What happens when you take progressive death metal and you strip away the death metal? You get ‘Heritage,’ the stunning 10th album from Opeth. On the new record, which was released on September 13 in the US via Roadrunner Records, band leader Mikael Åkerfeldt and company ditch the growls and double bass firestorms that made them famous in favor of layers of vintage keyboards, shimmering acoustic guitar lines, and jazz fusion-esque drumming. The band’s newfound atmospherics cast the perfect backdrop for Åkerfeldt’s typically unsettling tales of the occult. ‘Heritage’ has unlocked a treasure trove of stylistic possibilities for the Swedish metal masters.
Rock Edition recently had an opportunity to chat on the phone with guitarist Fredrik Åkesson, who joined Opeth in 2007 after a brief touring stint with Arch Enemy. Head below to check out what he had to say about working on ‘Heritage,’ touring North America with Katatonia, and his favorite gear.
How has your North American tour with Katatonia been?
Great. The reception’s been really cool.
What are the setlists looking like?
Well, we don’t mix it up too much. We go through the setlist and change one song here and there. Maybe we add one, here and there. We play the kind of acoustic stuff in the middle, which works great, actually.
Are you playing any of your older stuff, or is it mostly new material?
We play “Credence” sometimes. We play “Patterns in the Ivy II.” We try to pick songs from every album, but it’s kind of difficult.
What are your favorite songs to play live?
On that set, I really like to play the new song, “Slither”; it’s really fun. It’s more of a Rainbow kind of song. It’s also a tribute to Ronnie James Dio. That’s really fun to play. I really love playing all the new tracks.
Has it been challenging to adapt the songs on ‘Heritage’ to live settings?
The new songs work out really well live. They’re a bit more delicate to play because we have to use more of a lead pickup kind of sound on the guitars. I think we have a slightly more heavy guitar sound live. Some of the most delicate parts are the most difficult ones for me, not necessarily because they are difficult to play, but they’re sensitive. If you hit one note too hard, you can destroy the part.
Do you guys use acoustic guitars live, or do you just use a clean electric guitar setting for those parts?
We use acoustics. We have a Nashville tuning six-string; we have a twelve-string; we have a regular six string.
Cool. You guys also played at many festivals this summer. What do you think was your best appearance?
Our best gig at the festivals? I think we played at Hellfest right after Ozzy Osbourne. That was a really good show; we had a lot of people. In France — that was a cool show.
It must have been awesome to play right after Ozzy.
Well, it’s not every day you have Judas Priest, and then Ozzy Osbourne, and then we play. [laughs]
For sure, that’s a dream lineup! You’ve been in Opeth for a while now, but how would you compare being in the band to playing in Arch Enemy?
Well, Opeth demands more of you as a guitar player, different areas of guitar playing. You have the heavy riffs; you have the lead work; you have the acoustic work; you have the more mellow stuff. It’s a more broad type of playing, with Opeth. Arch Enemy was a great experience, absolutely, I had a great time, but Opeth is more challenging in a way. Also, I’ve been playing with Opeth for a longer time on the albums. With Arch Enemy, I only toured with them, so I never really got into that band.
So you’re saying you’re much more emotionally invested in Opeth than you were with Arch Enemy.
Yeah. When I played with Arch, Chris [Amott, Arch Enemy guitarist] wanted to come back to the band since the beginning. It was cool. For a couple months I didn’t know what to do, but Mikael [guitarist and vocalist] gave me a call and asked me to join Opeth. I was a huge fan of the band before, and I knew the guys because we’d been on the road together, but for me it was like a big “Yes!”
Nice. How would you say the overall band dynamic has changed since you joined Opeth?
I would say we’re a really tight unit right now. I think we play really good together. We’ve been doing so many shows. I think we’re a well-oiled machine.
Was it tough for you when you first joined the band?
Yeah. In a way it’s easier for me to understand Mike’s ideas than it was in the beginning — like the fingerpicking acoustic stuff and all that. Now, I’ve been with the band for more than four and a half years. It feels really good.
Would you say that being in Opeth has improved your guitar playing?
Yeah, I would say so because it brings out sides to my guitar playing that I wouldn’t have brought out otherwise. Mike is good at that. He wants to explore different areas — not just the shreddy type of stuff. I guess we just try to play something [that will] suit the songs, instead of showing off.
Not just you two getting involved in a shred contest.
Exactly. Play something that connects with the song. That’s what we’re trying to do, at least.
Did you ever do any acoustic fingerpicking stuff before joining Opeth?
Yeah, of course. Absolutely, but Mikael has his own signature style. His time signatures are a bit different than other people’s, how they write. It took me some time to get into his way of thinking, in terms of licks and stuff like that. But I really played fingerpicking stuff before that. I learned some country stuff before, when I was a kid. I had the technique down, but Mike has his own kind of acoustic technique. He’s not like a classical player. He mainly strums on his index finger and… his other finger, you know? [laughs] I don’t remember the English word for it. So I kind of needed to go into that technique because he has a very smooth technique when he plays those fingerpicking parts. I definitely had to put some practice into that. But I feel like I’m way better on that now. On this album, I play a lot of the parts, since Mikael is focusing on the singing more.
So did you record most of the acoustic guitars on ‘Heritage’?
That was mainly Mikael. I recorded the acoustic guitars for the song “Pyre.” We co-wrote that together, the bonus track, but on the album, Mike did most of the acoustics.
What’s it like having Joakim Svalberg [keyboardist] in the band now?
It’s great! He’s been doing a really good job. We brought out a bunch of keyboards on this tour. He has a Hammond, a Leslie, two Mellotrons — the digital ones; they’re kind of big — a real Moog. He’s very ambitious. He’s sort of picky with his sounds and wants to get everything right. He also sings very good. Per [Wiberg, former keyboardist] used to sing a lot; [Svalberg] can sing upper harmonies with Mikael. I do some singing, too, so we do some three part harmonies, as well.
That’s really cool. What songs do you use those on?
We do it a little bit on “Porcelain Heart” and also “A Fair Judgement” — it’s three part harmonies on that one. It’s definitely something the band could develop in the future, to do some cool stuff with that.
Yeah, definitely. I think that would open up a lot of avenues for you guys.
Yeah. We could do some really powerful stuff with that, I think.
Let’s talk a bit about the new album. How would you compare the writing and recording of ‘Watershed’ (2008) and ‘Heritage’?
Well, it was a completely different studio. We recorded with Janne Hansson, who owns this studio in Stockholm called Atlantis. It’s been around since 1960 and pretty much kept in the same [condition] since then. It was really cool. [Janne’s] a nice older man. Sometimes, when we wanted to do a new take, he took some extra time. He got to be a bit annoyed at first, but then he’d say, “Oh, that’s pretty good.” He’d collect energy to do each take.
Also, we didn’t use any sound replacement on this album for the drums. No editing. We wanted the drums to sound like real drums. We did mic it up in the mic room with nice mics and preamps and all that. We spent a lot of time tuning the drums and switching cymbals. In one track, “Nepenthe,” Axe [Martin Axenrot, drummer] uses two different drum kits. So that’s kind of cool. We used real Hammonds, real grand pianos — it was all real. The studio also has this echo chamber, which is a room [that gives you] full-on natural reverb. So that was cool compared to ‘Watershed,’ where we did use triggers and stuff for the drums. This was more of an old-school recording compared to ‘Watershed.’
I’ve heard you talk about that echo chamber in other interviews. Did you use it for all of the reverb on ‘Heritage’?
Not all the reverb. Steve Wilson [Porcupine Tree guitarist and vocalist] mixed the album and added some of it for some things. But if there’s a clean guitar melody or the vocals, we used that quite a lot… It was really good on semi-clean, semi-distorted guitars and vocals.
I know that Mikael writes most of the material for the band, but were you included in that process this time around?
He likes to do it really well and then present it to us. But what I did, I went over to his house and laid down a bunch of solos. We usually do that, and we worked together on the song called “Pyre.” So we recorded some stuff, and then Mikael kind of arranged it a bit on his own afterward. But me and Mendez [Martin Mendez, bassist] recorded a bunch of ideas at my house for the new one, but they were a bit more in the older Opeth sound.
You mean it was a lot heavier?
Yeah, some of the stuff was quite heavy. But some was spacey too, actually. “Pyre” was the one that Mikael liked, so far. But there’s some really cool stuff that’s lying around that me and Mendez worked on.
Do you think any of that material will resurface on a later Opeth album?
You never know, really. I haven’t listened to it much since we were working on it, but there’s definitely some cool stuff. We’ll see what happens. After what we’ve done, we don’t know what the next album’s going to sound like. I guess we like to be a bit unpredictable in a way.
Sweet. How did you and Mikael split the lead guitar work on the record?
Well, Mikael played the more mellow solos, mostly the very sensitive, left-on-their-own type of things. He wanted me to play the more — how would you say — lead leads, or the more distorted leads.
I see. So is that Mikael playing that sort of quiet guitar solo at the end of “Häxprocess”?
Let’s see now. “Häxprocess”? That’s Mikael playing that solo. It has some weird tones in it. That psychedelic type of solo, you mean that one?
Yeah, that’s Mikael.
Cool, I dig that one. Were you inspired by any guitarists in particular while recording ‘Heritage’?
Yeah, a bit. I was a bit inspired by Jeff Beck because I got to see him live right before we started recording. There’s one solo that’s a bit inspired by him on the song “Nepenthe,” that fusion, kind of Allan Holdsworth, early Van Halen [thing]. I wasn’t really exploring any new techniques or anything like that. Basically what I did, I went to Mike’s house and improvised a few solos, and then I had to learn them sometime [later]. I was like, “What the hell did I do there? I don’t know.” [laughs]
So you kind of approached the process a little backwards?
I learned the solos from the demos, then I kind of changed them up a little bit. That’s the weird thing [about] doing demos. You get used to the solo or whatever, and then when you’re doing the album, you’re like, “Fuck! Should I do something new?”
When did you guys record those demos?
We were pretty much done one month before we entered the studio.
You must’ve had a lot of time to get really familiar with the songs, then.
Yeah, absolutely. We actually never rehearsed as a band before the [recording of the] album. Me and Mikael played a lot at his house, guitars. Axe and Mendez rehearsed a lot together because they did the drums and bass live. Initially, we wanted to record everything live, but when we have to switch between electric and acoustic, it gets complicated in the studio, so we figured we’d do the bass and drums live. That worked great. We spent a lot of time getting the magic takes between them two. Instead of cutting and fixing, we wanted to have pure takes from the beginning to the end, which was really cool.
The amount of open space and silence on ‘Heritage’ really stands out. Was it ever difficult for you to play in a more restrained fashion?
No, not really. Me and Mikael did all of the heavier rhythms in one day. So we went really fast. It went very smooth, actually. I think we knew our parts very good before we entered the studio.
I bet that month between making the demos and recording really paid off.
Yeah, exactly. We always try to be well prepared because it’s an expensive studio, and we want to have the time to fiddle around with the solos. Some of the solos are left for the recordings, and it’s nice to have some time to jam around and see what happens.
As you were saying earlier, “Slither” is a tribute to Ronnie James Dio. Did you guys write the song with him in mind, or did you draw the connection once the song was completed?
Well, I think it started [when] Mike had a riff which sounded a lot like a lost early Rainbow song. It started off a bit like a gimmick thing. First it was called “Kill the Queen,” like “Kill the King,” the old Rainbow classic. But after a while, since Ronnie died — we’re all massive fans of him, and we also met him a couple times — Mikael thought that this could be a nice tribute to Ronnie because it doesn’t really sound like an Opeth track, but in sequence of the album, I think it fits in good.
Well, I think it’s quite a worthy tribute to him. It’s an awesome song.
I think it’s a good tribute, to have the actual song on the album as a tribute song instead of doing it as something on the side.
What’s your favorite song on the album?
I like “Häxprocess”; it’s fun. And “Famine” is cool because we had Alex Acuña come in and play percussion. We had this flute player called Björn J:son Lindh who used to write orchestrations for ABBA and was in some ’70s prog stuff in Sweden. It was really cool. But I like them all because I think each one is very different on the album; none are alike.
In the booklet that comes with the CD, there’s a very striking picture of Mikael playing next to eleven guitars. Did all of you significantly expand your arsenal of gear for the recording of ‘Heritage’?
Yeah. Well, mostly, we brought a bunch of pedals down there, a bunch of amps, and a lot of guitars. We used some Strats on the album to get more single coil-y type of tones for the riffs, and we used a lot of PRS guitars as well. So it was like a kid’s dream in that recording room, just guitars and guitars.
Do you favor any of your guitars in particular?
Yeah, I really like the PRS Tremonti. I used that on some solos. I had a couple of old Strats, one from ’72, which I really like. No, actually, it’s from ’62. I borrowed it from a friend of mine. Expensive one.
How about amps?
For amps we used Blackstars that I play, and we had a Marshall JCM 800 two channel one which we used. So there was definitely a lot of cool gear. For the echo, we used an old Roland tape echo, so if we needed echo on the guitars we recorded them with that immediately instead of adding those [effects] later on. Steven Wilson was like, “Dial in the sounds you like and go for it.”
That sounds like some really sick gear. Alright, I have one more question for you before I let you go. If you could only listen to one record for the rest of your life, what would it be?
Whoa! That’s a difficult one. That’s impossible, man. [laughs] I guess I have to choose one.
I’ll take something heavy. [laughs] I need at least like an hour’s thought. I’ll go for ‘Sabbath Bloody Sabbath’ by Black Sabbath. Yeah.
That’s a fantastic choice!
Pick up Opeth’s new album, Heritage.
For the band’s upcoming tour dates, check out their official website.