Review by Jonathan Smith; Live photos by Adam Wills
Opeth‘s Heritage album has sharply divided opinions in the internet metal community. Its lack of growled vocals, blast beats, and other staples of extreme metal genres are mostly if not entirely absent from the album. As soon as I heard it I was left to wonder what kind of live performance it might produce. Clearly I was not the only one who was curious, as the tour stop in Guelph quickly sold out. Braving the biting cold on Sunday night, myself and my Hellbound colleagues found ourselves standing in a line that wrapped around several blocks in downtown Guelph. It was clear from the beginning that the controversy surrounding Heritage would hang heavy in the air; almost immediately there was open speculation among the crowd about how much the evening’s setlist wouldn’t live up to expectations or hopes.
Despite the attempts by venue operators to process people as quickly as possible (I had a bracelet placed on my wrist long before I knew if Hellbound was on guest list or not), it still took the better part of an hour to make it inside. As we waited to receive confirmation regarding our press passes (a wait made less confusing by the friendliness of the fellow handling the list), we could hear the first pounding drum beats from openers Katatonia. The delay in getting in meant that myself and photographer Adam Wills missed the first few songs (and the photo opportunity). Apparently the band had played in the dark for a few minutes, and it took a song or two for the sound to be adjusted to the point where people could hear more than drums. We got settled in (another long process given that every inch of floor space was occupied by a body) just as Katatonia introduced “Soil’s Song” from The Great Cold Distance.
For the most part that set the tone for the first set, with Katatonia bringing out material mostly from their two most recent albums (including “My Twin,” “July,” “Forsaken,” “The Longest Year,” and, as the lone representative of Viva Emptiness, “Ghost of the Sun”). As jarring a shift as it may have been, it was a pleasant surprise when the band ended their set with Anders Nyström taking over on vocals and growling out cuts from both Dance of December Souls and Brave Murder Day. Though the drastic sound problems were mostly corrected, the bass and drums were consistently much too heavy in the mix. This meant that the even as it made the band sound heavier than they may have otherwise, their guitar sound was frequently lost or subdued. Nonetheless the Swedes were clearly in good spirits, with Jonas Renkse noting “It’s fuckin’ cold here! Like in Sweden!”.
In between the sets we (slowly) made out way back out to the main area in order to rehydrate for Opeth’s lengthy set. I went looking for the merch booth only to discover that it had apparently been held at the border. Then came the task of trying to find a spot for the main event. Having left the main floor, our chances of getting back to it were zero. We chose the balcony instead.
Opeth opened their set with Heritage‘s “The Devil’s Orchard” and “I Feel The Dark.” Mikael Åkerfeldt was as humble and oddly charming as always, and he made it clear early on that the evening would be not so much heavy as “heavy-ish.” With the crowd given ample warning, the band proceeded to play a set that was composed of their more acoustic and less extreme material. They played, as examples from a solid hour and a half set, “Slither,” “Porcelain Heart,” “Closure,” and “Hex Omega.” Two particular surprises were “Face of Melinda” and the even more obscure “The Throat of Winter” (their video game soundtrack contribution). Their decisions flew in the face of the contingent of the crowd who insisted on shouting out “Play ‘Demon of the Fall!!!”, “Play Blackwater Park!!!”, “Play Damnation!!!”. From our position in the venue we could see that the impatience of some people was growing more intense as the set went on, eventually culminating at one point with loud booing and some shouting “Fuck you!”. However, the majority of people seemed content to simply try and talk over the band the whole time, and given the fact that Opeth were focusing more on atmosphere and nuance rather than crushing riffs, they mostly succeeded.
If the band had any inkling of the bored and frustrated negativity brewing in certain sections of the crowd, they didn’t give it much attention. Instead the band seemed perpetually cheerful, playing to the more enthusiastic fans and showing obvious eagerness to share new, old, and lesser played songs. The sound quality was very good, allowing all but the most subtle details of the songs to be heard. At one point Åkerfeldt noted that Heritage was “not a party album. It is an album you play while relaxing after the party.” Before capping things off for the night, Åkerfeldt explained in advance how the encore was going to work so as to temper expectations and to ensure that the band could manoeuvre through the lack of space. He then noted that the last song, “Folklore,” was an example of Swedish folk music, and that it was aptly named given that they were “both Swedish and folks.” Giving the attention payed to Heritage so far, it was a suitable way to end things.
Opeth have reached a strange point in their career. Despite their ability to pack the house, it was clear that the evening’s choice of songs would have been better suited to a more intimate environment. I was actually surprised that the band didn’t decide to play Heritage in its entirety. It seemed like it would have been an easy-enough thing to do, and it was not as though they contrasted their newer songs with the heaviest of the old. Åkerfeldt’s not uttering a single growl throughout the whole show is as much as an indication as anything else that perhaps the band, having looked to the past on their previous tour, are now looking ahead to the future. It will be up to fans to decide whether they want to look with them.