Opeth – [Live]

Thursday, 20 October 2011

What music do I play in my car on rainy days when I’m driving to the cemetery? Opeth, no doubt about it. Thing is, I like to listen to Opeth even when it’s not raining and I’m not on my way to the cemetery. It was rather auspicious recently evening when the BART train I was riding left the eighty-degree temperatures and sunny skies of Walnut Creek and emerged out of the Berkeley Hills Tunnel to see San Francisco – socked in by gloomy overcast skies and temperatures in the sixties. It was the perfect setting; Opeth were in town, by god!

I am not a long-term, hardcore Opeth fan, but I do love them; that’s my excuse for not being able to recite the set list from the concert for you. I'm not even a true metal-head, to be perfectly honest. I only started listening to heavy metal music seven years ago when I turned forty-six; I had listened to plenty of heavy, deep music over the years (since I was a teenager, in fact), but Opeth came to me late and I was drawn into it immediately. Another band’s concert was happening at the same time just a few blocks away that I had true, long-running dedications to: members of the progressive rock band King Crimson were joining together for an evening of original tunes and old favs. Why, some may wonder, did I opt for seeing a band perform that I have no true allegiances to then?

The first metal show I ever attended was on a wintry Thursday night at Gilman Street in Berkeley. I had never been there before, but I was lonely and depressed and needed to experience something new. When I was inside that dark mood, inside that dark chamber with the intense, dark vibrations of that gloomy music shaking the room and I could feel the tremors rumbling through my flesh into my heart, I had a feeling of something new being born in me. I liked it; I was eager to explore it. I don't think I shed any tears of joy that night but, when I heard Mikael Åkerfeldt's voice for the first time in person, I felt like I was in the room with a holy prophet. And I wept.

The emotional highlight of the evening for the audience was at a point when the crowd was shouting for the band to play one particular song (it sounded like Åkerfeldt called it Harvest but – see? – this is where my lack of knowledge fails because the new album is called Harvest and that’s not what they meant). He said back to them, “You want to hear that song? Then you sing it! And you better fucking sing it loud!” And the audience sang it! And I recognized it; one of their most brilliant melodies and most beautiful songs that I do not know the words to so I could not sing along – but it was electrifying, and loud and so recognizable. And you could tell Åkerfeldt was pleased. And I was in tears.

There were audible groans in the audience when Åkerfeldt brought out a chair and sat down with an acoustic guitar to play several songs. Such a thing is surprising and welcome to see and hear during a metal show, right? Opeth does have a mellow and romantic tinge to the underbelly of their sound, something that is even more evident in this latest release, Harvest.

So, back to what Opeth does to me emotionally. I will sadly admit that I have not taken the time to sit and listen to all of Opeth's lyrics yet. Shame on me, I know. Maybe this is something I will do when the rainy season comes this year. The thing about Opeth is that you don't need to understand the meaning of the lyrics to be transported by the music. Yes, that is the case with a lot of music – but I think it works more so with Opeth; if there is the right combination of matching components in one's listening condition, this music really can take you somewhere that is as high as it is dark. The listener's emotional background for one thing needs to be steeped in experiences of depression, hopelessness and loss (and of course a tinge of normal metal anger), but there is an emotional transference in the music which is truly palpable. Another element which I never felt too strongly until this show was having an awareness of the band having an actual ancestral connection to Scandinavia. There is definitely something "viking-like" in the breath and blood of their music, but not overpoweringly so like other Nordic metal bands. 

Something mystical happens inside my head and heart when I listen to these “love songs of the devil,” that’s all I can say. I really feel like I’m stolen away from my present cares and my pain is lessened by the beauty of these songs.

Some of my first memories of listening to Opeth were when I was doing research for my "Cemetery Girl" novels. I spent hundreds of hours exploring cemeteries and contemplating stories of lonely women that came to cemeteries while Opeth played on my mp3 player, transporting my mood into other dimensions where I came closer to being aware of the true lonely ones, the dead that inhabit our cemeteries.

And this is what I want to talk about mainly in an experience of seeing Opeth (or any band live in concert). "Were you transported by the experience?" Did the experience of the music in the dark, crowded space elevate your spirit and your consciousness enough to take you to another place? Sadly a lot of people need assistance in attaining such an experience when they go to concerts and need to use drugs or alcohol. For many purer souls just being connected to the performers by their music in the air can create a trance-like experience for them.

I think it's a matter of concentration but also of group consciousness. I was so far from the stage (my seat was as far from the stage as one could be in The Warfield – last row in the upper balcony) so I could not see the general admission area to determine the intensity of the moshing, but from interpreting the energy of the selection of songs performed and the lengthy breaks between songs I doubt that a powerful mosh-energy was ever fully manifested. My own ability to generate a trance like experience came from deep seated recognition of songs performed flawlessly from early albums like Watershed and Still Life. I was able to close my eyes and remember walking alone in rainy, cold cemeteries.

I had only been to The Warfield once before when I saw Coheed and Cambria perform. Because of that previous experience, I somewhat anticipated the audience to be similar on this occasion; but it was not as young or as aggressive of a crowd, not even by half. In fact I was rather surprised by the presence of "classy couples" and older listeners in the crowd. Conversely, the last metal show I went to was High on Fire at The Independent, which was a classy and aggressive crowd. Yeah, for the most part unless you were a serious Opeth devotee that could really wring emotions out of the melodies, last night's show might have been kind of a "what the hell" experience to newcomers. It was a sophisticated stage performance by the band members; a simple, clean stage and blinding light show – extremely professional in delivery on all counts, but it definitely came across as if Åkerfeldt thought everyone there had seen them perform before.

I'm probably not the first to say it, but Åkerfeldt may seem like a bit of a pompous ass. He's as charming as the devil, but he's also a bit in love with the sound of his own voice. I've never heard anyone talk so much between songs at a concert, ever! The two most interesting things he said were mentioning one of the first times the band played San Francisco at The Stone when it was "so hot that steam came off his flesh," then he said that The Warfield was the "biggest and nicest" venue they've ever played in San Francisco – but the most moving thing he talked about was the death of Ronnie Dio and how he missed him, that he was an icon that he looked up to and he was rueful that “one day all of our icons will be gone.”

That was a nice sentiment but, in all the time he spent talking and telling inane stories, the band could have been playing more songs. And it was obvious that the audience wanted more songs.

I bet that even five years ago the show might have had less talking and more drive between songs and less of a sense of accomplishment, more of a sense of "we still need to make them love us" than there was at the show I saw. Twenty years of living a death metal lifestyle on the road eventually catches up with you and you want to sit around playing acoustic guitar. You want to cut your hair. You aren't angry at the world (and God) anymore and don't need to death growl to impress/scare everyone. Incidentally on that note, it's worth pointing out that there is zero death growl on the new album and there was none in this show. I was a little disappointed, but can only blame myself for missing their shows in recent years.

One last curious thought, I asked a couple of young lady friends of mine if they were interested in going to the show with me – at the last minute. It was too short of a notice though, as both had other plans. Thinking about if either of them would have actually enjoyed the show if they had come, I think the classy-urbanite indie music gal would have really found it to be interesting, sitting in the balcony. The metal-loving tattooed gal who just returned from a summer in Norway would have been very bored sitting in the balcony I think but, for me, this show was just about perfect; just exactly what I hoped for and needed.

But now I can't wait for the rainy season to arrive.



Opeth's world tour continues. Click here for a list of upcoming shows.

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