Opeth at O2 Academy, BristolSupport: Enslaved
November 21, 2017 at O2 Academy, Bristol
Promoter: Live Nation
“Enslaved were so good this evening, I’m afraid that they may have upstaged Opeth. . .”. It’s the interval at Bristol’s O2 Academy, and the between-fan banter begets fears for the headliner’s enshrined right to dominate an evening’s musical memories. Spoiler alert: these fans needn’t have worried. With the additional space on stage, louder and better mixed sound, improved production values and longer set length all afforded to Opeth, there was little chance of the Swedes being trounced by the Norwegians this evening. The fact remains that Enslaved are not your average support band.
With barely half the time and exactly half the number of songs allotted to Opeth, Enslaved still manage to hawk their latest wares more effectively, drawing three of the five-song set from new opus E. ‘Storm Son’ is an apt opening track, be it for a concert or live gig. It also adeptly signifies what Enslaved stand for in 2017: equal parts progressive wonder and metallic bombast, unafraid to play with listener’s expectations via changes in timbre, time signature and tonality. Almost in a straight line along the front of the stage, there’s little space for visual interaction between the members, although their in-ear monitoring solutions ensure this doesn’t compromise the sound too significantly.
Enslaved also tackle two tracks from their back catalogue. ‘Roots Of The Mountain’ is epic and, like ‘Storm Son’, draws on Norse mythology for its appeal. Musically, it’s a little closer to the extreme metal sound that begat the band’s early infamy. ‘One Thousand Years Of Rain’ might be too close for comfort for some on a cold, drab and wet November evening in Bristol. Vocalist Grutle Kjellson’s vocals more closely resemble a scream than a growl, here, and the song’s coda sounds more comic than intense, for some reason – a peculiar misstep in an otherwise brilliant and brutal short showing.
Vikings to the last, Enslaved have conquered the realm of progressive rock, taking the spoils back to their metal homeland and effectively employing the new arsenal at their disposal. Håkon Vinje, the band’s relatively fresh keyboardist and clean vocalist, is a revelation. One suspects that his performance abilities, as much as guitarist Ivar Bjørnson’s compositional skills, have enhanced Enslaved’s latest sonic adventure. The band put on a great show this evening, but, like all support in such circumstances, there’s only so much they can do. Catching Enslaved in a forthcoming headline slot is highly recommended.
Opeth straddle the worlds of prog and metal with the ease of giants. Tonight’s setlist has a foot in both camps. It’s also a little unusual: following a long tour and a lot of dates, the band decided to freshen things up for the UK dates on the tour, the last leg. Mikael Åkerfeldt describes the sequence of songs as “confusing”. The opening bars of first song ‘Sorceress’ are as close as Opeth come to sounding like Soft Machine. This is followed by ‘Ghost of Perdition’, Åkerfeldt still in possession of a fine growl. The sense of anticipation in the Academy is such that a singalong is inevitable in the higher passages, giving them a choral feel. High-definition heavy-metal lighting enhances the power – at key moments, the backdrops shudder.
Åkerfeldt is chatty and punctuates the songs with interludes. Tomorrow, they’re in Birmingham, the last night of the tour. Birmingham gets a comedy boo from the local crowd. The droning opening of ‘Demon Of The Fall’ elicits more cheers. A thrilling rendition ends with some beautiful unison playing from Åkerfeldt and Fredrik Åkesson. Inviting the audience to speak means there are heckles, and Åkerfeldt is amusingly thrown when informed he was “slightly flat” on the track. Sorceress highlight ‘Wilde Flowers’ follows, its twisting riffs showcasing the evening’s second great keyboardist in Joakim Svalberg, whose performance on this number sounds like it’s evolved well over the duration of the tour, ageing towards a fine vintage. Like Vinje earlier, Svalberg also shines in his vocal duties as well as his keys work, and nowhere is this more evident than during ‘Wilde Flowers’. ‘Windowpane’, from Deliverance, is a lilting number, based around picked guitars and pastoral tones, and tonight sounds pleasantly submerged in places, a testament to the subtlety this powerful ensemble are capable of.
Svalberg isn’t the only player in fine form. The whole band should be commended for their commitment to high levels of musicianship – it’s part of what makes Opeth so special. Throughout, Åkerfeldt and Åkesson offer glimpses of genius on guitar, the former’s playing more melodically inventive, the latter’s technically adept. Prior to the gig I saw Martín Méndez twiddling drumsticks and dropping one, but he’s rock solid on bass this evening. Méndez’ bass and Martin Axenrot’s kit steer the band through the less frequently played tunes such as ‘Häxprocess’, revived to the set for the first time since 2013. The composition’s piano and response section is idiosyncratic even for Opeth.
There are some odd juxtapositions in the set for sure, but the sense of a special event is enhanced with ‘Moon Above, Sun Below’, a track Åkerfeldt introduces as “difficult to play, and difficult to listen to”. The Pale Communion track is one of the band’s most complex, and until this week, had never been performed live, but the rehearsals alluded to have been worth the effort, their ambition extending to the incorporation of vocal effects and refined harmony singing. The drum ‘n’ bass ‘n’ organ break is thrilling, and as the band crash in, one of Opeth’s most transcendent studio moments is electrifyingly recreated. In spite of such a magic being performed on stage, the heckling continues. There’s another new track to be swiftly performed – a clean, acoustic cover version of Napalm Death’s ‘You Suffer’ that one can assume didn’t take as much rehearsal to nail as ‘Moon Above…’!
‘Hessian Peel’, from Watershed, takes a bow, with a wonderfully atmospheric opening and more harmony playing from Åkerfeldt and Åkesson underpinning the wistful vocal. “Axe” can do blast beats without a thought, but is at his best on the tracks that allow him to play with a jazzy swing. This leads to the first heavy, crunching guitars in a long while, and the tune enters its tumbling downwards riff accompanied by visuals of trees shaking to great effect. Earlier in the evening, Åkerfeldt noted that their performing rarely heard compositions is only a plus if you like them. There’s surely no-one in the room that’s disappointed when ‘Blackwater Park’ is introduced to conclude the main set – it’s a fan favourite for a reason, and arguably their best tune. Sure, it’s built around a 4/4, as Åkerfeldt jokes, but it’s far from plodding, and prompts the biggest outbreak of head banging of the night. Again, Svalberg’s involvement lifts the piece; Åkerfeldt nimbly handles his most technical guitar parts of the evening.
Arriving for their encore, the hecklers suggest Opeth do another cover. When ‘Nights in White Satin’ is proposed, Åkerfeldt gets his punchline – the Moody Blues being from Birmingham, established as a comic destination earlier in the evening. Hecklers amusingly put in place, the band instead return to the more familiar territory of ‘Deliverance’, which provides a tour-de-force conclusion to a masterful display, culminating in arguably the best riff in Opeth’s career: machine gun beats overlaid with a nagging three-note guitar motif. Delivering material from nine albums in a ten-track set, Opeth cover all bases, this evening, in a performance that befits a band of their ability and reputation.