Opeth + Katatonia: 2011 October 16 – Portland


Waiting for a concert where a progressive rock band is the headliner is bound to incite some rather interesting conversations. As I stood in line outside the small Roseland Theater, my conversations with the fellow concertgoers began with Opeth, but then went to hip-hop acts like MF Doom, to pop/rock like Gym Class Heroes (who, as one would expect, were not spoken of positively), and, since the concert was in Portland, indie rock like The Hold Steady. Prog’s eclecticism is not lost on its fans; it no doubt brought out the music nerd in myself and a few other of the attendees. The closest thing I had to Opeth garb was a Porcupine Tree t-shirt (who are Opeth frontman Mikael Åkerfeldt’s favorite band), which got me involved in a night-long conversation about all things Steven Wilson which, though incredibly nerdy by any standard, made the experience all the much better. Long lines are no one’s friend, but when one is in the company of fellow prog-rock fans, there’s never a dull moment. The best part of all of this is how unabashed the crowd was: Portland, a city well known for its oft-pretentious indie music bias, is no doubt an odd place for a large crowd of Opeth fans to convene (one band promoter after the concert made a clear point of this), but no one seemed to care. Even being on Burnside, one of the most popular streets in Portland, all of the concertgoers were quite content to sport their metal t-shirts and tattoos. Prog can no doubt be pretentious, but for the most part this crowd wasn’t.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the crowd was the utter lack of complaints about Opeth’s newest. I personally found Heritage to be a brilliant record, but I imagine that many were off-put by the album’s lack of death growls and heavy riffs. The record was no doubt a significant sonic change for the band, and such changes aren’t always accepted even by the most loyal fan. Overall, fortunately, everyone seemed anxious to see the band. Many that I talked to were aware that the setlists of concerts prior to this one had it so that there were no death growls; even those who expressed want for the heavier material weren’t so set on it that their expectations narrowed their view of the show. Prog fans can no doubt be fickle (“A song under five minutes? Psh!”), but the mood leading up to the concert was one of eager expectation. All indications pointed toward a fine evening ahead.

Upon arriving in the theatre, I found the Roseland to be a rather enclosed venue. The standing room area in front of the stage was small and hardly filled. As a result, I got a prime spot close to the front of the stage. The anticipation built and, at about 8:15, the doom metal greats Katatonia entered the stage.

One thing interesting about Katatonia’s spot in the concert was how short it was. The band seemed almost relegated to the status of an opening act (the ticket for the concert didn’t even list the band), which I found to be rather problematic. Aside from the fact that Katatonia are one of the finest bands working in doom metal currently, their legacy with Opeth (Åkerfeldt sang lead vocals on their 1996 album Brave Murder Day) goes far back, and the band could have gone on for longer than the single hour that they were on. I can’t speak for certainty if Katatonia were meant to be an opening act or a co-headliner (though Opeth’s set was longer, it wasn’t substantially so), but I felt that the Katatonia set was cut a bit short.

But while it lasted, it was great. The band opened quite intensely with “Forsaker”, the opening cut from their latest LP, Night is the New Day (which received a rather favourable review from this website). That song set the sonic tone for Katatonia’s entire performance, which was overall an incredibly dense one. Over the course of their past few studio outings, the band’s melodic sensibility developed, and in my opinion peaked on the masterful The Great Cold Distance. Live, however, the denseness of the chugging riffs and breakdowns overpowered the melodic guitar parts, and at times lead singer Jonas Renske’s voice. This did somewhat undercut what made the tracks on their respective records so brilliant, but on the whole the band’s set was very strong.

“Chrome”, from their Last Fair Deal Gone Down LP, was probably the most intense of the set. That track, along with “We Must Bury You” were the oldest cuts in the set, both dating back to 2001. Most of the set was focused on the material coming out of The Great Cold Distance and Night is the New Day, which, given the strength of those two records, was the best option. Some tracks even elevated from their already strong studio versions: “Leaders” and “Day and then the Shade” were incredibly powerful to experience, as was the intense breakdown in “July”. Still, I wished for more of these moments after the band’s short set wrapped up. It felt in a way like a sampling of Katatonia’s newest material, which was not what I expected when I knew I would be seeing a band of their stature. The crowd seemed to match this feeling, despite the high anticipation for Opeth. Short as it was, it was nonetheless a fine set, though an interesting way to open up for Opeth’s set of new material, which lacked the intensity of Katatonia’s set.

A short intermission occupied the time in between the two sets. It wasn’t long before Opeth took the stage to thunderous cheers and applause. The band opened the set with the winding, complex “The Devil’s Orchard”. The band nailed the song perfectly, and the audience was highly responsive. The song ended in one of the night’s best moments: all of the lights dimmed except for one light directly shining on Åkerfeldt’s face as he lowly whispered the song’s foreboding, Nietzschian aphorism: “God is dead.” Åkerfeldt stared out into the audience like a storyteller finishing a horror story, driving home the lyric quite effectively. From there, the show could only go up.

Åkerfeldt himself was perhaps the most magnetic facet of Opeth’s performance. The rest of the band performed brilliantly for the set but Åkerfeldt was front and center, and he was captivating every moment of the show. After “The Devil’s Orchard”, he began the evening with an anecdote detailing how, after shaving his beard down to a moustache, he went to a public pool in Portland to swim. What he didn’t realize, however, was that it was not just a pool but also a local hotspot in Portland’s gay community. Upon receiving some especially friendly compliments on his moustache, he told the audience, “I’m growing my beard back.” His humor for the rest of the evening then ranged from his love for Shania Twain’s “This Moment On” (the only song he’s ever downloaded) to his early attempts at hip-hop (which didn’t last very long) to his passion for Kip Winger (“Winger is better than your band,” he told the audience, then adding: “Winger is better than my band”). He’s an effortlessly charismatic frontman, and perhaps the best thing an incredibly talented group of musicians like Opeth have as an asset.

After the band’s strong opening, things only got better from there. Heritage got the biggest focus of the show: “I Feel the Dark”, “Pyre”, “Slither”, and “Folklore” were all wonderfully performed, though one of those deserves a special mention. In light of the death of metal great Ronnie James Dio, Åkerfeldt wrote and dedicated the song “Slither” to him in tribute to his influence on Opeth’s work. He went through the majority of Rainbow’s discography, making sure to bestow upon each album the title of “masterpiece.” The groove-heavy riff of the song then kicked in, and the crowd went absolutely berserk. This particular crowd had a penchant for moshing at completely inappropriate moments (the winding, folk-heavy prog of Heritage is hardly conducive to a mosh), but at this moment it was completely understandable. The energy level shot through the roof of the small theatre, making one of the most memorable moments of the evening. A tribute well done.

That excellent moment aside, what made Opeth’s short, twelve song set strong was how it showed that, despite some claims to the contrary, the sonic departure of Heritage was one that had been naturally been growing out of the band’s oeuvre. The gorgeous, acoustic-based “Closure” (the song I was hoping the band would play the most) and “Patterns in the Ivy II”, both from the stage in the band’s career where the prog-metal aspect was at the forefront, are clear predecessors to Heritage. Even though both feature heavy sections, “Face of Melinda” and “A Fair Judgment” both also feature the types of harmonies and melodies that were equally present on Heritage. Instead of being some radical transformation of the band’s sound, this show proved that the seeds of Heritage were always present in the band’s past albums. The heavy death metal that was as prevalent as the Swedish folk and prog was no doubt an important (and brilliant) feature of their past albums, but the band was always certain of their roots. Or, to put it another way, the band never forgot their Heritage.

In a night full of standout songs by the band, “Face of Melinda” stood out amongst the rest. For awhile, it was one of the few rhyming lyrics Opeth had. Beginning as a lovely, prog-folk piece, the song builds quietly into an incredibly powerful riff. I’m not a headbanger by any means, but even I got completely into the power of the riff and let it all out. Interestingly enough, the song is the oldest of songs in the setlist, but it most effectively bridged the death metal sonic that was present on Watershed but not on Heritage. Anyone expecting Opeth to bring forth a full-on death metal assault was no doubt disappointed by the performance, but for those willing to accept Opeth’s maturation, the setlist was instead just as summative of Opeth’s career as any other setlist would have been. Plus, it wasn’t all chill prog and folk: the heavy section of “Face of Melinda” was almost as heavy as some of Katatonia’s material, which was much more intense on a sonic level than Opeth’s was.

I left the show incredibly impressed. This was my first time seeing the band. Though in some part of my head I regretted not being able to see them perform some of the death metal they so excel at, I nonetheless felt that I got the Opeth experience, even with a shorter performance than I expected. Plus, after having my ears bludgeoned with the relentlessly dense Katatonia (I say this with heavy praise), Mikael Åkerfeldt’s beautiful, mellow vocal and masterfully played acoustic guitar were more than welcome. As Opeth concluded their set with Heritage highlight “Folklore”, Åkerfeldt said to the audience, “This is what Swedish folk music sounds like.” If Swedish folk is as good as Opeth were on this lovely Portland evening, then I’ve clearly got some new bands to look up.