Opeth: Watershed

Interview and review by Sean Palmerston

With 2008 proving to be a stellar year for great releases from veteran bands, no one album stands out so clearly from the pack as this, the newest offering by Sweden’s Opeth. It’s somewhat surprising to realise this is the band’s ninth album since 1995 (have they really been around that long?) and their most complete, challenging album to date. Fuelled by a few personnel changes, namely the addition of guitarist Fredrik Akesson and drummer Martin “Axe” Axenrot, bandleader Mikael Akerfeldt claims he finally has the right musical muscle in the quintet to properly flesh out his visions. Starting with the acoustic folk of “Coil,” before completely bringing the house down with “Heir Apparent,” there is no shortage of surprises within the album. As always, the band are completely capable of switching directions within compositions with ease, but this time there seems to be a swaggering level of confidence that oozes from every note. The album isn’t without its surprises either: check out the high-energy dance/funk jam in “The Lotus Eater” or the completely warped ending of “Burden.” Not only is this another in a long line of quality Opeth albums, it is also their best yet.

There is a really cool 12-bar funk/jam band section within “The Lotus Eater” that is unlike anything the band have ever done before.

Mikael Akerfeldt: It’s one of those odd things we probably wouldn’t have used in the past, but I came up with that lick and just thought it sounded good and thought, “why not?”

It’s bound to be one of the most controversial sections of the whole album.

It’s probably a love/hate kind of moment on the album but I hope people take it. I think it is pretty cool sounding.

Do you worry that diehard fans won’t understand when you try bringing in new elements?

Well, we listen to so many different kinds of music [that] it’s kind of stupid to just limit yourself to be safe just inside the world of metal. Our idea for music is to sweep over anything if it sounds good, no matter what type of style.

“Burden” ends with an acoustic guitar that goes out of tune while it’s being played. What prompted the decision to do this?

It was just one of those “heat of the moment” ideas. We didn’t really know how to end the song and I just sort of came up with the idea that we should destroy it. I was playing and Frederick was detuning the guitar as I was playing. It sounds very ugly but that was the purpose. It’s a kind of good ugly.

Now that it’s finished and ready for release, are you satisfied with the way that Watershed has turned out?

Yeah, we are happy with it. We’ve lived with it for quite some time now, so you kind of get used to it, but we are all very happy with it.

Watershed feels like the opening of a new chapter in the career of the band when compared to Ghosts Reveries. Was this something that was done intentionally?

It was a little bit inevitable considering that we had some line-up changes; it is going to sound different with two new guys in the band. But really, I didn’t set it up to make it a different sounding album more than any of the other ones. I do want them all to be kind of different from each other but I wrote the songs the same way as I have done in the past, maybe set fewer limitations. With the new guys we can do things we haven’t been able to do in the past. But really, it was no different writing this album than the other ones.

Did the new players enable you to create songs differently?

Yeah, a little bit, but overall I just knew that if I came up with something — if we needed a fast guitar part Fredrik could play it and Axe is a very versatile, solid drummer — it would work. I wouldn’t say I custom wrote things for them but I knew they could play what we were coming up with.

Where did you record the album and why did you choose to go there?

We recorded it in the same studio we recorded the Ghost Reveries album. It’s two hours from Stockholm, basically: Fascination Street. Things worked well last time and it’s pretty close, so we could go home for the weekend if we wanted to. They also have two kinds of studio rooms, so we could work in both at the same time, which helped the progress and made it so we could record the album quicker.

How important is it for there to be progression and change on each album?

It is important, of course. I want us to be developing with each new album and I want the band to progress, but I still think it’s more important to make a good song than an original song, if you know what I mean. A clear combination of the two is what is ideal but I write with the idea of coming up with good music and that is the only thing that really matters to me at the end of the day. I’d like there to be a progression from the last album but you can’t always force that. It just has to happen in a natural way. I can’t really make decisions on the future and the next album. I just go with the flow. If I have some kind of idea of what I want to do musically, I just let it unfold.

How did you find the female vocalist Natalie, who sings in tandem with you on the album’s first song?

She is together with our drummer Axe as a couple. They have an acoustic singer-songwriter project together and I heard a couple of songs they recorded together and was blown away by her voice. I immediately got the idea she could sing on this song that I had.

The dual male/female vocals on the album’s opener work amazingly well.

I think so. It kind of sucks the listener into the album, and she has a great voice.

It sounds like an early ’70s progressive/folk thing, like something from Mellow Candle or Fairport Convention.

Yeah, pretty much. We didn’t want it to become a gimmick, like we’re trying to tap into the Nightwish crowd or anything. It was just basically in the best interest of the song. It really works keeping it simple like that.

In recent articles, Steven Wilson of Porcupine Tree has been asked about the rumoured collaboration between the two of you and he says it is something that he really wants to do.

We would like to work on it, yes. We have talked about it for years and years but it is kind of put on ice now, so we really don’t know when we are going to have time to do that. I hope it will happen but the two of us are really busy all of the time with our bands. It is kind of difficult to make it happen but I am still hoping.

What about your side-project Bloodbath? I know there is a new EP and an upcoming live DVD. Will you be doing anything else with that project?

Yes, there is a new album being recorded right now actually. They are laying down the drums and guitars and I will be doing the vocals in the summer.

Any chance you would ever tour with that or play more shows?

Nah, I don’t think so. I am so busy with Opeth that I really can’t commit to touring with Bloodbath. It’s just a fun project for me, so I can’t commit but we do have a few festival dates over in Europe.

How are things going with the “Progressive Nation” tour with Dream Theater?

It’s going well! We’re having a good time. We play for an hour a night when we are on the Dream Theater shows and we are also playing other shows where we do the whole set. It is nice to do this kind of set up for the album, obviously the album has not been released yet so we hope we might bring in a few new fans by doing this tour who will check out the album and the band. (Roadrunner)

Originally published at exclaim.ca.

Sean is the founder/publisher of Hellbound.ca; he has also written about metal for Exclaim!, Metal Maniacs, Roadburn, Unrestrained! and Vice.