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Wednesday, 23 November 2016

A View From The Back Of The Room: Opeth (Live Review By Paul)

Opeth: An Evening Of Sorcery, Damnation and Deliverance, SSE Wembley Arena

When Opeth announced a one-off November gig at Wembley Arena several months ago, it was touch and go whether we went. The price tag of over £50 plus the trek to London on a late autumnal dark day wasn’t the most attractive but Matt and I decided to take the punt. By 11:00pm on 19 November we were so happy we had. Wembley is reasonably straightforward to access from South Wales without the ball-ache of having to dip into Central London and we were there with a couple of hours to spare. Straight in at doors and having picked up the customary special event shirt we headed to the much vaunted sold out standing area.

First surprise and the only disappointment of the evening. The promoters had obviously underestimated the interest and had plumped for a “half size” event. Yes, the stage had been moved half way up the cavernous venue to cut the capacity in half. Yes, it became intimate but it appeared a strange move and considering the apparent demand on social media for standing tickets clearly a potentially missed opportunity to make a bit more cash and gain wider exposure for the band. Mikael Akerfeldt commented on it during the Opeth set, and not in the complimentary manner either.

Two weeks earlier we had seen Anathema perform a quite amazing set at The Globe, a 350-capacity venue in Cardiff. It was understandable that the band were apprehensive yet obviously delighted to be the support act for the evening. The band go back a long way with Opeth and I’d seen Anathema support the Swedes at Nottingham Rock City over five years ago. Despite the obvious nerves that appear to initially impact on Danny Cavanagh, Anathema (8) were on fire from the start and as the crowd swelled and became more engaged so the band visibly relaxed. Opening with Thin Air, Danny, brother Vincent and the rest of the group soon got the temperature rising and as the ever-emotional Untouchable Pt I allowed Lee Douglas to demonstrate her amazing voice the inevitable lump in the throat arrived.

A wry smile directed in my direction by Danny (I think in recognition of my Anathema hoodie) reassured me that he was finally enjoying himself. The band have honed their live skills recently and it showed with a flawless A Simple Mistake before the completely remodelled Distant Satellites got more heads nodding and the applause cascading around the venue. In a truncated set, obviously, many of the favourites can’t be played but Anathema chose a set list that really played to their strengths. A Natural Disaster is one of their most beautiful songs and this version was perfect, with Wembley Arena lit up with the mobile phone lights that has become synonymous with this song. Lee’s haunting closing vocal had the Arena holding its collective breath.

Usual set closer Fragile Dreams followed with the crowd by now fully participating before the band took the brave step to close with one of their new tracks, yet unrecorded but aired on the recent tour. Having only heard it once before I can’t be sure but we thought it was Springfield. It sounded even better than first listen. The band left the stage to a huge ovation, and I hope rightfully gained a few more fans in the process. They deserve it.

Opeth (10) don’t need any introduction. The band has grafted blood, sweat and tears to get to this place in their 25+ year career and they really went for it. The lighting for the evening took the visuals to another level, with many an appreciative gasp from the crowd as the evening progressed. A back screen which enhanced the mood was impressive too and the wider space on the stage allowed the frontmen to move around with more freedom, although Martin Mendes remained in his customary position throughout the evening. 

A crystal-clear sound was an even bigger bonus. Given the complexity of Opeth's songs, the opportunity to hear their often crushingly heavy tracks with a ‘big’ sound was so welcome. The delivery was perfect. Opening with Sorceress, which interestingly elicited a massive cheer from a crowd obviously well acquainted with the new release, Opeth were just blistering. An unbelievable set list combined old favourites with newer material, although only The Wilde Flowers made the cut from the new release alongside the title track. I’ve reviewed Opeth several times before and it is hard to maintain the superlatives without sounding even more of a fan boy than I am. 

However, polished and professional just aren’t sufficient. This is a band who make everything look incredibly easy despite the fact their music is intricate and complex. Multiple time changes, tempos and variations make even the simplest tunes interesting. Let’s just say that this was a band at the top of their game. Alongside Martin Mendes, drummer Martin Axenrot makes the drumming look stupidly easy whilst keyboardist Joakim Svalberg has given the band an extras dimension with his harmonies on the backing vocals a brilliant addition. His keyboard playing isn’t shabby either. That leaves the guitar work of Fredrik Akesson and of course, Mikael Akerfeldt. Just amazing. Akerfeldt’s vocal prowess allows him to switch between delicate clean vocals and brutal death growls in an instant. 

So what was in the set list? Well, it played out like a fan boy’s wish list. After Sorceress, the monstrous duo of Ghost Of Perdition and a welcome return for Demon Of The Fall from My Arms, Your Hearse kept the old school happy. It was crushingly heavy all the way for the first set, except for the calmer parts of Face Of Melinda from Still Life and a blistering Drapery Falls, the only inclusion from Blackwater Park. Cusp Of Eternity from 2014’s Pale Communion, Heir Apparent from Watershed and Ghost Reveries’ Grand Conjuration closed set one with the foundations of the venue shaking such is the heaviness of these tracks. Having already played for an hour and a half, the final hour was the Damnation and Deliverance set. 

A beautiful contrast of acoustic (ish) tracks from Damnation, four in total that allowed the arena to brace for the brutal finale. Opening with Windowpane, the band whistled through the rarely played Death Whispered A Lullaby, In My Time Of Need and the Eastern flavoured Closure, all of the tracks flawlessly executed. The big finale hit hard, with several pits opening up in very strange places around the floor. Master's Apprentice was immense with the heaviness maintained with track two from Deliverance By The Pain I See In Others making only its third ever outing. It was stunning and a privilege to be present. 

Of course, if you’ve seen Opeth in recent years you’ll know that the finale is often Deliverance, a blinding 13 minute epic. And so it was tonight. Heavy as fuck, intricate and just pure essence of a band who deserve all the plaudits they get. As the band took their final applause it was time to reflect on THE GIG of 2016. Absolutely brilliant and well worth the appalling weather on the drive back to South Wales.

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