Sunday, 20 November 2016

Opeth - London Review

Sometimes something that is initially a disappointment can turn out to be for the best. The doomed Glenn Hughes/Living Colour co-headline tour is one of those things. I had booked to catch that tour in Cambridge, and then when it was cancelled under a cloud of accusations and bad blood I was scrabbling around to try not to waste my planned weekend away. I remembered that Opeth were playing a one-off UK show at London's prestigious Wembley Arena on the same day, and I was delighted to find some cheap tickets still available. I could use the train tickets to Cambridge that I had already booked, as they went via London anyway, so all I needed to do was book some accommodation. This was not too difficult, and I found myself in my semi-regular haunt of Cricklewood in North London which is quite close to Wembley. While I had seen Opeth live a couple of times in the past, both of these shows had been at Festivals. Their sets at High Voltage in 2010 and Bloodstock in 2015 were great, but only ever really tasters of what a real Opeth show would be like. The band are currently out promoting their twelfth studio album Sorceress, but this London show promised to be more special than your average Opeth show. Four gigs on this tour, with London being one of them, are dubbed An Evening of Sorcery, Damnation and Deliverance which sees the band perform a career-spanning setlist that clocks in at the best part of two and a half hours. An added bonus at this London show was the addition of special guests Anathema to open the show. It was exactly two weeks to the day that I saw the band play a small Cardiff venue and play one of the gigs of the year so far. Anathema were just as much of a draw for me as Opeth, and the combination of the two bands made it more than worth the ticket price. A band of Opeth's stature can not sell out the full-sized Wembley Arena, so a temporary stage was constructed about two-thirds of the way back, which gave the impression of a Roman amphitheatre, with seating tightly packed around three of the sides and a smaller floor space for standing. Despite this strange arrangement, there were still a good few thousand people in attendance, and the crowd was vocal throughout creating a good atmosphere.

Hot off the back of a successful tour previewing some new material, Anathema mostly stuck to crowd favourites for their 50 minute special guest slot. A doomy, apocalyptic intro tape heralded their arrival and they immediately launched into Thin Air as Danny Cavanagh's (guitar/keyboards/vocals) chiming guitar intro brought a decent-sized cheer from the crowd. There were clearly quite a few Anathema fans in attendance, and they were well-received throughout. The spine-tingling Untouchable - Part 1 followed, with Vincent Cavanagh (vocals/guitar/percussion) and Lee Douglas (vocals) teaming up well to sing one of the band's best songs. Unfortunately Untouchable - Part 2 was not played which felt a bit strange, as if you were only hearing half a song! There was little time for chatting, and the band rattled through seven songs with little pausing for breath. One that really stood out this time around was Distant Satellites which has a great electronica vibe and some fantastically moody vocals from Vincent and Lee. The ending section is fantastic live, with Vincent, John Douglas (drums/percussion) and Daniel Cardoso (keyboards/drums) all pounding away on floor toms while Danny's dark piano line swirls around. This is one of the few moments that benefits from having original drummer John as a stand-alone percussionist on a lot of the songs now. I must say, I am not 100% sure why the band want to sacrifice having a full-time keyboardist (as Cardoso was) to have John mostly focus on percussion. Danny and Cardoso (and Vincent, but not at this show) still play keyboards on certain songs, with John taking up his old drumming job again sometimes, but there are moments in the set that rely on obvious pre-recorded keyboards (the end of A Simple Mistake for example). I am not sure the percussion adds that much to the band's live sound, and I would rather have a full-time keyboardist instead. That little oddity aside, which I have mused over for a while, Anathema are a fantastic live band. The ending section was easily the best, as Lee's showcase number A Natural Disaster saw the whole venue lit up with mobile phone lights which was beautiful to see. The oldie Fragile Dreams actually saw some headbanging from the metalheads in the crowd, before the stunning new number Springfield finished the evening off. This song was easily the best of the four new songs I saw them play in Cardiff, with the vocal interplay between Vincent and Lee having a perfect haunting quality, and I predict this will be a future classic for the band. The setlist was:

Thin Air
Untouchable - Part 1
A Simple Mistake
Distant Satellites
A Natural Disaster
Fragile Dreams

While Opeth will never be a particular favourite band of mine, they are a band I continue to be impressed by and admire. They are a band I have to be in the mood for, but as I have been enjoying Sorceress quite a bit recently, this show came at the right time. I have always wanted to catch them at their own show, and this mammoth outing was certainly an impressive experience. While the sound for Anathema was not perfect, it was crystal clear for Opeth and that allowed the band's trademark dynamics to shine. The jazz/rock/prog fusion Sorceress got everything off to a great start, with Joakim Svalberg's (keyboards/percussion/vocals) keyboard intro blowing everyone away. The first half of the show (the Sorcery aspect) was a bit of an Opeth 'best of'. Favourites from throughout their career were played, with the heavy Ghost of Perdition getting a huge reaction from the large crowd. The set was probably a Opeth die-hard's wet dream, with a good mix of the heavier and lighter material throughout. I was surprised that only two songs from Sorceress, the title track and the excellent The Wilde Flowers, were played however as it is easily the most well-received album for some time. That being said, the material played was so strong that is seems like a pointless complaint. Mikael Åkerfeldt (vocals/guitar) was in fine form throughout, his dry sense of humour shining through, and his vocals powered over the heavy instrumentation. His harsh vocals are still as good as anyone else's despite them featuring less and less these days, and his gorgeous clean vocals make the song's lighter, more progressive songs shine. The dark Face of Melinda was one of those, which is heavy in spirit but light musically. The gloomy guitar interplay between Åkerfeldt and Fredrik Åkesson (guitar/vocals) really brought the song to life, and it was one of the highlights of the first part of the set for me. Another highlight was Heir Apparent from 2008's Watershed, which is probably my favourite Opeth album. The song is crushingly heavy, but also features lots of the band's best progressive arrangements, with Martin Axenrot (drums) holding everything together with his fantastic drumming display. The best of set finished with The Grand Conjuration, another crowd favourite, which ensured this portion of the set finished on a high. By this point, the band had been on stage for 90 minutes, which is about the average length of a normal headline show for most bands! After a minute or so off stage while some doomy music played over the speakers, Opeth came back and played for another hour. All the songs in this second part of the set were taken from the Damnation and Deliverance albums, and allowed for some rarely played songs to get an airing. 'Side 1' of Damnation was up first. Only Windowpane of these songs is a set regular, but it was the fantastic In my Time of Need that was the highlight here. This is one Opeth song that is a true earworm, and a great display of melodic songwriting in a set filled with lengthy prog epics. Three heavy numbers from Deliverance brought the show to a close. By the Pain I See in Others was played live for only the third time, and then the album's crushingly heavy title track brought an excellent show to a close. The setlist was:

Ghost of Perdition
Demon of the Fall
The Wilde Flowers
Face of Melinda
Cusp of Eternity
The Drapery Falls
Heir Apparent
The Grand Conjuration
Death Whispered a Lullaby
In my Time of Need
Master's Apprentices
By the Pain I See in Others

Overall, this was a masterful display of live music from one of the best modern prog bands out there. While I do not claim to be a huge fan of everything Opeth have released, or even a particularly regular listener to their albums, I enjoyed this show a lot. There is no band out there that is quite like Opeth, and they are deserving to be held in the high regard that they are.

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