By Austin Weimer
Many longtime champions of metal are starting to take their sound into new and unfamiliar directions to their fan base. Ramping up the intensity of guitar playing and harsh vocals has certainly worked for bands that formed in the late eighties and nineties. But today, this formula for success has changed in unexpected ways.
An example of this can be found in Opeth, a Swedish progressive metal band that formed in 1990. Their discography most notably chronicles the evolution of their lead vocalist, Mikael Akerfeldt. Through their first four albums, Akerfeldt’s harsh vocals became more refined in the clarity of his diction, eventually leading to the golden age of his vocal career, which spanned from Blackwater Park to Watershed. Albums such as Blackwater Park and Ghost Reveries are excellent examples of Akerfeldt’s guttural yet coherent death growls.
Damnation was Opeth’s first attempt at moving completely away from the metal sound and into progressive rock, both vocally and instrumentally. This album was released in 2002, only a year after Blackwater Park. All the songs on the album existed without any harsh vocals or distorted guitar. Akerfeldt decided to pair Damnation with Deliverance, a heavy-hitting death metal album that felt more in-line with their previous discography than its counterpart. Deliverance appealed to a specific group of listeners who enjoyed Akerfeldt’s singing voice coupled with clean acoustic passages, which have always existed in some quantity from the beginning of his songwriting career for Opeth.
Since the release of Heritage in 2011, Opeth records no longer contain growling vocals. Rather, Heritage and Pale Communion took the band’s evolution one step further by shifting into progressive rock territory. Slower arrangements containing soft passages with an emphasis on ambient piano and organ came as a big surprise to listeners. Those craving Opeth’s original death metal sound had to either cling to the classics or more on to another band such as Akerfeldt’s side project, Bloodbath. In turn, Opeth diversified their fan base by appealing to the rock and jazz crowds.
Mastodon, an Atlanta-based heavy metal band, formed in 2000 around earlier influences of sludge metal bands like Neurosis and the Melvins. Each album since their debut, Remission, moved further away from sludge influences into progressive metal and rock territory. Brann Dailor served only as Mastodon’s drummer until the release of Crack the Skye in 2009. From then on, he started singing while playing drums. Since Crack the Skye, each subsequent release featured more clean vocals and echo-heavy keyboards as opposed to their roots of heavy, crushing metal. A major difference between Mastodon and Opeth is how Mastodon continues to incorporate harsh vocals into their releases while also taking a break from them to some degree.
Between the Buried and Me is a progressive metal band from North Carolina. Formed ten years after Opeth, their discography shows the same trend towards a less intense sound. 2015’s Coma Ecliptic contained a significant reduction in the prevalence of Tommy Roger’s harsh vocals. Volume takes a backseat to composition and the frequency mix of all their instruments. Their music became less about the in-your-face moments of theatric guitar passages and more about the contribution of each individual instrument to the entire sound of any given song.
A main factor behind the change in sound is simply the desire to continue evolving and expand one’s fan base. Akerfeldt’s vision is not concerned with pleasing his original fan base. To him, writing another Blackwater Park or Ghost Reveries is a step backward. Fans may love a certain iteration of Opeth’s discography, but slightly changing the formula doesn’t cut it in the long run. For those still looking to get their fix of high-intensity metal, younger bands, such as Persefone and Intervals, take influences from the greats of twenty years past and push the metal genre even further.