Live Review: Opeth and Mastodon @ The Orpheum Theatre – May 1st, 2012

It was no coincidence that two of my favourite contemporary metal bands ended up as co-headlining acts on this year’s Heritage Hunter tour and despite their different origins, styles a band history both Opeth and Mastodon are at significant turning points in their sound and in their careers.  In September of last year both bands released albums that were departures from their established sounds and in some ways may have garnered very divided reactions from their once growing and dedicated fan-bases.  Opeth’s Heritage LP, their 10th, is undoubtedly the more noticeable shift in styles as songwriter/vocalist/guitarist Mikael Åkerfeldt’s paean to 70’s progressive rock is devoid of the peppering of death metal growls that have been customary on previous releases.  Mastodon’s Hunter LP, their 5th, while not as distinct a change in style has left a lot of the  progressive  and math-metal tendencies of their earlier outings as well as the unifying concept past albums have aspired to.

The setting and the sound of The Orpheum is tough to match so even for a metal double-bill I was not disappointed at all that this was a seated show.  I arrived in time to realize I was wrong in mistakenly assuming that (oft Boris live collaborator) Michio Kurihara’s Ghost was not opening and rather it was the mysterious and costumed Swedish band Ghost who I knew very little of.  Myself and a pretty mixed demographic of metal fans had taken our seats in the intermission that followed and waited in anticipation of this evening with this pair of metal greats.

Mastodon soon took to the stage to much applause and opened their set with Black Tongue, one of the harder hitting of the new tracks before following up with a pair of even heavier tracks, Hand of Stone and Crystal Skull, from the Blood Mountain LP which was perhaps the high-point thus far in their discography.  A showcase of half a dozen more tracks from The Hunter followed beginning with Dry Bone Valley, one of several newer tracks where drummer Brann Dailor has now assumed responsibility as a third vocalist for the band (leaving guitarist Bill Kelliher as the only silent member).  The somewhat tedious Thickening was followed by the incredibly nimble lead guitar work of Brent Hinds through Octopus Has No Friends on his clear Plexiglas body Flying-V guitar which continued into Blasteroids and Stargasm.  At this point Hinds opted for a silver-burst SG double-neck for the title track from The Hunter and further soloing that convinced me that, despite the song choices, I’ve never seen the band (particularly Hinds) in finer form.  Crack the Skye, another album title track, then followed with bassist Troy Sanders having assumed responsibility for Neurosis’ Scott Kelly’s guested studio vocal parts as well as his own with Dailor backing vocals as well.  The trudging All the Heavy Lifting led into one of The Hunter‘s heaviest tracks Spectrelight (which is also guest sung by Kelly on the album) before Curl of the Burl and Bedazzled Fingernails rounded out the remainder of this showcase of new material.

Research of Mastodon’s previous sets on this tour before this show had made the rest of the night a little predictable but it was still a welcome departure from the new to a pair of Leviathan-era songs as the opening licks of Aqua Dementia made the crowd erupt into a sea of banging heads.  Following with Blood and Thunder evoked an even more animated audience response and I can only hope that these reactions will inspire the band to highlight their more incensed earlier work in future performances.  I was sweaty and coincidentally smiling as Hinds took to a pedal-steel for the atmospheric beginning of  The Hunter closer The Sparrow with the single repeated lyric “pursue happiness with diligence”.  As the lights came up Brann Dailor stepped up from behind the drum-kit to a microphone and graciously thanked the audience while he and the rest of the band bowed and then exited the stage that was soon to be transformed for Opeth’s evening finishing set.

Setlist recap:  Black Tongue, Hand of Stone, Crystal Skull, Dry Bone Valley, Thickening, Octopus Has No Friends, Blasteroids, Stargasm, The Hunter, Crack the Skye, All the Heavy Lifting, Spectrelight, Curl of the Burl, Bedazzled Fingernails, Aqua Dementia, Blood and Thunder, The Sparrow.

The familiar music to which Opeth traditionally take the stage filled The Orpheum and Mikael Åkerfeldt led the Swedish progressive metal quintet out of the shadows to a response of extended applause from this Vancouver audience.  The double time flourishes and organ intro of The Devil’s Orchard began their set and I was immediately struck with the power that this material had when translated into a live performance as Åkerfeldt proclaimed the Nietzschean sentiment “God is dead!” in repetition through the chorus.  Metal drummer extraordinaire Martin Axenrot seemed no less capable with the quick time changes and syncopated fills of the song than he would be with the high speed blast beats of previous more metallic recordings, this was even more apparent with the jazzy I Feel the Dark which followed next.  It must be noted that despite being devoid of death growls, blast beats and crunching distorted gallops that this new Heritage material is certainly no less dark, powerful or technical than older Opeth material and this was perhaps most apparent on the third consecutive Heritage track  Slither that followed next.  Lead guitarist Fredrik Åkesson’s shredding leads weaved between Åkerfeldt’s driving riffage making this Ronnie James Dio inspired song a worthy tribute to their recently departed acquaintance and metal mentor.

As with all Opeth shows, the audience were regaled with Åkerfeldt’s often humorous banter and reflections in between songs and this performance was no different.  Mentions of Sweden’s supposed ice-hockey superiority, Canadian rock bands Rush and April Wine,  and female lovers actually being the inspiration for songs about cities were all dotted throughout the evening generally to a lot of  audience chuckling.  Damnation opener Windowpane would be the first departure from the Heritage material that night being from an album that perhaps foreshadowed this mellower direction for the band nearly a decade ago.  Newest Opeth member and keyboardist Joakim Svalberg then led the band into one of Watershed‘s comparatively slower ballads, Burden, that featured a powerful organ solo and more of his and Åkesson’s vocal harmonies and a long slow double guitar finish (the acoustic guitar outro was omitted in this live format).  The next pair of Heritage songs started with what ended up being this author’s favourite performance of the evening, Lines In My Hand was carried on longtime bassist Martín Méndez’s grooviest ever riff and built to a crescendo by the  absolute awe-inspiring drumming of Axe once again.  Folklore, the longest Heritage piece, would be the final demonstration of new material that evening.

There has been much speculation on which direction Opeth’s live performances would take following Åkerfeldt’s decision to abandon much of their previous heavier styling, particularly the death growls.  As if to quell these doubters the band launched into Demon of the Fall from their much celebrated and revered My Arms, Your Hearse album replete with full guttural demonic roars and containing the fitting line “blink of an eye, you know it’s me”.. and now we did.  To further drive this point home The Grand Conjuration would be the finale for this evening, this last lengthy heavy track on  Ghost Reveries jumped between the atmospheric and the bombast that until recently was synonymous with the band.  The audience would’ve gladly sat through further examples of these vintage tracks but the a strict 10:30pm finish was being adhered and so the band came together and bowed at the front of the stage to bid goodnight to us and ending this fantastic evening.

Setlist recap:  Devil’s Orchard, I Feel the Dark, Slither, Windowpane, Burden, Lines in My Hand, Folklore, Demon of the Fall, The Grand Conjuration.

Having seen both bands a number of times I can confidently say they both played as well as I’ve ever witnessed and while they’re both exploring new sounds with their most recent studio outings this show proved that in a live setting they’re able to breathe much life into these songs.  I think it would be ideal to see these bands tour individually so that they might be allotted more set time to include back catalogue fan favourites but one can never complain when they get a chance to see two metal greats in the same night.

Photos © Jamie Taylor

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