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Road Reports

Who: Opeth, Katatonia
Vic Theatre, Chicago, USA

"This evening, on the final leg of this tour, Mikael showed no signs of wear and delivered in full; the calculated breaks in his voice, the touch of grit around the higher register, the controlled vibrato—all were on display and in top shape. Mikael has always had a pleasant singing voice, but only now is it achieving the character and fullness that only comes through focused training."

Through an October jam-packed with great tours—Enslaved, Alcest, Decapitated, Immolation, The Ocean, Devin Townsend—one bill loomed largest at month's end: two Swedish institutions, Opeth and Katatonia, were finally together on tour again for the first time in 10 years, and for the first time together in the US. Too, after the tour's announcement met with generally righteous assent, it wasn't long before the more clever among us put the pieces together and realized that this tour also brought out the entire current lineup of Bloodbath onto the same stage, albeit at different times. Fans wondered, hoped, crossed fingers, and offered up increasingly gory sacrifices to the gods in hopes that Stateside fans might finally witness a Bloodbath encore. We certainly weren't going to get our death metal fix at any other point during the evening; on this six-week tour, Opeth did not play a single song with harsh vocals, cleaving to the throwback prog manifesto of their latest album, 'Heritage'. Katatonia, meanwhile, are celebrating their 20th anniversary on this tour and received a full hour as direct support as the only other band on the bill. Our expectations, then, were understandably quite high.

Opeth has been headlining in the States for years, of course, but this tour found them playing to capacity crowds at even bigger venues than usual. The Chicago tour stopped at the Vic Theatre, a venue I'd not visited since Celtic Frost's reunion tour in '06, to give some perspective on what it takes for a metal group to book this place. Nestled in the Lakeview neighborhood a couple blocks south of Wrigley Field, the venue is a charming old theater with a popcorn-machine kind of lobby. Its main hall has a deep, comfortable stage, VIP box seating like any House of Blues, and a steeply raked balcony section that seats the majority of its 1400 to 1500 capacity while a multi-layered main floor affords standing fans good views from just about anywhere. Opeth and Katatonia, the only two bands on the bill, sold it out.

The lack of openers was at once refreshingly direct and a little anticlimactic. Fans had been lining up since at least 3 pm (the doors opened at 6:30), so the hall was bubbling with anticipation by the time lights went down and Katatonia took the stage. It still took a few tunes for the crowd to really settle in and warm up, since the heavy-hitters were brought immediately to the stage, but the floor before the stage was nevertheless filled and attentive. These fans were immediately raucous, thrusting horns in response to the thunderous chugs of 'Forsaker', and Anders made a point of riling up the crowd on a few occasions, to good effect. By their fourth song, the packed hall had all eyes on the stage.

And with good reason, though it was maybe a little apparent that Katatonia haven't been in their current lineup for too long. After the departure of the long-tenured Norrman brothers in '09, second guitarist Per Eriksson ("Sodo" in Katatonia; "Sodomizer" in Bloodbath, etc.) and bassist Niklas Sandin have been earning their stripes with the band. And their performances were both outstanding: Niklas sharing stage right with Anders, the two headbanging exaggeratedly as a pair, and Sodo handling several solos and backup harmonies with aplomb. He has a softer touch than his death metal pedigree would suggest, to say nothing of his satin black, EMG-equipped ESP guitar, or his nickname, for that matter.

Both he and Anders were dependant upon offstage hands (or perhaps programming) to switch their channels, supply their solo boosts, and so forth. And while this is the method of choice for grand stage performances, it dampened the intimacy and idiosyncrasy a little. This may just as well have been due to the mix, though, which sacrificed the guitar's heft for an attempt at balance. The result was drum heavy, with limited dynamics and little of the satisfying tube amp crunch so meticulously crafted in the studio. I've heard this was an issue at several other stops on the tour, so hopefully their backline gets retuned between this US stopover and the next.

The only member on stage with any pedals at his feet, in fact, was Jonas, who used them for vocal echoes and texturing delay. Jonas is an unlikely frontman for a metal band—taciturn, largely immobile on stage, and with black tresses constantly hiding his face from view—but he played the effective counterpoint to the more excitable, rock-ready Anders. We also received a few tastes of his now-retired harsh vocals, scattered around the edges of verses or to punctuate heavy interludes. No more than teases, really, but appropriate for a visceral live interpretation of their often sedate songs. The harmonies, so judiciously and pristinely applied on 'Night is the New Day', were naturally difficult to reproduce live, but both Anders and Sodo supplied backups that were no mere lip service—their dead-even tenors supplied an understated melancholy to the band's otherwise hard-edged stage presence.

Altogether, then, Katatonia performed with great class, particularly considering that their new live members have stepped into the shoes of 15-year veterans. That kind of chemistry and experience together cannot be made up any faster than real time, and it impressive that Niklas and Sodo have come so far so quickly. Aside from representing that evening's material well, they also have to memorize and master a much broader pool of songs from which a different member will choose the setlist each night. This evening was Daniel's turn. Earlier in the afternoon, as I sat backstage with Anders in an interview, Daniel peered into his iPhone, deep in concentration. Suddenly he sat up, struck by some epiphany, and in Swedish excitedly proclaimed the setlist to be the best he'd made. He showed Anders and Niklas, who both raised an eyebrow but nodded in assent. When asked whether we might get any hints ahead of time, Anders was coy: "I'll just say there are some surprises. You guys are in for a good show."

True words. After spending the majority of their set on post-millennial material, Anders handed off his signature model Mayones to Jonas, who traded over his place at the microphone. The hour-long set then took a swift turn backwards in time, closing with Anders-led renditions of 'Without God' and 'Murder'. Such member switcheroos are often merely crowd-pleasing stunts, but the leading duo of Katatonia are more than up to the task. In Bloodbath, Dan Swanö used to be recognized as the multi-instrumental ingénue, but Jonas also has quite a broad skill set. In Katatonia's early days he was the drummer (and even today is behind many of their percussive ideas), remains the bassist in Bloodbath, and this evening showed himself to be no amateur on six strings, either. As for Anders, he maintained a superlative, mostly-solo side project in Diabolical Masquerade throughout the 90s and early aughts, where he excelled equally on vocals and guitar.

Anders strode about the stage, seizing the mic with both hands and positioning it almost as if it were a mighty war horn instead of a handheld Shure. When performing his own material in Diabolical Masquerade, Anders demonstrated a unique and perfectly hideous gurgling shriek, but this evening the timbre of his growls was unexpectedly crackly, in a pleasingly gross kind of way, and an effective blend of the two eras he covered. First encore 'Without God' harked back to Katatonia's debut LP from '93, when Jonas' tortured voice fell halfway between a cry and a strangled shriek. 'Murder', of course, is the song from the '95 'Brave Murder Day' that spawned an entire genre in fewer than 5 minutes. Mikael of Opeth lent his vocals to this record, which at the time was significantly raspier and with a higher, throaty edge. Anders split the difference, and for good measure added some more modern emphases here or there, as was appropriate. It was a wholly unexpected and satisfying way to close their set, entirely living up to Daniel's giddy revelation in their dressing room. Before those encores, the set had run: 'Leaders', 'Liberation', 'Day & Then The Shade', 'Soil's Song', 'My Twin', 'Ghosts of the Sun', 'The Longest Year', 'Forsaker', and 'July'.

So after that vintage doom peak, the remainder of the night turned out to be relatively pacific. Strange that the heaviest songs at an Opeth and Katatonia show would belong to the latter, but that is the nature of Opeth of 2011. This 'Heritage' tour—Opeth's largest in the United States to date—has received even more media attention than usual because of Mikael's decision to completely cut out harsh vocals from their two-hour setlist. The inevitable questions arose—can he growl at all anymore? Has Opeth betrayed its fans? How could they do this? Will they ever be metal again?—but methinks we doth protest too much. Mikael has been more and more loudly affirming his affection, even adulation, of vintage prog over the past handful of years, and 'Heritage' is his final capitulation to those influences. Some records in Opeth's back catalogue have revealed those influences better than others, but on the whole none of us should be surprised by Mikael's current means of getting his kicks.

Still, it remains a bold decision to go completely vintage rock—even the Quaalude calm of 'Damnation' somehow seems more conceptually metal in comparison—and particularly on such a high profile tour. For while the last record may have been 'Watershed', but 'Heritage' sees Opeth's name cast in even brighter lights. What's more, Mikael's singing was now was set to face greater scrutiny, even as he set the highest bar for himself on 'Heritage', with its broad glissandos, falsettos, and soaring counterpoint. For this tour he has been taking it relatively easy on the chords, what without having to belt out growls for half of each night, but the heady likes of 'Porcelain Heart' is a tall order, no matter the preparation. This evening, on the final leg of this tour, Mikael showed no signs of wear and delivered in full; the calculated breaks in his voice, the touch of grit around the higher register, the controlled vibrato—all were on display and in top shape. Mikael has always had a pleasant singing voice, but only now is it achieving the character and fullness that only comes through focused training.

As for the rest of Opeth's sound, I was relieved to hear that the mix was phenomenal—their first jam in sound check that afternoon had been AC/DC—though I noted that their guitar tone was a lot more contemporary than the old-school power tube burble that they achieved on 'Heritage'. Mikael's vocals were also a touch less prominent in the live setting and not so frequently touched with effects, reflecting the ensemble performance mindset of the evening where every member enjoyed spotlighted solos.

New keyboardist Joakim Svalberg, virtually encased by classic Hammonds, Nords, and Korgs, simmered beneath the clear crunch of guitars and Axe's percussion, which ranged from muted jazz cool to scathing blastbeats. Joakim also supplied supporting vocals commendably, if unexceptionally, and in looks and performance seems a suitable replacement for the departed Per Wiberg, whose only appearance that night was as a painted head on the backdrop, falling from the 'Heritage' tree.

As mentioned above, this month I have seen such innovative lead players as Ice Dale (Enslaved), Bob Vigna (Immolation), Dave Knudsen (Minus the Bear, ex-Botch), Joe Bonamassa, and Anders Nyström, not to mention Mikael Åkerfeldt himself. But of all of them, Fredrik Åkesson may have been the most impressive. His technical chops are off the charts, with a far-ranging pinky that allows him to shred over wide intervals without changing strings too frequently. And yet these skills are rarely on full glitzy display, and only through the occasionally scintillating solo do we glimpse his fresh perspective on decades-old Opeth progressions.

For the most part, though, Opeth stayed in about third gear or so, exploring the subtleties between, say, 3 and 7 on the scale of aggression, instead of swinging widely from one extreme to the other. The concert setting also allowed some of the 'Heritage' material to really blossom: 'The Devil's Orchard' could open their shows for years to come and still have legs. Eventually the acoustics—also by PRS—came out and the night got even more mild. Mikael was still sharp with his banter, though. When introducing 'The Throat of Winter', he acknowledged that it was written for "some game, a video game called Gods of War, or God of War, or something. Whatever." Beat. "I haven't played it. I think it's shit."

He also mentioned that this tour was the first time they had brought out acoustics since the 'Damnation' tour, and reflected back to the first show they ever played in Chicago. It was, he recalled, opening for Nevermore at the Hard Rock Café. "Was anyone in the audience?" Scattered voices. "One, two, three...four? So, four. Good, because there were only four people in the audience." And as for the lads in Nevermore: "They introduced me to alcohol. Now I'm an alcoholic. A semi-alcoholic." He then added a clearly tongue-in-cheek litany of hard drugs to his addictions, and recounted a drunken episode long past that ended with him pouring a bottle of liquor "in the face of the president of Century Media." Way to make good with the big wigs, Mike.

In response to a half-heard comment from the audience about being quiet, Mikael reflected, "Some people love silence. Some people think it is the fucking most horrible sound in the world. Some people hate free jazz.... This is free jazz." It was a sly way to acknowledge the controversy caused by the "metal"-free 'Heritage', and the closest he came to the subject over their two hour set. In full it ran: 'The Devil's Orchard', 'I Feel the Dark', 'Face of Melinda', 'Porcelain Heart', 'Nepenthe', acoustic takes on 'The Throat of Winter', 'Credence', and 'Closure', then back to electric for 'Slither', 'A Fair Judgement', and 'Hex Omega'. The encore—regarded as "a silly, stupid game but sometimes we need that affirmation," by Mikael—began with extended solo interludes from all the members and finally 'Folklore', wrapping up a full two hours. The solos were especially entertaining, and pulled full grins from the usually somber Fredrik and deadpan Martin Mendez, who even leapt (if it can be called a leap) from the drum riser during the climactic punctuation to Axe's drum solo. The ante was then raised by Fredrik, who did a puckish imitation of Abbath's mighty crabwalk, even tremolo picking a minor barre for good measure. Mikael couldn't keep his composure.

This convivial finale helped put a decisively positive punctuation on a night that meandered a little more than is Opeth's wont. Mikael, of course, was in habitually wry form—"Oh, and....tits. Thanks for coming. We love you, really,"—but not everyone in the audience was swooning. Increasingly boozy cries for death metal vocals came from a few stubborn clutches in the audience, and one couple even left their spot in the front row (which they had protected for hours) once it became obvious that Mikael was not to be persuaded to unleash 'Orchid' in its entirety. I did love the use of acoustic guitars, being such an integral part of Opeth's studio sound, but the extended unplugged session seemed to leave some people a little restless. During 'Closure' I recognized the buzz of conversation that had been slowly growing and was only put to rest by the return of the signature model electrics and 'Slither'. This is a bit disappointing, since 'Closure' featured some of the finest harmonies of the night—Katatonia included. In its final stanza, Fredrik came in for the high harmony on, "...longing for the darkness," and nailed it with moving conviction.

Bringing us all back to focus was 'Slither', Opeth's most rock 'n' roll number. Mikael freely admitted that it was written in homage to Rainbow, and listed band names from t-shirts in the audience (e.g. Scar Symmetry, Candlemass, his own Opeth) that would never have existed without Ronnie James Dio. Not a voice was raised in dissent. From thereon out, through the mercurial, triumphal sprawl of 'Hex Omega', Opeth's trajectory was upwards, ever upwards, and by the evening's end, even the nosebleed balcony viewers were stomping their feet and giving standing ovations. Never one to bow to skepticism, criticism, or "any -ism for that matter" (to quote one Mr. Bueller) Mikael continues to forge his own path with determination and skill. We were all but obliged to follow.

As much as we were given this evening, and as much as all my (realistic) expectations were met and surpassed, I do still regret that we weren't treated to Bloodbath, despite all the offers of our firstborn children, earthly possessions, etc. The last stop of the tour, at the Ram's Head in Maryland (already the blessed owners of Maryland Death Fest), received the honor of 'Soul Evisceration' and 'Eaten'. The video footage of this performance is crushing—Anders' backing vocals on the latter song's chorus are simply ungodly—but nothing could compare to experiencing it in person. Hopefully on this tour the members have taken note of the fervor surrounding their side-project supergroup. With enough encouragement, they might someday get over their reservations about spending more time delving the splanchnic depths. In the meantime, though, I'd say they're still doing pretty well on their own.

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