Interview by Jordan Sibberas
Fresh off touring the world on the back of their last prog rock romp, Sorceress, Opeth are back in 2019 with their newest album. In Cauda Venenum is through and through a metal album, but not as you’ve heard it done before. Fiery riffs channelled through fuzz-soaked guitars battling roaring keyboards may be part of the Opeth repertoire, but this latest album reviews the evil moodiness of the Ghost Reveries and Watershed eras through a new set of eyes. Oh, and the lyrics are in Svenska. I sat down with head axeman Fredrik Åkesson to discuss their latest barrage of progressive metal.
Jordan: I’ve been listening to In Cauda Venenum for the last 24 hours straight, trying to digest it. I wish I had longer so I could do it justice, but let’s get into it! When did you know you had something special on your hands with this one?
Fredrik: We definitely think we do [have something great]! There was something special from when I heard Mikael demo the first song written. It was the last track All Things Will Pass. The last chorus gave me goosebumps. When that happens, there’s something in the cooking. That was the first impression I had of that album, and then I began putting down solos, and rehearsing and everything. We were really happy in the studio too, especially when Axe (Martin Axenrot) began tracking drums and they were super heavy. Now, when we listen to the final result, we’re keen to start touring on it! The goal of the album was to write an epic, which I think in our discography it is.
JS: In the past, Opeth has written albums that feel like drifting through scenery, but this album is much more like being tied to a seat and shown some bizarre play. Is this the vibe you went for?
FA: Yeah, that’s a good description of what we went for! I’m glad it came across that way.
Album Pre-sale Link: https://geni.us/OpethAU
JS: Guitars on this album, particularly on Next of Kin, really showed off your wizardry with guitar textures. Could we get some insight into the guitar work?
FA: We really went for extra everything! We had of course a 21-piece string orchestra, a Hammond organ, and mellotrons, and these all take up loads of frequency space. On top of that the Hammond foot pedals roar at the end [of Next of Kin], and are loaded with distortion. So, we had a lot of stuff going on, and we wanted to fit that all into a doomy atmosphere. That particular track, Next of Kin, we wanted to name the hangman/the executioner (Fredrik explains the translation here from Swedish doesn’t work nicely), and I think that matches the epicness of the mood. I really hope to play it live! In terms of guitars, we brought a bunch into the studio! An SG (Gibson) special from ’65, and an SG standard, my old “black beauty” Les Paul from ’77, a bunch of (Fender) strats too. Along with that, we brought a bunch of vintage gear. We brought another strat from ’58 that cost us a fortune, and a bunch of Les Pauls. On Heart in Hand though, we brought out some Fender Mustangs, for that heavy sound. We surprisingly enough found that the Mustang with single coils were the most aggressive, even compared to the humbucker-equipped guitars, which you would assume are heavier. In the mix though, these ones cut through the best! Martin Mendez backed us up with a Hofner bass, and it was super brutal too. It helped that we rehearsed the songs together before we went into the studio, because it meant we knew the songs really well and we could go into detail. We were able to go the extra mile on picking guitars, amps, and even drums! Axe’s kit for instance, was a Ludwig from ’72, and Joakim had a beautiful old Leslie speaker coupled
to a Gretsch organ, and mellotrons.
As for the amps for guitars, there’s also an interesting story to that. We worked with a company here in Stockholm, walking distance from my house, called Olsson amps. They’d been working on a gain structure for two years, and they released it in a 20 watt amp called “little hill”, and I was really happy with the Marshall-set-to-11 feel. The amp maker told me he could work up a 100 watt version for us before we went into the studio, with the same gain structure, and he brought it in. We compared them to our other amps, and it won out! We stuck with it for all the rhythm guitars on the entire album. Apparently, a week after we returned it, Carcass borrowed it for a new album! *laughs*
Park Studios was also a great studio to use. They had a bunch of great gear like the old EMI console, like the Beatles used on Abbey Road. We actually recorded the guitars through the 8 track on it, but mixed it through Pro Tools of course. When you record to digital it can crack and sparkle in a weird way but recording it to tape let us push it even more. We found a cool mix between Pro Tools and some really great vintage tape gear.
JS: Let’s talk Charlatan! It has the sound of what the kids are calling “djent”, but on top of that, some wild synth and a plainchant choir; how did Opeth come up with such chaotic elements and meld them like that?
FA: Mikael wrote the track, and I really liked it. Mikael’s daughter and my daughter even did the talking for that track, mine being the younger voice. Lyrically, I think Mikael wrote it about religion and religious psychopaths. It’s kind of interesting too that there’s no guitars! We’ve never done that before, but Mikael was afraid it would sound too nu-metal, and he wanted to avoid that territory, so when Martin Mendez played the original bass, Mikael and I both played bass too, left and right, with loads of distortion. We used the upper register of a tenor bass to get the higher pitches at the start. It’s not de-tuned at all, but we just cranked the fuzz pedals through the Olsson amps and played bass! The other thing is, I’m really happy with the “monk” choir ending, which I think were appropriate with the theme of the song.
JS: Some of the solos from In Cauda Venenum were truly blistering hey?
FA: At first it wasn’t so hard. I improvised a few in the drafting stage. On Dignity though, that was a bit different. I had to modulate with the chord changes, it wasn’t enough to just write to the comfort zone of the song. I wrote down the changes, and riffed over it, and I wrote three demo solos for it. After a while Mikael got used to one of them and said “No! Don’t change it!”. I decided after a while it wasn’t so bad, and I pimped it up a little bit. Sometimes it’s a little hard to re-learn solos, like on Heart in Hand, when I really went for it. I did all the solos for the album, and some for a bonus track (which was the longest!) in about eight hours, so it was pretty fast for me. I still tried to be picky though. Lovelorn Crime, had a long solo on it, and a ballad-like one, and I needed to hit the chord notes. It was fun though, I enjoy soloing where I have a theme, and chord notes to hit. It’s nice not using the root key the whole time. Mainly though, most of the soloing is improvised, then re-learned and pimped up!
JS: You’re coming back to Australia soon, is it fair to say that your epic in 2017 at the Sydney Opera House inspired the decision to go with seated only?
FA: Not just that, but it was an amazing gig! We enjoy the energy of turbulence when the crowd is standing, but we also wanted to frame these shows in theatres. Its easier to do that in the bigger cities, but this time around we’re keen to play some new theatres that we haven’t been able to see before. We’re super excited to get out, see the fans, and of course the theatres!
In Cauda Venenum will be released on the 27th of September through Nuclear Blast / Moderbolaget, preorder from: https://geni.us/OpethAU.
Ticket link here: http://davidroywilliams.com/tours/opeth2019/
Adelaide – Tuesday 10 December – Thebarton Theatre
Perth – Wednesday 11 December – Astor Theatre
Melbourne – Friday 13 December – Palais Theatre
Sydney – Saturday 14 December – State Theatre
Brisbane – Sunday 15 December – Tivoli Theatre
Album Pre-sale Link: https://geni.us/OpethAU