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Metal/Prog Metal CD Reviews

Opeth

The Roundhouse Tapes

Review by Julie Knispel

Sweden’s Opeth has been on an upward career trajectory ever since releasing their first album (Orchid) in 1995.  Successive releases have seen them honing their impressive instrumental, vocal, and production skills to a deadly razor-sharp edge, moving from label to label with their growing fan base following them.  Starting out as an almost traditional black/death metal band, Opeth has carved out a niche that is very nearly theirs alone, with a sound that draws as heavily from 1970’s symphonic prog bands like Camel as it does the traditional/melodic death metal scene.

With a career stretching out well over a decade, it is obvious that some sort of retrospective should be released.  In Opeth’s case, it comes in the form of The Roundhouse Tapes, a 2 CD live set recorded at London’s famed Camden Roundhouse on 9 November 2006.  A play on words invoking Iron Maiden’s first EP release The Soundhouse Tapes, this live release features at least one track from each of Opeth’s studio albums (save for 2003’s Deliverance, conspicuous by its absence).  This is a welcome change from the band’s DVD release Lamentations, which relied entirely on material from the group’s three albums on Music for Nations Records.  As a result, The Roundhouse Tapes offers a fairly exhaustive (and at times exhausting) look at a band near the peak of their performing powers.

For fans, this release is a bittersweet one.  New drummer Martin Axenrot makes his first full album appearance with the band here, while long time member Peter Lindgren (guitar) is making his final one.  As such, The Roundhouse Tapes serves well as the closing statement on the first extended phases of Opeth’s career, opening a blank page for Opeth to begin crafting their future.

This review is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2008  Volume 1 at lulu.com/strangesound.

Track by Track Review
Disc 1
When
2005’s Ghost Reveries is represented by an opening double shot of songs.  First up, and opening the concert, is “When,” that album’s opening track.  A lengthy medieval, hurdy gurdy intro tape (Opeth’s traditional lead in music) is interspersed with a rapturous audience and a few chopped power chords as the music fades.  A quick cymbal count in gives the listener at home just a second to prepare for the oncoming onslaught, as a sudden deluge of buzz saw guitars and pounding drums only pull back to allow Mikael Akerfeldt’s full throated death grunt to spit forth the song’s lyrics.  Brief interludes of quiet only amplify the intensity inherent in Opeth’s full on metal assault.  An extended closing section bears comparison to the band’s progressive album experiment Damnation, showing that symphonic style fully integrated as an element of their traditional sound.
Ghost of Perdition
“Do you hear that?  That is the sound of a down tuned guitar.”  Thankfully, the band (or label) decided to include all of Akerfeldt’s often funny and/or self-deprecating interludes between tracks, maintaining the flow of the show as it actually was.  The second of two pieces from Opeth’s most recent studio album, “Ghost of Perdition” continues in somewhat similar style to the preceding track.  The composition is perhaps a bit more diverse in some ways compared to the opening salvo, with darker vocals (even when sung clean) and a slightly more intricate arrangement.  Opeth caught a lot of flak for signing with Roadrunner Records for the release of Ghost Reveries, with some labeling the album as nu-metal or mallcore without so much as a single listen.  Less than a minute into this performance, any and all preconceptions should be tossed to the side like the detritus they are; this is Opeth playing death metal as only they can.
Under the Weaiping Moon
Opeth reaches back to their debut album for “Under the Weeping Moon,” introduced as containing lyrics that are “absolute black metal nonsense.”  It is the third consecutive song exceeding 10 minutes in length on The Roundhouse Tapes (and, in fact, no song on this release is under 8 minutes long), and opens with quiet, clean guitar before building intensity slowly.  Ad yes, the lyrics are more traditionally black metal than death metal, with references to winter, the morning star, burning flames, and the northern watchers.  The music, however, is entirely melodic death metal, with Lindgren and Akerfeldt adding some wonderful harmonized guitar parts, leading into a deceptively intense, almost pastoral instrumental interlude.  Rest assured...the heaviness in this composition will be back, and soon.
Bleak
Only Blackwater Park and Ghost Reveries see more than one song included on this live release.  “Bleak” hails from the earlier of the two albums, and following the early style heard on “Under the Weeping Moon,” the changes in songwriting and arrangements are incredibly evident.  While the previous track is a fine composition in and of itself, “Bleak” shows far more confidence, intricacy and skill.  New boy Axenrot handles the shifts and meter changes comfortably; while he does not add the flourishes that made former drummer Martin Lopez a fan favourite, his style seems well suited to Opeth’s diversity nonetheless.  I wouldn’t go so far as to say the comparison is similar to that between Bill Bruford and Alan White in Yes, but it might be an intriguing one to make.  This is a fantastic performance of this track, with Wiberg adding backing vocals (originally handled on album by Steven Wilson) and plenty of shifts in style to please even the hardest to please listener.
Face of Melinda
This composition, from 1999’s Still Life, is a fantastic showcase of Opeth’s diversity.  It opens with peace and sweetness, with gentle guitar and Akerfeldt’s smoky vocals.  Per Wiberg’s keyboards are used to excellent effect here, adding a touch of darkness and eeriness to the mix.  Lindgren and Akerfeldt’s guitar playing leans toward the jazzy end of the spectrum before the song kicks the intensity up several notches, raising goosebumps as the volume is raised.  Wiberg switches to a rich organ sound, with an overall sound that is nothing less than the bastard stepchild of Celtic Frost and Deep Purple.  The varied and shifting moods and tones on “Face of Melinda” are proof that Opeth is more than just a metal band...they have earned the progressive label, and deservedly so.
The Night and the Silent Water
Looking back on Morningrise, the album from which “The Night and the Silent Water” was drawn, Mikael Akerfeldt has stated that he grew tired of the band’s style, feeling compelled to change things up extensively for future releases.  In the spoken intro to this song, Akerfeldt speaks somewhat disparagingly of the album and material, and for many fans, it was perhaps a surprise that they played a song from this release for this concert and album.  The fact that the selected track was which “The Night and the Silent Water” was maybe even more surprising, as the song had never been played prior to Opeth’s 2006 tour dates.  Written in memory of Akerfeldt’s grandfather, who died shortly before sessions for this album began, it is a bleak and imposing epic that shows the band’s progressive leanings as well formed even at the onset of their career.

Disc 2
Windowpane
“Windowpane” is the sole repeat from Opeth’s first live release, the DVD Lamentations.  Originally released on the acoustic/symphonic prog release Damnation, the composition showcases an entirely different side of the band, with emphasis on light and shade, gentle textures, and wonderfully smoky tenor/baritone Akerfeldt vocals.  It’s an interesting opening track for disc two of this set, especially following the heaviness that closed out the first half of this release.  While Damnation as a release has perhaps not been embraced by the band’s core metal following to the same degree that their heavier albums have, the inclusion of at least one track for this album is important in presenting as many facets of Opeth’s catalogue as possible.
Blackwater Park
The title track to Opeth’s first collaboration with Porcupine Tree founder/front man Steven Wilson, this epic take on an already extended piece also features more Akerfeldt asides to the audience.  If there were to be a single song that one were to play for a listener who had never heard Opeth, this may be it, as it embraces and encompasses almost everything that makes Opeth they band they are.  It also features one of the heaviest and most intense build-ups of any Opeth song on any of their albums, leading the listener through an intense tale of betrayal, spiritual sickness and evil.
Demon of the Fall
Deep Purple has “Smoke on the Water.”  Hawkwind has “Master of the Universe.”  Many bands, in fact, have a song that seems almost synonymous with the band...you hear the opening riff, or sometimes just the song title, and an image of the band is nearly fully formed in your mind.  Some may argue, but for this reviewer, Opeth’s song is 1998’s “Demon of the Fall.”  Unrelenting, brutal, death metal at its finest, it has often been played as the band’s final encore song, and thus it is included as this release’s closing track.  The chorus demands to be screamed along with...the blast beats and pile driver riffs irresistably drag the listener or audient to slam and headbang.  It is the perfect closing somg for the show and the album, and the performance here, if not definitive, comes pretty close.
 
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