This is Opeth’s first North American headlining tour in a while, and they’re playing a nearly two-hour show in support of this year’s excellent Watershed album. The Houston stop of the tour featured Baroness and High on Fire as the opening acts. I was interested in seeing Baroness based off of the buzz from last year’s Red Album, but I arrived just as they were finishing their set. I had heard both good and bad things about metal power trio High on Fire, but only made it through about 15 minutes of their 45-minute set before wandering off to the smaller room of Warehouse Live to putter around and wait for Opeth to start. High on Fire put on an affectionately sloppy yet high-energy show, but their music just didn’t grab me.
Opeth hit the stage around 10:15 pm and played until just after midnight. Their lineup has been radically re-jigged since I last saw them in 2003, with three new members including full-time keyboardist Per Wiberg. Only bassist Martin Mendez and the band’s creative force, vocalist/guitarist Mikael Akerfeldt, remain after the shakeups of the last few years. Despite these personnel changes, the band doesn’t sound radically different, and they put on an impressive show, at least sonically. With songs that tend towards 10 minute-plus progressive metal epics, Opeth isn’t a band that does a lot visually. This performance was no exception. Beyond Mendez occasionally venturing from his traditional spot at stage left to visit guitarist Fredrik Akesson at stage right, the members basically stood still all night.
But heavy metal theatrics are not the group’s stock in trade. For a band that’s capable of pummeling riffs and blazing technical guitar solos, Opeth are remarkably unassuming. Taking the stage in identical t-shirts (the same shirts were available at the merch stand for the too-expensive price of $30), they looked like a band that didn’t care about how “metal” they looked and furthermore had nothing to prove. In case there was any doubt about their metal credentials, opener “Heir Apparent”, Watershed’s heaviest track, demolished it. From there, the band went on to play a wide-ranging set that featured many of their best songs. “The Lotus Eater” was the only other Watershed song to make an appearance, and its creepy funk breakdown was nicely accentuated with swirling rainbow lights. “The Grand Conjuration” and “Serenity Painted Death” each made appearances early in the set, with the former’s videogame-style guitars’n’keyboard riff contrasting nicely with the more gothic metal of the latter.
A nearly full house enthusiastically cheered on the band, starting with chants of “O-peth! O-peth! O-peth!” well before they took the stage and continuing on with each new song. Blackwater Park’s standout “Bleak” may have been the highlight of the night, although oldie “The Night and the Silent Water” ran a close second. The biggest crowd responses of the night came back-to-back, as the band launched into the final riff of “Deliverance”, and then immediately afterward when Akerfeldt introduced set-closer “Demon of the Fall”. The band returned for an encore with “The Drapery Falls”, another strong song from the Blackwater Park album.
If it seems like I’m not talking about the actual performance, it’s because there isn’t much to say. Beyond putting on a generally high-energy show, there isn’t a lot of difference between seeing Opeth live and listening to their albums. They even play the same setlist on every night of the tour. It seems like it would be harder to get away with that in the internet age, where people post setlists and reviews for shows as soon as they happen. But bands still play to nearly completely different audiences from night to night, and not everybody goes online and spoils it for themselves in advance. In that respect, I suppose it’s not that different from seeing a Broadway musical. Just because you know what you’re going to hear beforehand doesn’t necessarily diminish the performance.
The one semi-spontaneous thing at the show, though, was Mikael Akerfeldt himself. He talked between almost every song, and was often quite funny. The songs themselves are serious business, but Akerfeldt doesn’t seem concerned with presenting himself as a serious metal frontman. Some of his bits do seem a bit familiar—when he played a guitar chord and said, self-deprecatingly, “That is the sound of a distorted guitar. It is an essential part of heavy metal music,” it was quite similar to a statement he made on 2007’s live album The Roundhouse Tapes. The one truly off-the-cuff moment came when a fan yelled out a cover request and Akerfeldt responded, “I can play that one… on Guitar Hero!” He then told a story about how they played the game on their tour bus a couple of years back and that he and Mendez, after playing all day, were struck by brief moments of panic when trying to play their real instruments because they didn’t have any buttons on the neck. These moments of levity were welcome among all of the heavy music and dour lyrics on display in the actual songs.