Opeth’s Sorceress tour didn’t reach Finland last year, although mainman Mikael Åkerfeldt had said they would come to Helsinki. Luckily this year, the Swedish progsters made up for it by announcing a show at Finlandia-talo – yet another addition to the list of prestigious venues in the band’s touring history. They were joined by Hexvessel, the Finnish-English psychedelic folk rock group. Musicalypse was present on October 16th to see how the two bands’ music would come alive in an all-seated venue.
Starting back in 2014, I’ve seen Opeth once a year up until now, so I was happy to continue the tradition. This was also a good reason to visit Finlandia-talo for the first time – Apocalyptica had played there before, but they’re in a bubble of their own due to the use of cellos, so Opeth would be the first metal band with guitars to play at the concert hall. Having admired Alvar Aalto’s architecture for a bit, we went in and started waiting for the first band of the night.
Hexvessel is one of the numerous groups that I’ve heard of but never actually listened to. I had reviewed the latest album by Grave Pleasures, frontman Mat McNerney’s other band, but obviously Hexvessel is a totally different beast. While Hexvessel’s songs sounded interesting, their 30-minute set flew by so quickly that it felt like it was over before it had even begun properly and left very little room for natural interaction between the band and the audience, so it was hard to judge their music fairly based on this show alone. Besides, the lighting was very static and minimalistic, and they were plagued by the bad sound – the PA volume was so low that the acoustic sound of the drums bled through and covered up the rest of the instruments in a distracting way. I had heard criticism for Finlandia-talo’s acoustics before, but I had no idea that a band could sound that bad in the concert hall. However, from what I could make out, the songs were nicely varied with both atmospheric and rocking moments, and McNerney’s Robert Smith [The Cure]-like voice worked surprisingly smoothly with this kind of music. “When I’m Dead” in particular was a smart pick to close the set with, as it was very immediate and catchy. I’ll have to check out some of Hexvessel’s studio material to get a better idea of what their music is like when half the mix doesn’t consist of the drums alone.
1. Transparent Eyeball
2. Teeth of the Mountain
3. Cosmic Truth
4. Hunter’s Prayer
6. When I’m Dead
Although Opeth’s lineup and music have changed over the years, the one constant fixture in the band’s live shows is the intro, “Through Pain to Heaven”, by Popol Vuh. At 20:00, the familiar music started playing and the audience was greeted by bassist Martin Mendez, drummer Martin “Axe” Axenrot, and keyboardist Joakim Svalberg, who launched into the title-track of Sorceress. They were soon joined by the guitar tandem of Mikael Åkerfeldt and Fredrik Åkesson, who started the chugging the heavy main riff. The song sounded crushing just like on the album, although Åkerfeldt held back a little vocally and didn’t go all out with raspy singing. An extended spooky sound effect break, which allowed time for a guitar change, led into “Ghost of Perdition.” I was happy to hear it again, having missed the first half of the song while queuing to the cloakroom and finding my seat at Kulttuuritalo 2 years ago. Svalberg’s backing vocals were on point and Axenrot’s drumming was relentless, although the quiet volume of Åkerfeldt’s microphone made it a little hard to make out his growls, which were quite probably the first ever uttered on the Finlandia-talo stage.
The classic “Demon of the Fall” – a song that had been, “written in a hostel in the anus of Sweden: Gothenburg” according to Åkerfeldt – sounded considerably better than at last year’s Monsters of Rock event due to the better mix, but it was performed slightly routinely. Maybe Åkerfeldt’s joke about the song being “a bit dull to be honest” was a Freudian slip with an ounce of truth to it, and it might be a good idea to retire it for a few years. “The Wilde Flowers” from the latest album, on the other hand, sounded tight and energetic, and Åkesson’s fierce solo and the quiet yet uneasy buildup to the explosive conclusion made it the best song of the night. The contemplative “In My Time of Need” offered a nice little respite, and Svalberg’s Rhodes solo sounded great in place of the slide guitar bit of the studio version. “Cusp of Eternity” brought the energy levels up again, and it’s become a setlist staple for a reason, as it is uptempo and quite catchy. It transitioned directly into the brutal “Heir Apparent”, another song from last year’s poor-sounding Monsters of Rock show that I got a second chance to hear indoors. Åkesson looked like a true rock god while shredding with his foot on the monitor, and the melodic outro was glorious.
Next up was a bit of musical humor, as Åkerfeldt introduced a cover of “You Suffer” by Napalm Death, the world’s shortest song. After it had been played, someone shouted: “Play it again!” Åkerfeldt’s response was, “why not?” and hence the burst of grindcore graced the concert hall for a second round. The genre exploration continued with the ‘cock rock’ tune, “Era”, from the latest album, which was a last-minute addition to the setlist that the band had rehearsed in the soundcheck. I doubt the average listener noticed that though, as it was performed with precision, and Axenrot in particular was on fire, pounding his drums like a madman. As a response to some audience requests, Åkerfeldt teased the audience with snippets of “Paranoid” [Black Sabbath] and “Black Rose Immortal”, as well as “Harvest”, before “The Drapery Falls” closed the main set beautifully. Finally the rhythmic riffage of the traditional encore song, “Deliverance”, sent everyone home with a blast of heaviness.
I was a little worried about Opeth’s live mix beforehand due to Hexvessel’s poor sound, but in the end they sounded alright, although the vocals were a little low at first. The light show was elaborate, and the patterns reflected onto the walls during “Demon of the Fall” in particular looked cool. Unfortunately, the combination of a Monday evening, a Finnish crowd, and seated venue sucked out all the potential energy on the audience’s part, although the concert hall was almost full of people. The absolute lack of clapping and cheering during “Sorceress”, even in the most quiet moments, was a little awkward, and even later on there were points where Åkesson had to try and encourage people to clap. Before “In My Time of Need”, Åkerfeldt announced that at one point he would stop singing and let the audience take over, but despite this the singalong ended up being very subdued. Luckily the applause became more enthusiastic as the show went on and people became at least a bit more engaged, although you could never see more than a handful of fans banging their heads or raising their fists. Åkerfeldt’s various jokes and stories in between the songs resulted in a lot of laughter and broke the ice as well: after his traditional boasting about Sweden being a superior hockey country, he admitted that he can’t even skate himself, and that the high point of his sports career as a child was getting a package of banana ice cream for being the most valuable player as the goalkeeper in his football team. He also told the fans about the sorry story of “The Drapery Falls” CD single with a 5-minute edit that Opeth’s American label at the time pushed to get released, despite his skepticism about the song’s radio-friendliness.
Progressive metal isn’t the kind of music you get to hear at Finlandia-talo too often, so Opeth’s show was certainly a one-of-a-kind experience. Too bad the environment ended up being a little too sterile in terms of audience participation – Kulttuuritalo 2 years ago was better in this regard due to the fact that the whole venue wasn’t seated. Although the band played well and tried their best, the lack of response must’ve eaten away some of their enthusiasm. Additionally, Åkerfeldt admitted that he was a little tired, having just played in Japan 2 days earlier, and I think this showed a bit in his performance. While the show was a good experience musically, I hope next time Opeth will play at a club(s) again – my first Opeth gig at Pakkahuone, Tampere in 2014 remains my favorite, because both the crowd and the band were in a great mood, and there was lots of energy in form of mosh pits and headbanging. Maybe the sabbatical Åkerfeldt has talked about and a bit of a setlist shake-up would also help, as the guys in the band clearly have the most fun playing the newer stuff. Nevertheless, Opeth’s shows are always worth attending for the great musicianship and Åkerfeldt’s comedy alone.
2. Ghost of Perdition
3. Demon of the Fall
4. The Wilde Flowers
5. In My Time of Need
6. Cusp of Eternity
7. Heir Apparent
8. You Suffer (Napalm Death cover)
9. You Suffer (Napalm Death cover)
11. The Drapery Falls
Photos: Charlotta Rajala