Do you remember where you were when you first heard Metallica’s Enter Sandman, or the self-titled 1991 LP (a.k.a. The Black Album) that produced it?
Mikael Âkerfeldt does. “Somebody played it to me on the same day they played Nirvana’s Nevermind and Alice In Chains’s Facelift and I loved all three records. And I was certainly bummed out at Metallica fans who didn’t like The Black Album. I was, like: How can you not like this stuff? It’s great. It made them one of the biggest bands – not just metal bands, but biggest bands – in the world, and it helped metal because a lot of people got into the metal scene with that record, too.”
Âkerfeldt’s reaction to Metallica’s surprising commercial coup, and its subsequent backlash in the heavy-metal community, is understandable. He’s the leader of Opeth, a respected Swedish heavy-metal band that has seen increasing success with each of its releases since 1995.
The band has risked alienating heavy-metal purists with its 10th album, last year’s Heritage (which sold 19,000 copies in the U.S. in its first week alone), just as Metallica did back in 1991.
Sure, Heritage’s sales numbers are dwarfed by The Black Album’s more than 15 million copies, but Metallica’s massive success came before the age of Internet piracy, and in a different era of rock radio; in 2012, Opeth is winning fans outside of the insular but fiercely loyal metal community.
And the band is not alone. Current tour mates, Atlanta’s Mastodon, released their fifth record, The Hunter, last year – and it has since sold more than 75,000 copies in the U.S.
“Ever since [our]first album,” Âkerfeldt says, “I’ve thought that there are parts of [each]album that anyone can like.” Today, the audiences at Opeth’s concerts reflect that diversity. “There’s all ages, there’s business people, there’s the metal people, there’s the rock people; there are a lot of women coming to our shows, which we love.”
Neither The Hunter nor Heritage could be called easy-listening by any stretch of the imagination; the former is full of eardrum-melting riffs such as the unforgivingly harsh Spectrelight, while the latter balances elegiac piano and acoustic-guitar passages with the hard-driving likes of Slither. And, like Mastodon’s 2009 album, Crack The Skye, Opeth’s Heritage incorporates the sprawling guitar solos and compositionally rich song structures of seventies progressive rock and folk. Âkerfeldt collects both genres on vinyl, a format that he cites as a source of inspiration in itself.
“Vinyl’s not easy, but a lot of people seem to appreciate that,” he says. Early progressive rock and vinyl are a perfect match: Both reward the listener for paying attention, as opposed to today’s endlessly shuffling digital playlists, which require virtually no interaction.
“I like to invest time in listening to music,” Âkerfeldt explains. “It’s my hobby and it’s my work as well. I play only vinyl back home. I have, like, three turntables and thousands of records and I just love it.”
With the Recording Industry Association of America reporting $100-million (U.S.) in vinyl sales last year, according to Business Insider – up more than 30 per cent from 2010 – there’s never been a better time for bands to write songs that suit the LP format. For Opeth and Mastodon, that’s helped widen their audience’s reach, something that makes metal purists deeply unhappy with them.
And although it’s easy to make fun of the self-appointed guardians of “authentic metal,” they deserve some sympathy. To them, a starlet wearing a $300 vintage Judas Priest T-shirt is an affront to the community they’ve built for their fellow freaks. So when a band like Metallica – or Opeth – starts selling records to buyers outside that community, metal fans react like a group of high-school misfits whose leader has just joined the cheerleading squad.
It’s pretty much inconceivable to Âkerfeldt that he would ever turn his back on metal, but the front man admits that he doesn’t connect with some of modern metal’s extremes. “I don’t mind speed when it comes to music, especially if it’s an important part of that type of music. But it can only be so fast before it becomes ridiculous. What’s more important to me these days is the groove. That’s been lost, definitely. I got fed up with it; that’s one of the reasons we did Heritage.”
Some metal fans will never accept a broader sound, but the open-minded rock lovers filtering into Opeth and Mastodon’s fan bases just might make up for the ones who are turning their backs.
Opeth and Mastodon play the Sony Centre in Toronto with Ghost Saturday at 6:30 p.m. During the first week of May, they will perform in Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, Saskatoon and Winnipeg; see opeth.com or mastodonrocks.com for info.