Opeth unashamedly alienated some of their fan base with their 2011 album Heritage. While a large portion of their fans were drawn to the Swedesh masters for their progressive death metal leanings, Heritage was primarily inspired by 70s fusion in the style of John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra – and there wasn’t a single death-growl to be heard anywhere. And now, with Pale Communion, Opeth has moved sideways again, a little away from some of the jazzier moments of Heritage and towards more of a 1970s progressive rock feel, while still a million miles removed from death metal. It’s an album which will challenge some fans while thrilling others, but the overall impression from a chat with frontman Mikael Åkerfeldt is that he’s driven solely by his artistry, and this is what he’s feeling right now.
Pale Communion is such a headphones record!
That’s good, I like to hear that! I’ve been talking to the guys in the band and people in general about how people listen to music these days. Are they listening on stereo speakers and amplifiers and stuff like that, or on the headphones? I was worried if people were getting the chance to listen to it on nice headphones instead of shitty computer speakers.
One thing that stood out to me immediately was the guitar solo in the first track, how it if you’re listening in headphones you’ll hear it drift off slightly to the left of the stereo image just for a second before coming back. Those details really help to add some magic.
Yeah, and you’re not going to hear that on your computer. It’s really an audio experience to listen to it in a proper way like you did or through a good stereo system. There’s also a surround mix which I haven’t heard yet. But there’s a lot of things going on in the mix. Both me and Steven Wilson have a lot of ideas for the mix.
Was there a particular song or moment that dictated where this album was going to go?
Yeah, you could say that. The first song I wrote set the standard for the rest of the record – or at least I got some type of idea what I wanted to do with the record. That was the last song on there, called “Faith In Others.” I wrote that song and it ended up being quite a melodic song, which gave me something of an idea for the rest of the record. I wanted to focus on vocal melodies and melodies overall for this album than I’ve done before.
The vocal harmonies are really beautiful.
Perfect. A lot of metal fans might be sad to hear that I went into old man’s rock territory. I was listening to Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, and I was introduced to David Crosby by Steven Wilson who played me his first solo record, and obviously he was in The Byrds and he’s a master of vocal harmonies. I picked up on that and there was a time when I was writing this record where I figured I wanted to do harmony vocals all the way through. Like, only harmony vocals.
There’s always going to be the guys who are like ‘Where are the death vocals?’ but you also have a lot of fans who will follow you anywhere you take them.
Well, I hope so. We get a lot of shit for our choices musically and I’ve had some fans even tell me to my face, ‘What are you doing? Why aren’t you writing the good stuff any more?’ And I’m sorry to hear that but we don’t play it safe. It’s not like we deliberately want to be strange and fuck things up. It’s almost like I’m latching on to how I’ve always been writing music, what I like, and I want to keep that intact. That’s been intact since the first record. I understand the sensitive people who have loved the band but maybe don’t like the new stuff, but I don’t like either for them to feel like we’re turning our backs on them. We’re still doing what we want to do, we’re writing songs with the same process we always have, and besides, when we go out on tour we’re going to play the heavy s**t they want to hear too. There’s going to be a mix of material. So people will get their fix, but when it comes to new music that sounds like the old records, it’s simply not gonna happen. We want to move on, y’know? But that’s not necessarily saying we’re never going to do a death metal scream. That might happen, y’know?
It’s like the backlash against the new Pink Floyd album coming out later this year. They’re just trying to express themselves, and the whole reason people like them in the first place is because they like how they express themselves – and also it’s not like the new album will walk across the shelf and break the old ones.
Exactly. People have so many odd opinions about that. Like, referring back to us, it’s like people saying it’s not Opeth any more, like they have the power to decide when it’s not Opeth any more because it just simply doesn’t fit their idea of what we are, y’know? But I think that’s a bit unfair. I think people should be happy that Pink Floyd are doing a new record, and it’s debatable but they should just shut up and enjoy it! If they like it or not, it is David Gilmour who has been the head of Pink Floyd since the mid 80s, and if the music features Rick Wright who passed away, why wouldn’t you want to be able to listen to it? And Nick Mason’s probably gonna play drums as far as I know, and Roger Waters is not gonna be angry! For me I look forward to it, very much. So let’s talk guitar! What did you use on this record?
Let’s see… I got a really cool Gibson Flying V from 1979. I bought it from a guy in Hawaii of all places. I used that as a rhythm guitar on quite a few tracks. And then a couple of Fender Stratocasters. I mostly used a Custom Shop ’68 Strat reissue, like a relic, which was great. It was very hard to play, like the action was high and I have thick strings on there too so it’s a bit of a struggle but it’s fun to play. Then we had shitloads of PRS guitars. We had a …I don’t know what that model’s called, actually… oh, Tremonti! The Mark Tremonti model was in the studios. A couple of Custom 24s, we had a P24 which just sounded good. We used a PRS Angelus acoustic guitar. They are amazing guitars. I was a Martin guy when it came to acoustic guitars up until PRS made the Angelus and I got one of them and Frederik has one, so we used those two. For the acoustic we used a lot of high-strung, Nashville tuning, and for that I have a little Taylor acoustic, so we used the Nashville tuning together with the regular tuning a lot to make this glittery type of sound. Frederik also played a Gibson Les Paul Junior with a P90 for many of his rhythms as well. So that’s it, I guess, for the guitars. We have so many guitars it’s difficult to remember all of them. For amps we used Marshalls. We’re endorsed by Marshall so we had them send us an Yngwie Malmsteen head. It’s a Plexi, basically. We used that one, we used the Satriani whatever-it’s-called. We had a Bluesbreaker which was amazing. Love it! That was for the clean electric. The cabs were two Marshalls. I can’t remember what they’re called. There were two different cabs and we ended up using one of them. And then lots of pedals. We have lots of support from Jim Dunlop so we get the MXR pedals. We used the Way Huge Super Puss pedal a lot. I have an old Electro-Harmonix phaser, the Russian one that looks like a land mine. So that was used a lot.
Are you much of a collector of guitar gear for its own sake or is it more about what it can do for your music?
Well, good question! Never had that question before and I’m ashamed to say I love guitars but I probably have too many and I need to appreciate each and every one of them. I love the guitars. I think they are beautiful pieces of art, but I also obviously use them because I want to play them. We are endorsed by PRS so when we tour I only play PRS, and I have shitloads of them. I just got a P24 that I’m taking on the road, and I have my own signature model for PRS that I play a lot. I do collect guitars. When I collect guitars I usually go for the more vintage stuff and I’m a Stratocaster lover. I love Stratocasters. It’s something from my childhood. I used to draw them. I used to draw guitars in school. I used to build toy Stratocasters so I could mime in the mirror along to “Bark At The Moon.” Now I have picked up a few of them so I have a bunch of more vintage guitars. Not the really expensive ones, butI’m more into the vintage 70s Stratocasters with the big headstocks.
Pale Communion is out now on Roadrunner Records Australia.