Having released In Cauda Venenum last fall and toured Europe in support of it, Opeth kicked off 2020 with a short run of Nordic shows opened by The Vintage Caravan, concluding in Helsinki at Jäähalli’s Black Box on the 15th of January. Musicalypse took the trip to “Nordis” to see how the new material from the Swedish prog maestros would translate live.
Warming up the ice hall stage for Opeth was the Icelandic power trio The Vintage Caravan. The band’s name says it all really, as its music was rather retro-oriented hard rock. The song “Babylon” reminded me of Kingston Wall, although it may just be that both bands were influenced by Jimi Hendrix and the likes. The song that stood out the most was the dynamic “Innerverse,” which started out as a ballad before turning fast in the middle and then going back to the beginning. As a nice little gesture, the song “Expand Your Mind,” which appropriately kicked off with a drum solo by Stefán Ari Stefánsson, was dedicated to Rush drummer Neil Peart, who had passed away the previous week.
One of the advantages of the trio format was that the threesome had plenty of room to roam on stage, and guitarist/vocalist Óskar Logi Ágústsson in particular was whipping his hair around wildly while shredding away. It was also cool that the whole band sang harmonies and everyone spoke to the crowd at least once, so while Ágústsson was the frontman, this wasn’t just a one-man show. The Vintage Caravan left a good impression on me, and judging by the applauses they received after some of the solo sections, I wasn’t alone with my opinion. They may not have broken a whole lot of new ground musically, but they had a contagious energy, and you could feel their genuine passion for their music. While I’m not as into the 70s revival as I used to be, say, 5 years ago, The Vintage Caravan proved to be one of the leaders of that pack.
The Vintage Caravan setlist:
2. Set Your Sights
5. Expand Your Mind
6. On the Run
7. Midnight Meditation
At 20:00 sharp, the lights went down and “Livets trädgård” started playing over the PA. Opeth shows have usually had “Through Pain to Heaven” by Popol Vuh as the intro music, and while it’s an excellent mood-setter that I’ve grown used to, at the same time it was nice for the band to finally have an intro song of their own. Besides, “Livets trädgård” is directly linked to “Svekets prins” on the album, and therefore it was only natural that this pair opened the show as well. It was a climactic moment when the huge vocal harmony at the beginning of “Svekets prins” finally kicked in, and Mikael Åkerfeldt had the right amount of grit in his rasp vocals at the end of the song.
At the start of the night, the band alternated between new and old, as the evil laughter at the end of “Svekets prins” gave way to keyboardist Joakim Svalberg‘s organ drone, which started the oldest song in the set, “The Leper Affinity” from 2001’s Blackwater Park. The piano ending of that song, in turn, led into the spoken word sample that launched the other pre-release single from In Cauda Venenum, “Hjärtat vet vad handen gör”. Going back and forth like this weaved the songs together nicely and made it clear that the core of the Opeth sound is still intact, even though the death metal elements have been stripped away lately.
While Åkerfeldt was singing well for the most part, I noticed him struggling with the high parts and often resorting to falsetto instead of belting them out, and therefore it didn’t come as a big surprise when he revealed that he had a cold. However, he got a bit of vocal help on the new songs from Svalberg and lead guitarist Fredrik Åkesson, and ironically enough, the snot actually seemed to have the opposite effect on his growls, as they sounded better than at any of my previous Opeth shows. That said, apart from the atmospheric yet crushing “Harlequin Forest,” which is one of my favorites from the band, the biggest highlights for me were clean vocal songs: the jazzy “Nepenthe,” which saw Martin Axenrot playing the drums with brushes, the elegant “Hope Leaves,” and main set closer “Allting tar slut,” which sounded even more massive than on the album.
After “Allting tar slut” the band quietly left the stage while the lights stayed down, before the fivesome returned to play a 2-song encore consisting of “Sorceress” and “Deliverance”; the only repeats from the setlist they had played in 2017 at Finlandia-talo. While some fans are tired of “Deliverance,” and Åkerfeldt jokingly announced it as “a song you’ve heard a million times before,” you can’t help but get excited when the legendary outro kicks in, and it always ends the night on a high note.
Since the show was not seated, I’d wondered beforehand whether this would lead to more energy on the crowd’s part compared to Opeth’s previous shows at Finlandia-talo and Kulttuuritalo, but once again the audience was more intent on mellowly appreciating the music than breaking into a moshpit. Perhaps these days Opeth attracts more introverted progheads than headbangers, or is this just another sign of the metal audiences getting older? Nevertheless, the vibe was good and I didn’t sense any tiredness from the band like last time, when they had flown in from Japan. Åkerfeldt even asked Åkesson how the show was going in his opinion, and the lead guitarist gave his approval with two thumbs up.
As always, Åkerfeldt also entertained the crowd with his deadpan humor, asking whether everyone was having a tipaton [Dry January (no drinking)], calling himself the Ozzy Osbourne of Sweden due to the “Stockholm slur” shining through when speaking in his native language, and poking fun at the negative reception Heritage (2011) got upon its release while introducing “Nepenthe.” Another fun moment was when someone requested “Bleak”, which sparked the band into playing an impromotu unplugged version of the main riff and the first verse of the song. However, there was also a more serious moment towards the end, when Åkerfeldt talked about the death of Neil Peart and paid tribute to him, just like The Vintage Caravan had done earlier, which once again warmed the heart of this Rush fan.
The sound at the Black Box was good to my ears for the most part, although the drum sound could’ve used a little more punch. It was the visual side, however, that grabbed my attention, as this was my first regular Opeth gig (in other words, not counting the 2015 anniversary show) with screens on stage. While the animations weren’t overly intricate, they helped enhance the atmosphere (the only exception being “Deliverance,” as the visuals with the starry sky felt a little underwhelming for such a heavy and dark song). There were also some extra lights on stage that would light up like candles during “Hope Leaves” and the result was beautiful. Another cool element of the band’s presentation was that for most of the show Åkerfeldt was wearing a hat, just like in the promotional photos for In Cauda Venenum.
Opeth is riding high right now, having put out one of last year’s best records, and despite the fact that Åkerfeldt was ill, the band was in a good mood and playing tight. The group has taken a step up in terms of stage production, and the setlist had a balanced selection of songs in a well thought-out order. I’d been bummed out when “The Moor” got axed after the first gig of the European tour, but the show was quite long at over 2 hours already, so now I can see why it was dropped, and even despite it not being included, I was far from disappointed. A great start for the gig year (and decade)!
Intro (Livets trädgård)
1. Svekets prins
2. The Leper Affinity
3. Hjärtat vet vad handen gör
4. Harlequin Forest
6. Moon Above, Sun Below
7. Hope Leaves
8. The Lotus Eater
9. Allting tar slut
Photos: Sami Hinkkanen