23 September 2010
Oh, if only this had come out last week.
I am referring, of course, to Opeth’s career-spanning monolithic boxed set that goes by the title In Live Concert At the Royal Albert Hall. Subtitled Evolution XX – An Opeth Anthology, the 3 CDs and 2 DVDs collected inside the Deep Purple-esque packaging (the entire package is a tender and loving homage to Deep Purple’s Concerto for Group and Orchestra) commemorate 20 years of Opeth music performed live at the prestigious Royal Albert Hall in London.
Now, I want you to take that image in a bit. While the RAH has been used for rock concerts in the past, imagine those hallowed halls of British music…the red velvet, the gold leaf on woodwork…and a Swedish melodic death metal band blast beating their way through a nearly 3-hour set of material, including an opening set of their epochal Blackwater Park in its entirety…5 thousand plus people sitting and standing in rapt attention as Mikael Akerfeldt and company work their way through a 16-track set list that possibly ranks among their most inclusive ever.
The DVDs are where we’ll start.
In this day and age, I know it’s easy to complain that there are no BluRay versions of this coming out. I understand the frustration…BluRay is the current state of the art. That said, the DVDs still look very good. There are occasional bits of over-saturation or darker images, but they don’t overly detract from the performance. The show is split across 2 separate DVDs, so bit rates seem reasonably high (they are dual layer DVDs as well, so the band and label are using as much space as possible). My quibble, as always, will be over the use of excessive fast intercuts. I know why this technique is used, I know it’s supposed to help build tension and excitement and the illusion of being there, but all I know is that when I go to a concert I am not flicking my focus from one thing to another every second and a half. Sometimes longer shots do just as good a job evoking tension and building suspense. There are moments where shots are allowed to develop, and they’re some of my favourite ones on this DVD.
Sound quality on the DVDs also seems very good…I’m only listening in stereo on any of my setups, but the sound is crisp and clear, with plenty of definition on both top and bottom ends, with a full midrange as well. It’s an enjoyable and easy listen…it may sound weird to describe it as relaxing, but I don’t have to work to listen to the performance, and in an era where everything is louder than everything else (there’s another Deep Purple reference for this review), it’s a refreshing thing.
On to the performance itself.
Mikael Akerfeldt is, for my money, one of the top extreme metal vocalists out there today. Hell, for my money, he is one of the most evocative and impressive vocalists in metal today, period. His clean vocals are gorgeous, smoky and fit smoothly between a high baritone and tenor range that is just breathtaking. His death growls are oddly melodic as well…not only is he clear and easy to understand, but he can actually add tone to the growls, allowing him to handle melodic lines in his guttural growl. To my ears, 20 years of doing this have done very little to weaken this voice…it may lack a touch of the strength he showed off back when Blackwater Park was new (and even there I'm not really convinced), but that was nearly 10 years ago. Show me any singer who sounds exactly like they did ten years previous…especially one doing what he does. His guitar playing is as potent as ever as well…heavy handed, crushing riffs, incisive, cutting leads, and tranquil acoustic playing abound throughout.
His foil on guitar is new boy Fredrik Akesson, who replaced founder member Peter Lindgren much to the chagrin of long time fans. Akesson does a great job on both older an dnewer material, and yet I get the odd sensation as I watch him play that I’m seeing a reincarnated Rob Tyner (of MC5 fame) wailing away. No, the resemblance isn’t that strong, but it’s what struck me, and I can’t get it out of my head now. Per Wiberg handles keyboards, having joined the band officially in 2005 (though he does appear on the band’s Lamentations DVD from 2003 as well as a guest musician). His organ and tron parts add so much depth to the band’s sound, transforming them from just another prog/death band to one of the most symphonic. Bassist Martin Mendez partners with newest drummer Martin "Axe" Axenrot, creating the fluid and shifting heart that powers the band through their lengthy and complex metal compositions. Again, I know people bemoaned the loss of drummer Martin Lopez, but Axenrot has shown himself to be the powerhouse that the band needed…while Lopez is missed, Axenrot has more than adequately replaced him.
There are a plethora of highlights throughout the concert…the first DVD, which contains the entire Blackwater Park album, is almost one whole highlight reel. ‘Harvest,’ ‘The Drapery Falls,’ ‘Dirge for November,’ ‘Bleak’…every song is played with intensity and power. If you read my top 10 favourite extreme prog metal albums list last week, you saw me mention this album among my faves, and this concert’s performance only cemented that for me. And I only wish I didn’t live in a ground floor apartment with people around me, because I want to crank the volume up until my walls shake….especially at the end of the title track, where I simply cannot restrain myself enough from screaming along to the closing words. Sick liaisons raised this monumental mark indeed. And if this performance is anything to go by, it’ll be a long time before the sun sets forever over Blackwater Park.
The second disc in this set takes us through a chronological journey through the rest of the band’s CV. Starting with ‘Forest of October’ off Opeth’s Orchid release from 1995, each succeeding track advances one release…
Orchid: Forest of October
My Arms, Your Hearse: April Ethereal
Still Life: The Moor
Damnation: Hope Leaves
Ghost Reveries: Harlequin Forest
Watershed: The Lotus Eater
Can I quibble with track choices? Of course I could. I’d have loved ‘The Night and the Silent Water’ off Morningrise. I wish there was ‘Demon of the Fall’ off My Arms, Your Hearse (and really, 'Demon of the Fall' is a concert closer). ‘The Baying of the Hounds’ might have been cool from Ghost Reveries…but they are quibbles. I cannot and will not say that I don’t like these songs, because let’s face it, I love them. There’s not a bad song in the batch…and watching Mikael Akerfeldt singing solo the opening vocal lines to ‘The Lotus Eater’ is something amazing in and of itself. Thankfully there’s also little editing done here…you get all of his between song banter, including his playful insults to his band mates, the hilarious banter back and forth between him and the audience (especially check out the Michael Jackson bit preceding ‘Wreath’!), and his increased comfort with handling the audience. Akerfeldt’s a hilarious guy, and I’d almost pay to see him just stand on stage and talk.
2 extras fill out the DVDs. On the first disc we get a 40 minute interview with the band, while DVD 2 is concluded by a 45 minute documentary of the band on tour leading up to, and including this performance at the RAH. Both are enjoyable for a viewing or so, but neither are essential. Honestly, you’re buying this for the biggest, fullest, most impressive concert Opeth has committed to DVD and CD to date, and anything will be a bit of a letdown after that.
The 3 CD audio set contains just the concert performance. Again, the first CD covers the Blackwater Park album in its entirety, while CD 2 and 3 split the remaining 8 tracks across them. Sound quality remains very good throughout…but these discs proved that I do need to replace speakers in my car, as I was hearing some crackles that seemed overly concerning until I got home and popped the discs in my CD player. I love the disc design as well…I am betting they are printed to exactly (as possible) replicate the LP labels from the old Deep Purple album Concerto for Group and Orchestra as well…maybe someone out there who has both this release and the Deep Purple album can verify this for me. Frustratingly however, the audio is only available as part of the 5 disc boxed set (very similar to how Roadrunner released Dream Theater’s Chaos in Motion DVD set…there was a special edition of 2 DVDs and 3 CDs that was likely packaged just like this)…so if you just want the music, you still have to buy the DVDs. I can see this being very frustrating, but at least the set is reasonably priced for a 5 disc boxed set, so hopefully it’s not too much of a consternation for people.
(Having said that, I’ll add that the Dream Theater special edition of Chaos in Motion…the 2 DVD, 3 CD version that is…was limited to only 5,000 copies. Thankfully, it seems the special edition for Opeth is an unlimited release, with a special vinyl/DVD set as the true limited edition)
Is this the Opeth album to buy if you’re not at all familiar with the band? I’m not sure…I think I’d lean toward the safe Damnation (which won’t at all prepare you for what the band really does) or the not as safe but pretty damned diverse Watershed (represented on In Live Concert by the magnificent ‘The Lotus Eater’). With that said…live a little. Take the risk. Free your mind, and pick up In Live Concert. I promise it won’t bite…much.
DVD Observation One
1. "The Leper Affinity"
4. "The Drapery Falls"
5. "Dirge for November"
6. "The Funeral Portrait"
7. "Patterns in the Ivy"
8. "Blackwater Park"
DVD Observation Two
1. "Forest of October" (Orchid)
2. "Advent" (Morningrise)
3. "April Ethereal" (My Arms, Your Hearse)
4. "The Moor" (Still Life)
5. "Wreath" (Deliverance)
6. "Hope Leaves" (Damnation)
7. "Harlequin Forest" (Ghost Reveries)
8. "The Lotus Eater" (Watershed)
9. Documentary: On Tour With Opeth
CD Tracklist Disc 1
1. "The Leper Affinity" - 10:07
2. "Bleak" - 8:53
3. "Harvest" - 6:10
4. "The Drapery Falls" - 10:07
5. "Dirge for November" - 8:28
6. "The Funeral Portrait" - 8:21
7. "Patterns in the Ivy" - 2:24
8. "Blackwater Park" - 12:32
CD Tracklist Disc 2
1. "Forest of October" - 17:12
2. "Advent" - 15:03
3. "April Ethereal" - 10:22
4. "The Moor" - 12:12
CD Tracklist Disc 3
1. "Wreath" - 12:24
2. "Hope Leaves" - 6:48
3. "Harlequin Forest" - 13:11
4. "The Lotus Eater" - 11:09
Mikael Åkerfeldt − guitar, vocals, mixing, direction
Fredrik Åkesson — guitars, backing vocals
Martín Mendez − bass guitar
Per Wiberg − keyboards, backing vocals
Martin "Axe" Axenrot – drums
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