It's hard to believe that Opeth was ever just another Swedish metal band.
Back in the early 1990s, half the population of Stockholm played in a death metal band. It might have seemed like that, anyway. The city, along with Gothenburg, was headquarters for an underground scene that would eventually change the face of modern heavy metal. Bands like Entombed, At the Gates, and Dismember were refining the primitive, punishing late-'80s brutality of Napalm Death, Carcass, and Morbid Angel into a slick, melodic, beefed-up offshoot with fist-pumping anthems and screaming twin guitar solos. The blueprint those groups established can still be heard in today's extreme music. There's even a recent book about the phenomenon (called, of course, Swedish Death Metal).
Opeth used to be one of those bands. The group was put together in Stockholm in 1990 by teenagers David Isberg and Mikael Akerfeldt. Members came and went for the first few years, but by the time Opeth released its first album, Orchid, in 1995, the long-running creative core of the band—singer/guitarist/songwriter/arranger/overall mastermind Akerfeldt and guitarist Peter Lindgren—was in place.
It was clear when Orchid came out that Opeth was up to something far different from other bands. Acoustic guitar and piano are interspersed among the long instrumental passages, a bold departure from the Swedish metal template. Over the course of the next few album—Morningrise (1996), My Arms, Your Hearse (1998), and Still Life (1999)—the integration of folk-influenced sections with jazzy breaks and monstrously heavy riffs got smoother. Akerfeldt started singing as much as he bellowed, and the music revealed the growing influence of Pink Floyd, King Crimson, and the Moody Blues.
The massive Blackwater Park from 2001 may still be Opeth's masterwork. It's essentially one long suite broken up into songs. Its most metal parts are mind-warpingly complicated and emotionally resonant; the folk- and jazz-tinged interludes add textures and tones to the disc's uniformly somber mood. What had been a compelling novelty on the debut grew into art.
"I remember when the first record came out," says Fredrik Akesson, who was in one of those many other Swedish bands in the '90s and played guitar in the well-known band Arch Enemy between 2005 and 2007. He replaced Lindgren in 2007. "I didn't pay much attention. It wasn't until Still Life that I was totally into it. After that I was a big fan of the band. ... It was very original. When Blackwater Park came out, it sounded like this band could go somewhere. Even though I really like Still Life, it can be more demanding to get into."
Lindgren's departure came as a shock to Opeth fans. He and Akerfeldt were the only members remaining from the Orchid lineup, and Lindgren was the only member who had cracked Akerfeldt's tight grip on creative control. But the band never missed a step; Akerfeldt had already scouted Akesson as a possible replacement before Lindgren officially left.
"About six years back I was in a pub in Stockholm and my band was playing Judas Priest covers," Akesson says, his English gently bent by a Swedish accent. "Mikael was there and liked my playing and said we should jam someday and asked if I'd show him some technique. I was like, ‘You're kidding me.' I really looked up to him as a guitarist. In 2007 we actually holed up in Mike's house and did some jamming. I thought I was secretly auditioning for the band. A couple of months after that, I was asked to leave Arch Enemy and Mike called me up. He said Peter was leaving the band and told me I was his first choice."
Akesson finished up the final legs of the tour for the 2005 album Ghost Reveries and then joined the band in the studio to record last year's Watershed. He wasn't the only new member: longtime tour drummer Martin Axelrot finally replaced the ailing Martin Lopez in the studio for the most recent album. Watershed doesn't sound like it was made by a new lineup—it's an assured record, and Opeth's most audacious. The digressions are weirder (the funky organ breakdown on "The Lotus Eater"), the heavy riffs heavier (the vicious barrage of "Heir Apparent"), and the solos wonkier (Akesson all over the album).
"Compared to Arch Enemy, I feel much more involved in the band," Akesson says. "It's hard work and fun. We have a good chemistry. Musically, we're locked in and very solid."
Next year marks the band's 20th anniversary. Plans include at least a few commemorative concerts before the band settles in to write the next album.
"I'm anxious to do the next record," says Akesson, who got one co-writing credit on Watershed for "Porcelain Heart." "I always write riffs, but it's Mike's decision whether they make it onto the album. I'm going to write a lot of stuff and see what happens."