Photo by Jonas Akerlund
Opeth’s 2011 album, Heritage, marked a drastic stylistic shift by Sweden’s premier progressive-metal band. Within the timespan of a single album cycle, they turned their backs on death-metal-style vocals, high-gain amplification, and blast beats. Opeth focused, instead, on vintage guitar tones, layered clean vocal melodies, and compositions that have more in common with Yes than Dimmu Borgir.
The shift was jarring for fans who embraced the band’s previous black-metal sound, but it opened Opeth’s sonic journey in progressive rock that continues to this day. On their new In Cauda Venenum, Opeth doubles down on their exploratory compositions. While there is plenty of familiar territory for fans to sink their teeth into, unexpected twists like the Broadway-approved middle section of “Universal Truth” and the jazzy swing of “The Garroter” are likely to expand a few listeners’ horizons.
And, according to frontman and guitarist Mikael Åkerfeldt, fans should get onboard with this ever-expanding songwriting, or move on. “Many of the songs are really big, pompous, and epic, which I always liked,“ he says. “Basically, [this music] is what I want to do. If 100 percent of our fans hate this record, well, I’m sorry. But I love it.”
Not only does Åkerfeldt not care what the public thinks of In Cauda Venenum, he even kept his own band (lead guitarist Fredrik Åkesson, bassist Martín Méndez, drummer Martin Axenrot, and keyboardist Joakim Svalberg) at arm’s length throughout the songwriting process.
Åkerfeldt is clearly intentional about his music. From his iron-fist control of the material all the way to the gear used in the studio, every decision is made quickly, decisively, and with a hyper focus on the details. Yet even with so much of his energy currently focused on his art, Åkerfeldt took the time to talk with Premier Guitar about it all—from In Cauda Venenum’s vast orchestrations to the straightforward death metal of his previous band, Bloodbath. Everything was on the table, and he didn’t hold back. (Sorry Yngwie!)
Evolution is a big part of Opeth. Has that been a conscious direction from the beginning?
I don’t like repeating ourselves. If I find that I haven’t moved on from the last album, I usually hit the delete button and start over. But the most important thing is that it’s good. It doesn’t have to be completely different than the record before. If it’s superb, I'll keep it in. But I want to move forward, much to the frustration of some fans.
How did you move forward on In Cauda Venenum?
This time, I was very selfish and I’m only thinking about myself and what I wanted to present. There were no other contributions from the other guys in the band. I wanted it to be as close to my personal taste as possible. This is how I want to present Opeth in 2019 and 2020. My goal, I guess, is to become more selfish [laughs]. And I think I achieved the goal.
As I was writing, and as the songs were shaping up, my other goal with this record became to make the most emotional record of them all. I wanted to make a record that was tugging on the heartstrings more than the previous ones.
Take me through your songwriting process.
Once I start writing for a record, I work every day, and I don’t get too stressed out if I don’t come up with anything one day. I move forward quickly. I make decisions very, very quickly. Those decisions can mean that I delete stuff because I don’t want to keep shit. If it’s not good enough, it’s gone, and it’s gone forever. I can never go back and see what I did.
I write when I need to write, more or less. This record was a little bit of a different situation because I was going on a sabbatical. I thought, after the last tour, that I was going to take a break from it all and not be the Opeth guy. Just be me. But I got restless. Three, four weeks into that sabbatical, I was in the studio working. The good thing about that was nobody knew I was there. The management, the record labels, and the band didn’t know. I didn’t let them know until I had three or four songs. I wrote it under a minimum amount of stress or no stress at all. It was joyous. I had a great time to the point where I couldn’t stop writing almost. We ended up with the longest album we ever put out, and three bonus tracks.
The album sounds terrific. Each instrument is very distinct, yet they work together as one. Was that a goal when you were tracking?
We were in Park Studios [in Stockholm] and worked with [engineer] Stefan Boman [Def Leppard, the Hellacopters], who is the same age as me. He’s like me. He’s a vintage buff. I don’t like to fake it in the studio. It was a pretty old-school setup with the exception that we didn’t record onto tape. Everything else is a good old microphone in front of a good instrument, speaker, or acoustic guitar. It’s important to us.
We had a nice Hammond B-3 organ. We had a nice original M400 Mellotron, lots of old guitars, lots of amplifiers, and pedals. We even recorded all the effects on the guitars. They’re not added afterwards. That basically ties in with my fascination to make fast decisions. We get a good sound, that’s it. That’s what we’re going to record and then we can’t change it. I like that.
Even at your heaviest, Opeth’s music always maintains a human, rock ’n’ roll feel. Do you guys track live?
We didn’t track live. We’ve done that before, but then my attention seems to be directed in one way. It’s really hard for me to keep control of what two guys are doing. If I focus on the drums, then I can miss something on the bass. I didn’t want to do that this time, because the music was much more complex. So we did this [album] one instrument at a time.
TIDBIT: Mikael Åkerfeldt wrote the songs for Opeth’s 13th studio album in secret. “The management, the record labels, and the band didn’t know,” he says. “I wrote it under a minimum amount of stress or no stress at all. It was joyous. I had a great time to the point where I couldn’t stop writing almost.”
The guitar tones have an incredible vintage flavor throughout the album. What did you use to get that vibe?
One thing that’s been important for me since [2008’s] Watershed, I would say, is to try and get away from the generic metal tone that’s so popular today. I wanted to hear the human behind the instrument. So for guitars, there was everything from a bunch of Stratocasters to a mid-’60s SG with P-90s. There was also a Les Paul Junior on there with a P-90, and a Jaguar. We played the Jaguar a lot, actually. There’s a Flying V on the first song, “Dignity.” Some PRS models, too. I think a Tremonti was on there and one other guitar I can’t remember. Acoustically, I only used a Martin 000-28, which is my favorite-sounding guitar that I have. It’s not too bassy, not too trebly. It’s perfect for recording.
Amp-wise, we had a Friedman. I can’t remember which model. We had a Swedish amp—an Olsson, which is basically the one that we used for most of the record. We also had a plexi, but I can’t remember if it was used. Then there were a bunch of vintage and new stompboxes.
I’m a sucker for spring reverb, so we used a nice spring reverb that was actually made from a box in the studio. We put that on pretty much everything. I loved it. And analog delay or tape echo. We have it all on there.
I love how you allow your acoustic guitars to breathe. I’m guessing that goes back to your love of ’70s-style production.
I’m very peculiar with my acoustic sound. I know what I want. And it’s got a lot to do with how you sit in front of the microphone. You can change the sound of the guitar if you just turn a little bit. But generally, we put a nice Neumann at the 12th fret. That was it.