Opeth come clean on what Sorceress is really about
Opeth tell Prog about the origins of their new album Sorceress, via the dark side of love, drunken shenanigans and inflatable peacocks…
If you cut through Opeth, they’d bleed mellotrons. Or flutes. Or any classic tool of the prog trade. Since veering away from their metallic roots after 2008’s Watershed, the enigmatic Swedes – who first won over scores of fans with boundary-crushing death metal – have dived further and further into the swirly depths of progressive music.
Frontman Mikael Åkerfeldt has spent most of his adulthood cultivating an obscenely extensive vinyl collection, much of it proggy and/or pre-dating 1976. Now, five years after their ‘prog debut’ Heritage, he’s capitalising on the influence of all that fantastic plastic with more gusto than ever. Oh yes, Opeth have gone to the prog side, no question.
Their new album Sorceress – recorded at Rockfield Studios, Wales, with Royal Blood producer Tom Dalgety – continues this thread. Two songs were initially called ‘Jethro One’ and ‘Jethro Two’. One song, The Wilde Flowers, was named after the 60s Canterbury band, who never released anything but did end up spawning Caravan and Soft Machine, which pretty much started the whole Canterbury scene; another (The Seventh Sojourn) shares its name with a Moody Blues album. Give them some whimsical outfits and songs about dragons and these former metal men would be proggier than Yes at a wizard convention in Hastings – in capes.
I don’t hate people who hate Heritage. The people I do hate are the ones who try to tell me what to do.
“Steven [Wilson] played me a late Jethro Tull record, Stormwatch, that I didn’t have,” Åkerfeldt tells us in a velvety, very Swedish accent, over beers just round the corner from Prog HQ. “He was like, ‘Have you heard this record? There’s a song you have to hear – it’s called Dun Ringill.’ It’s late-70s Jethro Tull. I generally have a limit around ’75, ’76, because production went downhill after that. But that record made me want to write a song with a capo, up high on the fretboard, because it brings a nice ‘ringy’ sound to the guitar.”
Offstage, Åkerfeldt – the band’s singer, guitarist and songwriting mastermind – is easy, very likeable company, but not without an element of reserve. He swears relatively rarely, but when he does, it’s with relish. He’s tall and slim, with a big moustache that he calls his “70s porn director” look. And he’s infinitely happier talking about music than he is about anything personal. The merits of Jethro Tull, therefore, is an area he’s pleased to get stuck into – as is his bandmate who joins him here today.
“We listened to it [Stormwatch] quite a lot when we had our beer sessions over the last couple of years,” nods guitarist Fredrik Åkesson, a thoughtful man with a gentle voice, regal goatee and a giant crop of springy curls. “I’ve been obsessed by the song Orion on that record.”
“And Minstrel In The Gallery,” adds Åkerfeldt, “we played that a lot. I love that album. So I’ve been rediscovering some of these records that I’ve been listening to for a long time.”
This conversion to the prog side hasn’t sat well with all of their fans. 2011’s Heritage, their first record with no screamed vocals, prompted outrage from a very vocal contingent of metal purists, and they’ve never been totally silenced. Not that it’s done them serious harm. Their last album, 2014’s Pale Communion, hit the Top 20 in both the UK and the US. New waves of non-metal listeners have joined their fan base. And this year they’re headlining London’s Wembley Arena – no small feat for any ‘non-mainstream’ band, and especially not for one as unbothered about what sells as Opeth.
Indeed, their huge success (which has also seen them fill the Royal Albert Hall) is almost inexplicable in an age where things like social media optimising and crowd-pandering are supposed to be crucial for widespread outreach.
“For me, the only thing that’s important is to keep the music fun and interesting,” says Åkerfeldt, “and to develop and experiment. That’s what I think music should be. It should be fun. The idea of stagnating, of writing a record simply to feed a career, that’s scary.”
For now at least, they’re showing no signs of stagnating, as they demonstrate on album number 12, Sorceress – a beautiful hybrid of classic prog, folk touches and hooky hard rock riffs. There’s no concept, and most of the songs hover around the five-minute mark, but to our ears, it sounds the most cohesive of their prog albums. The songwriting seems sharper; catchier even.
“It is a bit more catchy, I think,” Åkerfeldt says. “But we’re still in the bubble, so to speak. I haven’t even listened to the final version yet. We did so many mixes – I listened to each and every one of them – so I needed some time to step back. But I think it’s a really good record. I’m really happy with the songs. I think it’s a very diverse record. I made a point of having each song as different as possible.”