Eleven years ago, Swedish death metal band Opeth graced the St. James in Auckland with one of the most powerful, haunting, and majestic shows the historical venue had ever seen.
Picture me, a young metalhead who’d only recently discovered this amazing music extended beyond Iron Maiden and Metallica, about to see her first ever European metal band live and in the flesh. Picture my then-boyfriend, who had just got back into music again after a long hiatus and was vagually wondering if he should pick up the drumsticks he hadn’t touched since he was a teenager.
When we emerged from the pit at the end of the night, sweaty and elated, we were different people.
I came out with a hunger – raw and energising – for this kind of music that reaches into your gut, to the visceral joy of telling stories through music. In the car on the way home, the boyfriend said to me, “I’m going to start drumming again.”
Eleven years later, Opeth return. We are now married. I’m an author. The husband is a drummer. The venue is different. The t-shirt designs are improved. We meet up with friends at Galbraiths across the street and wonder about the setlist, about whether that show we all remember from all those years ago really was as incredible as our now aging brains recollect. We were all different back then. We’d all seen way more shows, been exposed to an infinite number of talented musicians creating moving experiences on stage. Would tonight reaffirm our love of Opeth, or taint it?
The band are a little older. Their sound has evolved. As Mikhael said between songs, “Last time we came here, we were on the brink of the mainstream. Then … we wrote some more music, and we became obscure again.” He refers, of course, to the dramatic shift from death metalesqe epics on their previous albums to the 70s prog-infused jazz of 2011’s Heritage, and the subsequent albums Pale Communion and Sorceress. It was a move that may on the surface appear completely nuts, but is actually perfectly in tune with Opeth’s musical direction.
Despite flying 35 hours to get here and taking the stage with bags under their eyes, Opeth played their way through a stunning soundscape of choice picks from ten albums. Mikael’s statement to the crowd that because the band hadn’t been touring in a few months, their performance “might be a little ropey,” proved completely unfounded.
Highlights for me were “Drapery Falls”, off Blackwater Park, which is my favourite Opeth album, “Sorceress” and “The Wilde Flowers” from Sorceress, an album that seems to me to be the culmination of the ideas brought together from Heritage and Pale Communion, “Ghost of Perdition” (from Ghost Reveries, the first Opeth album I heard – and the album they were touring back when they last came to NZ), and, of course, the incredible 15-minute epic encore performance of “Deliverance.”
The performance was everything I remembered from all those years ago, and so much more. I’ve changed, the music has changed, but the emotional connection has only grown stronger.
Only art, I think, has the power to do this. There are stories you tell yourself over your whole life and no matter where you are or what has happened, they still ring true. They’re still a part of you, part of your narrative. Often we connect music to specific memories – the song we were listening to at this particular time in our life – and so the music itself takes on the guise of nostalgia, even though it isn’t really nostalgia we’re reacting to, but the story, the piece of yourself that’s preserved within that song.
Any kind of art can be a catalyst for change, whether that’s personal change through emotional connection, or grand, sweeping societal changes through a global movement. Art can be both joyous and rebellious, both heartening and desolate, resonant and remote. I like the idea of music, or other forms of art, acting as a touchpoint, reminding you of your purpose, your direction. I love the idea that everyone who went to that concert felt something when they listened to the music beyond just, “Eh, this is cool.” Maybe that’s true, probably it isn’t, but it does make me happier to think it.
Through their music, Opeth have been telling the same stories in different ways since they first started laying down tracks back in 1989. They’re a vital part of my own narrative, even when I don’t listen to them for months or years at a time. Hopefully, when I see their show again in another ten years’ time, it will still have the same impact, and maybe I’ll look back at the person I am now, and the person I’ve become, and see what impact their music had.
There is an excellent actual concert review over on 13th Floor, if you want more than my insane ramblings.
When I’m not blasting Blackwater Park at top volume, I write dark urban fantasy novels. My latest book, Petrified City, first in the new Chronicles of the Wraith series, is out now. Grab your copy from Amazon, or join my mailing list to stay up-to-date with the series.