt reminds listeners of his virtuosic guitar abilities in a solo akin to the neo-classical shred work of his Swedish contemporary, Yngwie Malmsteen. The latter half of the song is dominated by an enchanting interlude of synth tones and a crystalline, melodic guitar solo.
The album’s eponymous and most memorable track begins with a dissonant, fuzz-filled guitar riff over a walking bass line. About four minutes into the album, tones more characteristic of Opeth arrive as Akerfeldt’s percussive, muted, drop-tuned guitar pounds through a haunting progression. The attention to detail throughout the album is evident in the song’s production, contrasting crystal-clear drums and vocals with a saturated bass line.
“Will O the Wisp” is an overture to the folk-rock genre and is particularly inspired by British rock group Jethro Tull. The solo makes heavy use of Akerfeldt’s blues vocabulary and song-crafting prowess. While the latter has not always been his specialty, his perceived role in the group has evolved over time.
“From the third album onward, I’ve focused on being more of a songwriter than just a guitar player,” Akerfedlt said.
“Chrysalis” is perhaps the most notable track on the album. At over seven minutes, it is an epic, progressive track that excels in channeling some of the group’s central influences while also managing to chart new territory. In this sense, Opeth has outdone their progressive rock peer Dream Theater at its own game. While managing to retain the band’s characteristic sound, Akerfeldt channels vocals similar to Avenged Sevenfold’s “A Little Piece of Heaven” while the track’s organ hearkens to the work of Deep Purple’s late organist Jon Lord.
The seventh track on the album, “The Seventh Sojourn,” highlights the diversity of influences behind Akerfeldt’s songwriting. While the foundation has stayed very much the same, his exposure to new music is evident in the evolution of the group’s sound and sonic approach.
“Some of those influences have definitely stayed the same. Bands I grew up with like Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, The Scorpions, Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin are always going to be there. I’m also a record collector though, so I’ve stumbled on different genres through my collecting, and that’s bound to influence me in one way or another,” Akerfedlt said.
The instrumentation features drums, guitar and strings that are heavily influenced by traditional Middle Eastern music. The strings, arranged by Will Malone — who has also worked with Iron Maiden, Black Sabbath and The Verve — add atmosphere and presence to a track that would otherwise be grounded only by its droning bass.
“Strange Brew” is the track that will appeal most to classic rock fans. While the title may bring to mind the track on Cream’s 1967 album “Disraeli Gears,” the track charts its own course aside from the high-octane blues guitar. Warbling piano and layered vocals introduce a track that balances the heavy progressive style of Gojira and the subtler melodic wizardry of Mahavishnu Orchestra.
“Sorceress” at times feels like it is unsure what it is trying to be. In any similar group’s discography, it would be an outlier. However, in the context of Opeth, the album makes perfect sense as a continuation of the band’s trend toward experimentation and refusal to be narrowly categorized.
“I think it’s been in the wings since the beginning that we would eventually do something like what we are doing now,” Akerfeldt said. “We turned down the distortion and made it sound a bit more human. Our whole perception, when it comes to album production, has changed.”
Through contrasting heavy and calm, dark and light, and fast and slow, “Sorceress” negotiates meaning in an often-polarized genre abreast acoustic interludes, jazz-inspired guitar solos and a constant lyrical darkness.