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Is Opeth's Mikael Akerfeldt the future of prog?

Mikael Åkerfeldt has spent nearly 30 years steering the ship of Opeth, a group that have progressed far beyond their metal beginnings. Could he be the new figurehead for modern prog rock?

Mikael Åkerfeldt can’t remember precisely where he was when a disgruntled crowd member challenged him to a duel, but it was – inevitably – somewhere in America. Åkerfeldt’s band Opeth were on a US club tour in support of their 2011 album Heritage, a record that jettisoned the last vestiges of their guttural extreme metal sound in favour of music that was pastoral, contemplative and unequivocally progressive.

The album had barely even hit the shelves, but Åkerfeldt decided that he was going to “force-feed” the new songs to the crowd, acoustic passages and all. Not surprisingly, this new Bob Dylan-in-reverse direction didn’t go down too well with the knuckle-dragging element of their audience.

“We were hitting places where they were a bit loud in voicing in their opinions in the middle of the show,” he says. “People started complaining and screaming and leaving during the show. And people started to challenge me to fights onstage. At this one show, this guy threw down his glove. He was challenging me to a duel.”

Did you take him up on it?

“No,” says Åkerfeldt with a laugh. “I had him thrown out.”

Such are the pitfalls of being a modern prog icon, especially one as single-minded as Mikael Åkerfeldt. The 43-year-old Swede has steered Opeth from their beginnings as part of the Scandinavian death metal scene to their current position as 21st-century progressive rock standard-bearers.

It hasn’t always been easy – there has been resistance from outside and inside the band. Ask Åkerfeldt today how he’s managed it and he puts it down to his innate doggedness.

“I’m a stubborn person,” he says. “Like playing Heritage songs before the album even came out, that was just tunnel vision: ‘We’re gonna do it this way, and you can fuck off if you don’t like it.’ Sometimes I’m too stubborn, maybe. But I can’t change myself.”

It’s an approach that has served Opeth well, even if it has occasionally brought the band – and Åkerfeldt himself – close to the edge. Today, talking from his home in Sweden ahead of a short European tour to support last year’s stellar Sorceress album, he’s on garrulous form: friendly, open, honest and funny about his past, present and future.

Åkerfeldt, together with Steven Wilson, Devin Townsend, Ihsahn, Enslaved and more, is one of prog’s New Kings – a group of musicians who, individually and collectively, have taken the foundations of the genre that were laid down 50 years ago and built on them, looking forward rather than backwards.

“I’ve put a lot into Opeth over the years,” he says. “But then I’ve had no choice. This band is our life’s work.”

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