An amazing exploration of musicianship and mood
As death metal bands go, Opeth is something of an anomaly. Even their most devoted fans would call them more "progressive" than morbidly obsessed. And they have always been willing to explore other musical arenas as part of their creative process. As they take the stage at Shepherd's Bush Empire for their 2003 concert, they announce their schizophrenic intentions right off the bat. They plan on playing two sets, and the majority of set one will be taken from their most recent album, Damnation. Now, this is nothing new for a touring band. Most with new product to push will frontload their shows with unfamiliar numbers, reserving their "hits" for later on in the performance. But in Opeth's case, this dive into their latest release has its risks. It's the first time in the band's 14-year history that they have ever created a lyrical acoustic album, full of intense slow jamming and beautiful, almost madrigal-like singing. For an audience filled with professional headbangers, waiting to get their rock and rolls off with their favorite brand of brazen electrical cacophony, this is a risk of monumental proportions. So it makes sense that Opeth would record this experiment (both visually and sonically) for posterity. It would be a chance to see how well their temporary change in direction was accepted. And the answer is simple. The bifurcated nature of the concert is the best of both worlds, a chance for newcomers (this critic included) to gradually get into the band through their more muted initial performances while indulging all the dire desires of the dead metal heads in Act 2. This is the purpose behind Opeth: Lamentations—Live at Shepherd's Bush Empire 2003 and why it is, ultimately, a fantastic and fascinating concert.
Many people are aware that, back in the 80s and 90s, one of the hardest, most melodic acts ever to come crawling out of the Minnesota post-punk scene was Hüsker Dü. Fronted by Bob Mould, this talented trio—along with drummer/vocalist/songwriter Grant Hart and bassist Greg Norton—cranked out some of the most high-powered hardcore mixed with intense song craft ever conceived, to create timeless tunes that acted as the blueprint for alternative rock for the next two decades. When they broke up, Mould went on to an equally evocative solo career and another brief stint as band mate in Sugar. For years it seemed this talented tunesmith would continue to carry the torch for genuinely genius grunge guitar pop. Well, it's 2004 and Mould is into electronica. Really into electronica. As a matter of fact, he has forgone the amazing musical metal he used to produce to simply focus on drum and bass beats. Imagine then going to a Mould show unaware of this new direction and expecting to hear "New Day Rising," "These Important Years," "Believe What You're Saying," or any other of his solo/Hüsker hits and instead, you are bombarded with 20-minute synthesizer loops. That's what it must have felt like for fans of the shriek and slash of Swedish death metal band Opeth when they cracked open a copy of 2003's Damnation or walked into Shepherd's Bush Empire to hear them live. Instead of Satanic shouts, bone-rattling guitars, and machine-gun bass drums, this new inception of the band begins its show with a Light set, intricate works based on complex, subdued melody lines, and slow jam riffs. All most in the crowd want to do is bang their head. But Opeth is asking them to pay attention first. How novel.
Indeed, it is this novelty that makes Opeth: Lamentations—Live at Shepherd's Bush Empire 2003 so compelling. This Nordic quartet (along with a road keyboardist) are exceptional musicians, able to handle both the timid and the thunderous with equal ability. The amazing thing about this band is that, in either of their modes, they are complex crafters of music. They don't write songs so much as create mini manic symphonies, heavy metal thrash epics that last for upwards of 10 or more minutes. These complex, multi-structured and -layered puzzles have movements, repeating themes, underlying drama, and true unbridled energy, and when you listen to them, you could almost confuse the band for ELP or Yes on steroids. Mostly the brainchild of lead singer/guitarist Mikael Åkerfeldt, who provides the canvases onto which the rest of the band practice their instrumental magic, you can hardly consider the canon of Opeth to be filled with toe-tappers. But if you can get past the monotone growl vocalizing, the intricate complexity and speed of the lead lines, and really follow the formula offered, you'll discover a musically diverse and incredibly entertaining sound filled with substance. As an expression of all their music, this concert DVD is amazing. Opeth sounds studio quality perfect here, mixing moods and mayhem to sell the audience on both their bombasts and their neo-acoustic material. And for the most part, everyone buys into it completely. Most of the more muted moments here are just as intense and "heavy" as the full-amped anarchy that comes in Set Two. Together, both parts paint a complete portrait of this talented band of low-key Laplanders.
As a visual concert, director Joe Dyer does an amazing job with the intimate setting and limited camera angles. He really creates an atmosphere for each song, selecting brilliantly framed images and meaningful close-ups to sell the performance. As a band, Opeth are all work and very little interplay with the crowd. When he does speak to them, Åkerfeldt uses a laidback, matter-of-fact approach (with the occasional inclusion of the "F" word to show his rock and roll-ness) to communicate his appreciation. You get the impression that he would rather let the music do the talking. Luckily, Opeth's sonic sayings are wonderfully articulate. Even for a non-fan, this is a fantastic performance experience and while the latter half's strum and drang takes some getting used to, you will find yourself as disappointed as the fans when this enigmatic band leaves the stage. While its depth and breadth is remarkable, it's the instrumental skill that is most astounding about Opeth, something you get to see more of in the equally extraordinary bonus featurette on the making of the Deliverance and Damnation albums. Originally conceived as a light and dark contrasting double album, this step-by-step breakdown on how the music was made for both the heavy (Deliverance) and hummable (Damnation) really gives us a chance to get to know the band. Oddly, it may be worth a newbie's time to saddle up with this one-hour special first, before tackling the concert. It will help them learn some more about the players, their work habits, and the pitfalls they faced in creating these albums. It also exposes how, together, they share an ultimate joy in merely making their music. Paired up with the Shepherd's Bush show, this DVD is an example of how every fringe act should handle their digital demonstrations.
Visually, Opeth: Lamentations—Live at Shepherd's Bush Empire 2003 is outstanding. The video image is high definition intricate and anamorphic, allowing a real sensation of participation for the home theater crowd. As stated before, this is an occasionally brilliant movie to look at and the 1.85:1 framing ratio is preserved to capture director Dyer's imaginative compositions. But all true music fans care about is the sound, and Opeth's DVD delivers a dynamic aural output. While the Dolby Digital Stereo sounds good, crank up your speakers for a little 5.1 in-concert recreation and simply let the amazing musical numbers envelop you. The speakers get a real workout, and, while not available to this critic, the DTS must be equally impressive. Along with the documentary and an enclosed pamphlet with information and an essay on the band, this is a great musical package for the fan or the first timer. Opeth may have made their name worshipping darkness and shouting their sad songs of gloom and doom at the Devil, but when they finally walked out into the light, they became something completely different. They went from a cult novelty to an undeniably expert musical entity. They deserve a place alongside the other skilled instrumental groups of the ages. They no longer need to lament. They are accepted.
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