Effortlessly blazing a trail encompassing brutal death metal, British folk and classic progressive rock, Mikael Åkerfeldt has led Opeth through many bold new directions and transcended genre boundaries for the band’s entire career. That 2011’s Heritage (Roadrunner Records) saw Opeth forgo the heavier end of the spectrum was for many a bitter pill to swallow. Whereas previous prog masterpiece Damnation was bookended with a heavier companion in Deliverance, Heritage saw Åkerfeldt indulging influences such as Comus and King Crimson in a fastidious and stubborn fashion claiming freedom from the restrictions of metal.
Fast forward three years and Pale Communion (also Roadrunner Records) is, in many ways a continuation of such a direction, but one that see’s Mikael’s uncompromising view drawing more clearly into focus.
Harking back again to the late 60s and early 70s this eleventh studio opus features fluid dexterous drum patterns, moody distorted organ work and another all clean and highly proficient performance in the vocal department. Where Heritage felt somewhat disjointed on occasion Pale Communion is richly woven into a tapestry of ornate and complex elements rather than flitting from one genre to the next.
‘River’ is perhaps the most surprising moment this time around drawing on the southern sounds of the likes of the Allman Brothers with the addition of a classic Rush middle section. It’s the bravest and most refreshing moment herein, unearthing yet another string to the Swedes’ substantial bow.
Largely a more cohesive work than its predecessor, there is a moment of overindulgence in instrumental centrepiece ‘Goblin’ could have been left on the cutting room floor. Though a tribute to the Italian horror soundtrack masters, it feels ill-fitting and out of place.
Far better is the albums longest moment the undulating ‘Moon Above, Sun Below’ a perplexing beast which keeps you guessing while again highlighting the morose beauty of Mikael’s vocals.
“I don’t want to bare my scars for you” opines Åkerfeldt on the graceful ‘Elysian Woes’. It’s a sentiment which is echoed in the fiercely uncompromising approach he has taken to producing music that truly challenges the listener. Hell bent on reinvention, this is another collection of finely crafted salvos from this prestigious group.
Roadburn festival is special, as many who have gone know. It’s one of those festivals where it’s impossible to see everything you wanted to and you end up missing things that were awesome, but you didn’t even know about or seeing things you’d never heard of before but are now suddenly completely addicted to. It debuted bands into the world at large like Goat and Ghost, and manages to pull reform bands that quit ages ago, or pull bands that never perform out of the woodworks. Doing a “proper” festival review of Roadburn is utterly and completely useless. Instead I’m writing an impression. An impression of a magical special place where everyone, except a few bad eggs, is so nice and friendly no-one wants to leave and you’re instantly addicted. A hidden place where the bands stick around to see others play and get just as excited about seeing things as the visitors. A place where all is awesome, so really nothing can be said.
I have the difficult task of squeezing four intense days of not only music, but people and party into a readable format that won’t be too long. I can go on about this festival forever, but I’ll restrict myself.
Day One as always starts a little uneasy. Excited as I was for the past weeks to go back to Roadburn (year four and counting…) I’m mostly reconnecting with friends and bands I’ve not had around for a year. This year I didn’t have the time to properly prepare and listen to all the billing before going, but I had a fair idea of what I wanted and needed to see. I wander into the 013 venue, which has three rooms available for this festival. There’s the main stage (capacity 2100), the greenroom (around 400-500 capacity I believe) and the stage 01 (about 150-200 capacity) across the street, in an old parish building there’s Het Patronaat (capacity around 800) and on the edge of the perfect “beer street”of Tilburg, around the corner of the 013 venue, there is the Cul de Sac (capacity 100-150). All in all the Roadburn crowd take over a major part of the city with their happy blackened hippie vibe. So in we get and hang around the foyer of the completely stuffed Greenroom (the small rooms always get full up) to listen to a bit of Brutus’s set. It’s incredible they’re even here, as just before their tour their studio burned down and they lost all their equipment. The band is hard to YouTube, because of their (rather generic) name, but definitely worth the effort. What I pick up from their set sounds incredible, nice retro stoner blues rock. Their vocalist really reminds of Ozzy in his better days and a few more of the older vocalists. After about 15 minutes I go to catch some of Sourvein in the Mainstage. The sludgey doom these Americans give us just doesn’t quite catch me the way other doom and sludge greats do. Maybe it’s not slow enough for me or maybe it’s the vocals that feel a little forced. So off we merrily wander again to check out the merch street and then catch some 40 Watt Sun. Damn these guys can play. Heavy, slow and oppressive, even though it’s an acoustic set with out the normal bass volumes. Het Patronaat, which has heavy carpeting on the balcony and always gets notoriously hot, adding to the atmosphere. The sound was impeccable. Sadly it’s impossible to finish watching their set if I still wanna see Beastmilk. They’re one of my “need to see” bands this year. While I’ve heard plenty of people be incredibly impressed by them live or even like them better than on record, I was a little disappointed. The music was good and solid, but the second vocals were gone, as was the echo that you get on the record, drowning the vocals. On record they’ve got the more new-wave feel while live they’re more punky. I also expected more show of these guys. The stage looked incredibly empty and while Kvhost played the crowd like the professional he is, it lacked something. The backdrop was just a still of their album cover and the strength from the album just wasn’t there even with songs such as ‘Death Reflects Us’. Good, but not as mind-blowing as I had expected. Then again expectations were very high
Next I try to catch some of Samothrace, but walk in just when their last lengthy notes and ringing through Het Patronaat shaking the rafters. I hear it was good but I really cannot judge on half a minute and two notes. After a brief chat with some friendly people I go on to see some Napalm Death, one of the few Deathmetal bands I almost always enjoy seeing live. Their insane hysterical party energy is just wonderful, and though this time they chose to t a special, slower, doomier Roadburn set, the hysterics were still their in their vocalist who just cannot stay in one spot for more than five seconds. I did miss the exuberant party energy though, but still an incredible set. I caught a little of Goatess, from the back of the room (well outside the doors towards the stage 01 so…) and I remember thinking they rocked, but the wall of people made it hard to really enjoy, so I went to see some of Corrections House. Many people didn’t like them since they’re more in the industrial corner of things, but their dark bleak pounding sound did catch my attention for sometime, and while they were the definite odd duck of the day they were good at what they do. By now I’m in a serious dilemma. I wanted to see AnciientsandTrue Widow, and The great old ones, all playing the same time slot. I also wanted to catch a bit of Crowbar. I ended up mostly shooting and watching a bit of Crowbar, realizing they weren’t getting to me and popping off to True Widow, watching them from the side of the stage. True Widow are amazing live, and I’m kicking myself I forgot to pick some of their stuff up. The interplay between the vocals of both bassist and guitarist, the difference in their voices and the sheer thunder of their music is wonderful. They’re tight and minimal but not simple. The room was packed and everyone loved it. Sadly Anciients was packed so the wait began for Bong to start. How shall I describe the transcendent experience Bong is when you’re already tired yet excited of a day of running from band to band and making room to chat with people and make new friends? After the photo-pit time I snuck upstairs to the relatively calm balcony and just sat there eyes closed letting their atmospheric heavy jam carry me away. Afterwards I did attempt a look at the Heavy Metal Disco in the main foyer, intending not to stay to long. It was 3:30 by the time the lights came on and music turned off and I snapped out of my conversation with a new friend, and sheepishly started the trek home with my bunkee.
After a night of far too little sleep and a heady breakfast, the track back to the festival arrived. For me this isn’t too massive an affair: about 10 minutes in the buss or 20-30 walking, but there are people staying all over the south of the Netherlands and the camping itself is a good 30 minutes cycling away.
When I get to the venue the restaurants and bars are filled with the flock off bearded black-shirted Roadburners settled on the city. Today Opeth’sMikaël Åkerfeldt got to plan in the main stage. Roadburn always has a fair amount of proggy bands on her billing, but with Åkerfeldt curating and his band playing, the spread of them is even more. Today starts with the phenomenal Magma, French prog ancients with a jazzy 60’s psychedelic style that confuses the masses. Some people flee after about half a song, the rest stays, entranced but confused, trying to figure out what is going on while really liking what they hear. While it’s sort of like listening to five songs at the same time, the music itself is impeccable and the unique operetta vocal style (no not the high waily kind but the proper male low sound) wielded by the male baritone of the group is refreshing and highly impressive.
While others run to see the heavy duo The Body, I decided to have a peek at the vintage Caravan, new kids on the block playing the stage 01, but definitely buzzing. Sadly it’s impossible to get into the room, it even took the ban 5 minutes to get to the stage through the throng. People are latterly packed against the wall opposing the stage 01 doors. And all of this is justified. These kids can play. They play a delightful retro 70s style rock, very listenable and done so well you ‘d swear they lived through the period. They play again on Saturday but after this thunderous set they’ll be more impossible to see. Up on the mainstage Comus is getting set up. This is proper 60’s feeling, acoustic, gentle more formal prog, impeccable harmonies and very quiet. The show is a little static as everyone is either sitting or has a steady place on stage surrounded by monitors but all in all the music is impeccable. The static feeling of the show doesn’t mater, it’s not a band you watch it’s a band you dream away to.
In the greenroom Änglagärd are setting up to play their set. You cannot avoid the massive, huge sound starting up in the main room as Goblin starts to play. While not where near as abrasive and “loud’ as some Roadburn bands their sound is so massive and so well layered that it envelopes you and take you with them on a journey through the musical movie themes they composed. The level of balance is incredibly, while the bass notes are heavy and deep, earth shatteringly so, you can literally hear any sounds in the lighter higher registers, and their bassist sound is at times more funky than doom. Incredible set and so engaging it will drag you back for more time and time again. For a while I try to go see the jam sessions Åkerfeldt set up in the stage 01, which were almost deserted while very good musically, the Goblin set kept dragging me back again and again.
Candlemass know how to get a party going. I think this may be the best and biggest response and interplay between band and crowd I’ve ever seen at the usually quite mellow and movement reserved Roadburn crowd. And they were good, exceptional, with vocalist Máts Leven shaking his wild curls around with fever. As Candlemas have been playing switcharoo with their vocalists so often I had a bit of a pickle finding out who the wild-haired curlyman playing the crowd so well was. His voice was impeccable too, and combined with the excellence of the music surrounding him, he took it upon himself to entertain besides singing.
Opeth, what can be said about them that hasn’t been showered on them already/ praise for their immaculate sound? Criticism for not being rough enough? Reverence for their musicality? I’d like to talk about Åkerfeldt’s sense of humor. The set begins with a heartfelt tale about how impressed he is with Roadburn and it’s welcome not only of his band, but also of the strange bands he programmed instead of the more traditional Roadburny taste. Their set was surprisingly heavy, much to the joy of the crowd, as they switched lighter, proggy songs off with heavy grunting old stuff. Eventually of course people start yelling requests, to which Åkerfeldt had a great solution, he asked if the one guy yelling ‘Freebird’ would yell so now, and after a chorus of replies, they did play ‘Freebird’, ignoring all other requests. At the end, instead of leaving and making the audience shout for them to come back and play one more song, they stayed on stage and made the crowd ask for their encore as if hey wren;t there, and then launched into the massive song everyone had been waiting for since forever: ‘Black Water Park’. I’ve never seen so many people pleased, even mentioning it was their best show in ages for playing the heavier stuff. The intense and amazing day of proggy rollercoaster tired me out to such a point I didn’t even go to the afterparty and went straight home to sleep, longing for something heavier and more traditional Roadburn fare.