From our position as mere mortals perched on a journalistic tower below musical gods, the chance to grab a listen to Opeth’s brilliant and grandiose new opus, thirteenth album ‘In Cauda Venenum’ (out September 27th) is a precious dovetail into a thick, sonically dense and grandiose journey. Trust me, it will be worth the wait, as will be their upcoming tour. We hopped on the telephone to discuss both these exciting prospects with the super-talented but humble lead guitarist Fredrik Akesson ahead of time.
From the outset, the man’s relaxed humility but also latent excitement are both tangible from the other side of the headset. “Festival season was great,” he remarks regarding the tail-end of a three-year touring cycle for ‘Sorceress.’ “We played Wacken, which was especially huge and fun. Lots of people came to check us out for that one, and we’ve been having a lot of fun and we’re a tight unit.”
Noting that their final leg is the upcoming Psycho Music Festival in Las Vegas next week, Akesson was clear that the band are deliberately withholding playing new album material on the current slog, although they had considered jamming new single Heart in Hand. He remarks on being excited to tour Australia, however, especially given that “On this tour, we’re playing a lot of different venues – the Palais in Melbourne, Thebarton Theatre in Adelaide is a new one for us, the Tivoli in Brisbane which we really love playing, they’re all exciting for us to play!”
“We believe these will add to our big changes in production for this tour, and to the atmosphere of the live setting.” Nostalgically contrasting back to the times this writer had watched them in Sydney, the now-defunct Arena and a bunch of shows at the Tivoli in Brisbane, it was pondered aloud what would be different for fans this time, alongside new venues? What’s the big drawcard for this round?
With a sly scoff, Fredrik was quick to advise this was “top secret,” save for some “interesting changes with the stage and production, especially with the band members!” Best to leave that stone unturned for the tour, methinks. Akesson also mentioned the band were jaunting from the UK to India, “who pull some huge crowds and have some crazy enthusiastic fans,” he adds as an aside, and even a few dates in China (Hong Kong, Beijing and Shanghai) and Japan. He noted fans could definitely steal some previews of what to expect in Australia by following their antics on the usual social media channels, so keep your eyes peeled.
Moving towards ‘In Cauda Venenum,’ it’s clear the band are excited and proud of their latest effort. “Our main goal was to create something expansive and epic,” he noted (and isn’t wrong in any sense), “and I believe we’ve created that.” In terms of musical influences, Akesson notes he and Mikael Akerfeldt were particularly mesmerised by one record recently, which he physically sifted through his collection in the background for – Prog-rockers Renaissance and their LP ‘A Song for All Seasons.’
“Of course, it’s more than just one album,” remarks Akesson, “and it is handy for our frontman to have a very eclectic taste in music, he often finds a lot of eccentric and experimental stuff.” Advance listens definitely reflect a heavy influence of many disparate genres and influences, from singing in Swedish, to dabbling in electronica and strings and the like. It doesn’t feel forced, however; in fact, this album is arguably the most organic the band have sounded in years.
The songwriting process reflects this evolutionary and iterative sounding album. “My usual approach is to listen to Mikael’s demos and improvise lead playing over the top, a sort of edge-of-the cliff style,” Akesson reflects. “This time around, however, Mikael gave more backgrounds that shifted in keys, time signatures and chord progressions than in past, which forced me to adjust how I played.”
“It forced me to work on some jazzier styles of playing and some more theoretical ideas, which was great fun,” he notes. The general theme of his experience with recording was that his usual modus operandi, i.e. thinking out solos and leads and improvising for flavour, was shaken up by the ever-shifting chordal sands of undulating keys and progressions throughout the new LP.
Akesson’s general influence of players reportedly dates back to his youth, and “wanting to test my skills, see if I could push myself to play like the soulful players and shredders Yngwie Malmsteen, Jeff Beck, David Gilmour, Eddie Van Halen, etc.” This fluid mix of virtuosity and soul is apparent throughout both his live sets and recorded material, sharply blazing and wailing solos erupting from thoughtful and coloured chords and leads.
Akesson notes that he was “down in the demo recording space, fixing some guitars nearby, so I had a chance to hear the early demo tracks being laid down.” Noting that musical mastermind Akerfeldt took the directorship of the demos as usual, it was also a natural part of the recording process for Akesson, bassist Martin Mendez and drummer Martin Axenrot to add their own embellishments, chords, progressions and fills, although noting, “Mikael’s demo material is more than good enough to release as finished songs, it’s really those additions that help us make the music come alive, to make us sound like a living, breathing band.” Indeed, the organic feel of this process drenches the album, in something more akin to an experience than a statically recorded product.
“We went the extra mile on this album,” Akesson muses, “rehearsing songs from start to end as perfectly as possible, which is something we hadn’t been able to do since the ‘Watershed’ days.”
With more time and rote muscle memory, the band were freed up to experiment further with both their playing and also new sounds and tones. “For example, Martin played the same bass throughout recording ‘Sorceress’ – on this album, he was swapping through many basses including a Paul McCartney style Hoffner bass.” Remarking on being unsure if it’d make the cut for a Metal album, he was surprised that this and a Fender Mustang “ended up making some of the most brutal tones on the album, when we expected an almost tinny indie-style tone!”
The bewildering selection of equipment available at The Park Studios was apparently an excellent muse, too, with “something like 58 Strats, 12-string guitars, huge crashes and symbols for Martin , real Mellotrons and Hammonds” alongside actual string-orchestral instruments available to mingle into the album’s diverse soup. Truly, the new album’s sonic depths are as much a product of a natural and iterative recording style as they are “an intimidating choice of tones, instruments and equipment available to us!” Akesson at this stage is sounding akin to a kid recounting his first trip to a large department store, and it’s clear he has a similarly fresh wonder and love for both recording and playing.
On the eternal question posed for those wanting to know “how heavy” the new album is, Akesson is quick to describe many sonically heavy elements, from the “Black Metal inspired tremolo” on one track, to the “Doom Metal elements” of others. But we’ll leave the finer details to you, the listener. On the live front, he also reckons that “Akerfeldt is sounding more brutal and guttural than ever, like an old evil demon – so watch out for that!”
‘In Cauda Venenum’ can be pre-ordered HERE prior to release on 27th September.
Tickets for the upcoming Australian tour can be found HERE – get in quick!