Opeth @ Damnation Festival 2019

Lørdag 2.november 2019

Damnation Festival is a one-day indoor metal festival held annually at the University of Leeds Student’s Union in England. There were 27 bands spread across four stages at this year’s festival, the fourteenth since it began in 2005. One of the headliners was Opeth, whose latest acclaimed album, «In Cauda Venenum«, we rated a full 6/6 and couldn’t wait until January to see their Oslo show, so we took a trip to Leeds. We have also interviewed Mikael Åkerfeldt for the next issue of Norway Rock Magazine – check out Narvesen in December!

«You’re probably tired.» Mikael Åkerfeldt, softly spoken, understated under a broad-brimmed black hat addressed the crowd for the first time, after Opeth opened with «Svekets prins» from their new acclaimed album «In Cauda Venenum» – in Swedish.  «You’ve had a long day listening to lots of black metal music…. We’ll try our best to entertain you.» They succeeded. The relatively short set that followed consisted of a whistlestop selection from their catalogue, older, blacker material, mixed with tracks from the more recent, more progressive albums.  A hard choice when you have an hour-and-a-half to fill and thirteen albums behind you.  The band have been touring the new album and Åkerfeldt apologised to the audience for having to figure out a cut-down set to fit in with the festival. Anyone expecting a set based mostly on «In Cauda Venenum» might have been disappointed, but there was no reason to be.

The variation in musical and vocal style was united by the quality of the performance. The ensemble playing was outstanding and each musician had a chance to shine as an individual player.  Despite the shift in musical styles over the band’s career, there was nothing jarring about the juxtaposition of the older and newer material.  Åkerfeldt played the guitar well throughout, not just as the band’s rhythm player and front-man but as a soloist, really shining on «Leper Affinity», where he had three separate solos. Martin Axenrot was a forceful presence, particularly towards the end of the set and had a few opportunities to show off. Fredrik Åkesson was clearly as at home playing the tracks that he had written as the older material.

And it got better and better.  By the time they reached their fourth number, «Harlequin Forest» from 2005 album «Ghost Reveries», they were in their stride.  This was a huge ensemble piece.  After a smooth bass vibe from Martín Méndez during the middle eight, and some spontaneous rhythmical clapping from the audience during the following softer section, the band got into the difficult, jagged, edgy extended instrumental section which closes the track, and nailed it.  This is really challenging music to play and these guys are clearly at the top of their game.  When the track reached its staccato conclusion, the audience erupted into genuine appreciation, not just for the music, but for the quality of the performance.  It showed all throughout the set – through the accuracy and energy of the performance, the sheer tightness of the band.  Joakim Svalberg could be seen hanging off his keyboards, leaning on them, putting his whole body into the sensation of playing this music. You could see that these are five people who have worked together for a long time and love it.

I’d like to say they had the audience in the palm of their hand, but the fact is, as lately noted in Oslo also, there was just too much talking in the audience.  Whenever the volume dropped below a standard metal level to the more subtle elements of Opeth’s music, conversations, particularly at the back of the hall, were clearly audible above the music. This was most jarringly obvious at the start of «Nepenthe» from «Heritage». Åkerfeldt commented «Lots of people, lots of Opeth fans, hated this album.  But we like it and we’re going to keep playing tracks from it» – which seemed ironic as there was no change in the background level of chatter as the opening guitar riff came in. Likewise, earlier in the concert, in the softer parts of «Hjärtat vet vad handen gör».  People may have had a long day, but, we’d recommend, as the mystery voice in «Hjärtat vet…» – «Usch!»

After «Lotus Eater» from the 2008 album «Watershed», as the set approached its end, Åkerfeldt asked the audience if they wanted more.  «Are you sure?» he asked in response to a roar. It was time to improvise and they stepped away from their printed setlist to play «Sorceress» from the 2016 album of the same name.  The crowd went berserk.  The front twenty rows jumped up and down. People on the gallery overlooking the stage, where the undersigned was standing by the end of the show, were dancing.  The band were clearly aware of their impact, looking around at fans who were particularly enjoying the moment, hearing that song, one of the stand-out tracks from the triptych of albums, smiling. Åkesson appreciatively threw his plectrum up to a particularly enthusiastic fan.

«Maybe you can sing this next one» Åkerfeldt teased as he announced they would play one more, and broke into «Faith» by George Michael.  «Wow – I mean, I may know the chords, but you guys knew all the words.»  They ended the set with «Deliverance» from the 2002 same-named album, another musical and atmospheric rollercoaster, slipping between progressive, fast-textured sections and more conventional black-metal growling verses.  Here Axenrot was at his best, showing great virtuosity in his timing and snare work.  All delivered with an intensity and energy which shows that an hour-and-a-half just wasn’t long enough for the band.  It wasn’t for the undersigned, either.

You couldn’t fault the set.  The performances, both individual, and ensemble, were of the highest standard throughout, and though short in number, it was an intense hour-and-a-half, with a lot of shifts of tone, atmosphere, and musical style.  It was, however, strange to see such a commanding and artistic band in such a low-key and slightly shambolic setting as a student union.  And there’s always the damned talking.  If prog-metal of this quality can’t shut people up, what can? Alting tar slut, but not the chatter, apparently. 5/6

Tekst: Alex Maines
Foto:
Anne-Marie Forker

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