Opeth Prolongs “Heritage” in San Antonio with Mastodon and Ghost
Band Photo: Opeth (?)
Opeth returned to central Texas for the second time since releasing “Heritage” in the fall of 2011. Prog/tech masters Mastodon and mysterious, occult metallers Ghost supported the Swedish troupe. This performance at San Antonio’s Backstage Live marked my first Opeth concert in nine years. The group has undergone many changes since then—changes of style, personnel and label—but coming into this show I had an overwhelming since of continuation, perhaps a sequel.
“Heritage” is the first Opeth album since “Damnation” comprised entirely of clean vocals. It’s still a heavy album, as was “Damnation,” but without Mikael Åkerfeldt’s bestial roar, Opeth doesn’t climb as high into the emotional stratosphere. Their showcasing of this material led to a performance focused more on melody than ferocity. Some of the buzz around the Internet gave the impression that the band were to play a snoozer. One person even likened their performance to a Lionel Richie show. A similar backlash occurred at the 2003 show with Porcupine Tree. Opeth played the entire “Damnation” album that night and didn’t include a single growled note.
In a Metal Underground interview before the show, drummer Martin Axenrot said the evening would contain some death metal, so it wasn’t quite the prog-only exhibition of 2003. It was a fairly chilled out evening, though. Although Mastodon only occasionally accosted the crowd with hard rock fury, guitar and vocal harmonies induced swaying sing a-longs rather than pits and head banging from the crowd.
Opener Ghost doesn’t play at breakneck tempos that rouse aggression. Their classic heavy metal riffs were massive, though. Members of the crowd engrossed their selves in these odes to Mercyful Fate, playing imaginary notes in the air or moving their heads in time with each infectious rhythm. Others stood enthralled by Ghost’s satanic appearance. Singer Papa Emeritus I, the only named member of the group, conveyed an especially ghastly facade. Bathed in shades of red, blue and green stage lights, the zombie pope’s makeup blurred just enough that his face resembled the aliens in the movie “They Live.”
Emertisus didn’t just look the part; he treated the crowd as if it were attending a satanic church. Eerie organ culled from “Opus Eponymous” intro “Deus Culpa” as the band started their procession to the stage. He swung a thurible, cleaning the air with incense. Smoke curled from the end of sweet smelling sticks of incense throughout the stage. They had created the perfect mood for devil worship.
Emeritus praised the horned god through words such as “Hear our Satan prayer/Our anti Nicene creed” (“Satan Prayer”) and “Tonight we summoned for His unholy fiend/Now celebrate/The End” (“Ritual”). A personal favorite was their homage to the blood thirsty Elizabeth Bathory, which they pronounce “e-lie-za-beth.” I believe Ghost played the entire “Opus Eponymous” album, which we’ll probably never see again when more releases arrive. Whatever number they played, the crowd loudly responded.
Mastodon took the stage next. Most of their set featured slower, vocal-driven material from their last couple of albums. While oscillating white beams of light created a spectacular visual, the exclusion of groove and up-tempo tracks couldn’t keep my attention. The packed crowd gave the group hardy welcomes, but a difference of enthusiasm was clearly noticeable when they played heavy tracks such as the super catchy “Blood and Thunder.” If I were familiar with their new material, I might have enjoyed these songs, but their set was mostly a let down.
Opeth related a similar, soft mood, but their dynamic song writing and irresistible melodies totally cured my boredom. The group played a set mostly of new classics such as “The Devil’s Orchard” and “Burden.” Although they didn’t play raging songs, the crowd vigorously responded to their vocal harmonies and melodic changes. For example, a solo during “Windowpane” produced a raucous roar. Opeth saved their heaviest songs for last. “Demon of the Fall” marked a rare showing of pre-Roadrunner material, while “The Grand Conjuration” saw the group adding onto the evil that Ghost exuded earlier in the show.
Mikael Åkerfeldt showed his experience as a front man. His in-between-song banter helped the crowd get involved with the show. Most of the songs were slow, so he often introduced them by saying, “this is not a beer-drinking song.” He introduced “Slither” by saying it was a song he wrote in tribute to Ronnie James Dio, paying homage to his time in Rainbow.
Opeth’s ability to fill a thousand-plus-capacity venue was testament to their worth in the States. They really deserve a much bigger venue, which was evidenced by their using every inch of the stage. Keyboards took up the far left of the stage and the drums were unusually placed in the back right. Opeth’s sound and stage presence would fit well in a large arena. Even though I would have preferred a better mix of light and heavy songs, the group delivered an excellent performance.
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