In the hands of guitarist, singer and songwriter Mikael Akerfeldt
, Swedish prog band Opeth
has consistently blown the doors off of pre-conceived notions of what a "progressive rock band"
is supposed to sound like. They've variously brought in elements of death metal, melodic rock, and the classic rock textures made famous by bands like King Crimson
. On the band's newest album "Pale Communion
," Akerfeldt has brought in Mellotrons, acoustic guitars, strings, and orchestrated instrumental passages to create a record decidedly prog in feel but one that also engenders intimacy andwhat Akerfeldt likes to describe as emotionalism. The album will be released on June 17. UG: Does "Pale Communion" continue on where "Heritage" ended? MA:
I guess that's inevitable because that was the record before. It's not like I've gone through some Renaissance
. I think what we wanted with this record, I wanted it to be slightly heavier and sound wise I wanted it slightly more updated. Updated in what way?
Not modern. I always liked how "Heaven and Hell
" by Black Sabbath
and "Mob Rules
" and how those records sounded. I liked late '70s and early '80s productions and I guess we wanted to get something like that, which is why we went to Rockfield Studios in Wales [Queen recorded "Bohemian Rhapsody" here]
and recorded. But musically, I'm not sure. In a way I guess it's a continuation of "Heritage" but I don't think they are similar. How are they different?
This record is more melodic, slightly heavier and a bit more schizophrenic. Inevitably it is also a continuation of "Heritage," I guess. Were you hoping to find some of that "Bohemian Rhapsody" magic at Rockfield Studios?
It was just a good studio. It had a nice Neve
console, which is why we went for that. There were two studios and we opted for the one with the Neve console. It had a nice room and it was a really good studio and we had a f--kin' superb engineer in Tom Dalgety
. But it's the location - it was in the middle of f--king nowhere. You've got fields, sheep and horses and cows around. There's a little town about 20-minutes walk from the studio where they have tiny pubs, some restaurants and stuff like that. The scenery there and the location was I think the best part of the studio. The studio itself was just a really, really good studio like so many other studios around the world. Is Rockfield Studios analog?
Yeah, it is. You recorded analog?
No, we didn't. We recorded onto Pro Tools
but through the console. They still have tape machines there that are rarely used. I think we could have used tapes. I have recorded many records on tape and even if I love the sounds, it's so time consuming. We didn't have time really but we actually recorded much faster than we ever have. It was only 13 days to record this album. That's fast for Opeth?
That's very fast for us. When we have recorded onto tape even if we've been well-rehea-sed, we spend a month or six weeks. Which I didn't want to do this time. I wanted for it to be fast, spontaneous and fun. How would you characterize the sound of the new album?
I think this new album is still clinging to the '70s sound, which is a warm, natural sound but the technology was updated and more advanced. So it sounds like '70s but better in a way. If you know what I mean? I guess that's what we wanted. I don't like modern-sounding heavy records. I think many of them sound just not human. You also get tired and your ears get tired listening to new metal records. While some of those records I mentioned still sound fresh and never sounded old. You've talked about being "discouraged" with current metal - is this part of what you were talking about?
Yeah. I think many of these records - and I'm not even talking about the music on there but I'm thinking soundwise - would probably benefit from having more of an old school sound to them. The musicians themselves I think would also benefit because less cheating would probably push yourself as a musician. You're talking about using digital technology where you can play one bar perfectly and then cut and paste that for an entire song.
Many of these metal records, you listen to them and it's no better than drum machines to me. It's all quantized and fixed and everything and it sounds like a typewriter with added bass. Like the bass drum sounds like a typewriter - clackety clack clack clack - and added bass. Everything is supposed to be clearly audible, which is not the case with real records or real sounds. You have to take one for the team and maybe one bass drum hit won't be there in the mix if you know what I mean. I totally get it.
That's what the metal world is working against and it's to make everything there and in the process something was lost. And that's the humanity of the sound because we've done that too and I wanted to get back to real. Opeth was guilty of making those types of records?
Definitely. Oh, yeah. "Ghost Reveries
" was one of those records and everything was just perfect. You could solo every channel on the "Ghost Reveries" record and you wouldn't find anything wrong. You wouldn't find a single mistake on there and to a certain extent the same thing with "Watershed
." And those records prior to that too, I guess. But you solo "Heritage" and it's gonna sound like, "That guy can't play"
but in context with the band it sounds great and it sounds real and human because after all we're human, I guess.That's why those Sabbath and Zeppelin albums were so great.
And the songs as well. There's a song by Judas Priest
on "Sad Wings of Destiny
" that happened to be recorded where we did the last album, Rockfield Studios. There's a song called "Dreamer Deceiver
" on there, which is a beautiful ballad and there's an acoustic guitar break and I think it's Glenn Tipton
playing. And it's so un-tight, it's like a second un-tight and it misses the bass drum by like a f--king second. But that's the song if you know what I mean. When I play air guitar to that song, I'm un-tight because that's the song. It doesn't make it worse because of its imperfections but it actually makes it - I would way to say - better. If you know what I mean? Absolutely.
Perfection is not necessarily better. The first Zeppelin album is as great as it gets but there are missed drum accents and little mistakes all over the place. Ritchie Blackmore
is sloppy live and sometimes in the studio too but it's fantastic. That's why those records have lived and lasted for me, I think. It's the humanity I figured most musicians wanted to try for perfection and they didn't understand something would get lost on their quest for perfection. But it did. Some of those records like the '90s records and in 2000, they have no life in them. I don't listen to them anymore. Records from '73, it's something with them that have been lost. Ben Weinman said that because of social media and everything that every band is working from the same blueprint.
Yeah, but I think that's a small thing in a bigger picture. When it comes to record labels, engineers and mastering engineers, they're all responsible. Excellent point.
Yeah, like we've been told you have to master a record really loud because otherwise you're gonna sound sh-t on a compilation CD. And it's supposed to be a Mesa Boogie Triple Rectifier
because that's what sounds good and that's what people like. But I maybe took some bad advice back in the day and my head frame is like, "F--k that sh-t. If we like it then it's good enough."As we're talking, the album was sent but there were no titles. One of the tracks begins with some strange B-3 sounds.
It starts with a weird Hammond
? I think that's gonna be called "Eternal Rains Will Come
" because that's the first harmony vocal line. If I'm talking about the right song, that's the last song I wrote for the record and it turns out it's gonna be the opener for the record. Why will this song be the first track?
Because it starts with some kind of chaos, which I think will make people sit up and go, "What the f--k's happening?"
A bit of a chaotic opening, which I hope will suck the listener into the record and will make them interested in what's gonna happen. Then it kind of settles into more of a verse/chorus vibe. There's a pretty heavy Yes, Genesis and King Crimson vibe on this song and all over the record. Were you listening to those types of albums when you were writing?
I didn't have any kind of reference. There was one song that had a working title called "Floyd
," which came from the first riff I wrote for that song, I wanted it to sound like "Astronomy Domine
" by Pink Floyd
and I ended up not liking it in the end and wrote something else. But still kept the working title if you know what I mean. But generally I don't know what I was listening to during the process of writing. I wasn't really listening to anything that rubbed off on me to the point where I wanted to write something like that. Maybe some of the vocal harmonies were inspired by David Crosby
because I like listening a lot to his first solo record. With the King Crimsons and those kinds of prog bands, I guess they're in my DNA as much as Judas Priest and Maiden
. It was not intentional that anything would sound like Genesis. I guess it's just an ongoing inspiration for me that still comes back and when I write something it might come out sounding like that. What has it been like working with keyboardist Joakim Svalberg who replaced Per Wilberg?
He's been great. He came in during the "Heritage" recording actually and he did the song "Heritage" that opens up the album. He recorded that one and then he did the whole tour with us and he's been just fantastic. He's a really, really good guy and a really, really good player. You sound like you're obviously really pleased with him.
He is picky. During this recording he was like, "No, I'm not tight here and there. It's not really sounding like I want it to sound."
I'm like, "What the f--k are you talking about? It sounds amazing."
He's really picky and self-critiquing. He's a really good player and a lovely guy and also he understands the references. He doesn't have a heavy metal background and he never listened to Morbid Angel
or sh-t like that so we had to play it to him. He's like, "Oh, that's cool."
Sometimes I feel sorry for him because everybody is drunk on the tour bus and pushing black metal onto him when he likes soul, hard rock and that kind of stuff. I can see him suffer sometimes on the bus when somebody plays him the new Immortal
record or something. Another track had the lyric "Don't want to bare my scars for you" and acoustic guitars. Are you comfortable doing a vocal over a kind of stripped down track?
Yeah, it is now. It took some time for me to be comfortable with my singing voice because I never considered myself a singer. In the early records especially when I did the clean vocals, I always wanted to be lower in the mix. But now I'm much more comfortable being a vocal singer. I'm also a massive fan of singer/songwriter artists where it's often just acoustic guitar and a vocal. You've mentioned David Crosby - who else do you listen to? Joni Mitchell
, Nick Drake
and even Paul Simon
has been an influence on that kind of stuff. So I've become more comfortable with that. Also I think on this record, many of those kinds of parts are really dry so that's also something that took some getting used to. I really like it now. There's an instrumental on the album.
." I was very inspired by that band [Italian prog band]
. That's a jam thing actually I brought up onstage during a soundcheck when we did the tour with Mastodon
. We started playing this thing - this theme - and everyone was like, "Oh, that sounds cool."
We played it every now and then during soundcheck and a few days into the tour, you could hear in the corridors people humming - doodoodoodo do do dodo - that were not in the band. Crew for the other band and other bandmembers humming this theme that we played on soundcheck. I was like, "Maybe we should do something with this."
But that's how it happened really. It's called "Goblin" because it was inspired by the band. Another track has strings, Mellotrons and your vocal has this really tortured kind of texture to it.
That's the first song I wrote for the record actually. I was just trying out some of my synthetic strings that I had in my studio just to see what it sounded like. I never really used them and I ended up coming up with this theme that became the intro and the verse. Which was just an accident, I guess. But it sounded really good and I ended up developing this song based on those tests I guess you could say. Jumping away from the album, Opeth played in Israel back on the "Heritage" tour in 2012?
It was great. We played there three or four times now. We've been there a bunch of times and it's been great. I love it there. We've only been in Tel Aviv. The first time we were there we played a pretty small venue that held 600 or 700 people and it was f--kin' packed. Crazy. And we've been back with every album cycle pretty much playing at least one show. You also performed in India?
Yeah, we played two festivals, I think. In the past, you've talked about a solo record. Where is that now?
There's no need for me to do that because I'm really comfortable writing for Opeth. I can put pretty much anything into Opeth and there's no need for me to create some type of solo project in order to fulfill my dreams as a musician because I put everything into Opeth. I said that a few years ago because I was interested in doing a singer/songwriter record because I loved that so much. Which obviously would need a full band. But it was also something I wanted to do just to see if I could produce a record from scratch on my own in my own studio. It was a bit of an experiment and to be honest not something I yearned for. I had a big mouth and then people thought it was actually gonna happen. "When is it coming"
and I was like, "Well, it's talk. Just talk."
But who knows? If I end up with a bunch of songs like that maybe I'll put it out. Will you do anything else with Storm Corrosion and Steven Wilson?
Yeah, I hope so actually. We talked about that because I was down at his place for the mix of the record [the new Opeth album]
and we talked about that a lot actually. Both me and Steve are really happy with that Storm Corrosion record
and I think we both agreed it was some of the more interesting music we have ever been involved in. But it also comes down to whether we can come up with something that is as interesting. That's always the hard part.
You don't wanna repeat what we did on the first album and I think we wanna do something else. Jokingly I said maybe we should do a record with just drums. But I'm not sure what we're gonna do. We're friends and every now and then we hook up and drink wine and go out and shop for records. And what we agreed on was we should frame a possible Storm Corrosion record in the same way as we did with the first one - just us hanging out as friends because that's what happened. We were drinking wine and just decided to record a song and that was "Drag Ropes
," the first song on the album. "Storm Corrosion" was a great record.
Yeah, I was really happy with that one. Steven Wilson remastered all the King Crimson albums and obviously met Robert Fripp. Have you ever met him?
No, I'm afraid of meeting him. But Steven said he's a really nice guy who is a character. He had Fripp
on tour with him actually and said he gave him some really nice stories. A really timid Japanese guy came up to him during Robert Fripp's breakfast. He was sitting down and having breakfast and apparently you should not disturb Robert Fripp when he's having breakfast. This guy made that mistake and went up to him with a copy of the first Crimson record and asked him if he could sign it. What did Fripp do?
Fripp just ignored him. He put his hand up in his face like covering his face and continued drinking his coffee and didn't say a word until the guy backed away. And that was it. But Steve said was great and funny and has a sense of humor. A cool guy. They're friends but I've never met him. Steve is much more of a people person than I am so I don't have the social skills. I wouldn't feel comfortable meeting Robert Fripp - I don't know what the f--k to say to him. You can't go, "Hey, Red, man. That's a great record."
You can't do normal things with him. At the end of the day, did this upcoming Opeth album do everything you hoped it would musically?
Definitely for me but it's part of a career for the five of us, the record label and management. It's really difficult to see where it's gonna take us. But as far as my own personal opinion, I'm really happy with it. I've worked a lot on this album. I want music to be emotional and I think this is an emotional record, which is really important to me. Heaven and Hell and that kind of stuff is really cool but without emotion it's still nothing. So I think in that aspect this record is everything I wanted it to be this time around. Then we'll see how it will benefit us.Interview by Steven Rosen