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The Heritage Hunter Tour is a rare event, bringing together two hard rock giants: Opeth, of Swedish death metal fame; and Mastodon, the American progressive rock powerhouse. If you’ve yet to hear Opeth’s September 2011 release Heritage, the two seem an unlikely pair.
Heritage, though, brings Opeth’s sound to the next stage in their evolution, which is ironically rooted in the past. The release takes inspiration from Opeth’s longtime influences and even their own past records.
The tour also celebrates Mastodon’s The Hunter, released about the same time as Heritage. The two albums, both on Roadrunner Records, have been received with largely positive reviews, although Heritage has been met with some push-back from longtime death metal fans.
Ghost joins the North American tour as the opening band, and with only one major release, the group has already built a major presence in metal. Opus Eponymous, the Swedish band’s debut full-length album, was released in October 2010. A new album is slated for release later this year.
Ghost’s stage presence is wrapped in enigma, as the five backing members known only as Nameless Ghouls wear black cloaks and masks, with only hands exposed for instrumentation. Papa Emeritus, the frontman and vocalist, wears a prosthetic mask resembling wrinkled skin painted like a corpse. He wears a pope’s vestments and mitre, dangling a smoking incense ball. None of the members’ true identities have been released.
Also proving to be a chance event was May 9 show at The Fillmore Silver Springs in Silver Springs, Maryland. Opeth was absent from he previous show on May 8 in Maplewood, Minnesota, after Opeth frontman Mikael Åkerfeldt took a trip to the hospital following a head injury. Instead, concertgoers saw an extended headline set from Mastodon.
Toonari Post caught up with Opeth bassist Martin Mendez before the show in the Washington, D.C., metropolis, where we talked about Mikael’s recovery, the tour and Heritage.
Toonari Post (TP): How is Mikael recovering from his mishap?
Martin Mendez (MM): He’s doing good. It happened right before the last show, when me and him were on the bus taking bags, and he just passed me the keys. He didn’t watch and just hit his head.
TP: What about Mastodon drew you guys to co-headline the tour with them? How were all the bands pulled together for this tour?
MM: Mastodon is great; we love to tour with these guys. They’re really a good band, and we really like the co-headlining thing, because we very much like to play before them, and they like to play before us. It’s pretty fun.
All three bands are really different, and you can’t compare really one to the other. It’s a mix of different types of music there. I think all three bands on this tour are pretty original, it’s a strong package. When you go and see a concert now, I don’t think you’ll see many tours around more interesting than this one. That’s my opinion.
TP: With such a variety of sounds in Opeth’s background, how did you choose the set list for this tour?
MM: We focus mostly on the latest album now, but it’s always been difficult because we have such long songs and now we have 10 albums. So we try to cover some of each album, but it’s impossible to play all of them now with 10 albums, because the set is 8 songs. We play 4 or 5 songs from the new album, so there’s not much room for all the albums, but we try to.
TP: How did you pair with Ghost?
MM: I think Axe [Martin Axenrot, Opeth drummer] knew some of the guys, because they are from the same area [Stockholm], but we just heard the band and we liked the band. We knew the kind-of hype now, too, so it was good.
TP: How would you describe Heritage’s place in the evolution of Opeth’s sound? What were your influences?
MM: It’s a difficult question, because we don’t know what’s going to happen, so it’s impossible to say. But, for sure it’s a new chapter in our career because we always try to do something different. We’ve done Damnation in the past, which was very different, but this time it feels like we actually managed to do something that we really wanted to do in the past.
I think the most influence in this album is more ‘70s prog rock bands, not much new bands. This is the kind of music that we’ve always listened to. I think that’s the strongest influence.
TP: The album incorporates a significant shift to entirely clean vocals, which has been controversial among the death metal community. How was that decision made?
MM: It was a kind-of natural movement on this one. Growls I don’t think would fit in this album. For us it’s impossible for us to just drop some growls because people want it, but the idea was to do something different from the beginning, and of course clean vocals fits better in this album.
TP: Your bass writing has also made an interesting shift since Axe joined the band, bringing a very different drumming style than Martin Lopez [previous Opeth drummer] had.
MM: Everything kind of came naturally, because we had the songs in mind before we recorded. We knew the sound we wanted to have on this album, and this type of music requires bass to be higher in the mix. So it’s nothing that we planned, that, “Oh you have to have the bass up, or this or that.” It just came naturally and, at the end, the bass came up. This type of music is more friendly for bass.
TP: Heritage’s reception has been generally positive, but met some mixed reviews with a divide between longtime metal fans and broader music critics. How do you cope with mixed reviews on any album?
MM: Every time we try to do an album or record an album, we don’t think about the kind of reaction people are going to have. So we don’t really care in that moment what people would say. We know what we think is good at the moment. And I don’t know, I guess we are getting older and better as musicians as well, so you want to experiment and explore new styles.
It’s just the five of us, we don’t really take so many influences from outside. We knew when we went to record the album that since we have been doing death metal for such a long time, we knew people were going to get crazy. We didn’t care, though, because we were so happy with this album, and that was a stronger feeling.
It kind of sounds arrogant sometimes, you know, I get this question often, and I say, “Ah, I don’t care,” but I’m not trying to sound arrogant. That’s not the idea. I think we do good music, and I think people should appreciate that after it works. I mean, if you listen to the people or the fans, you can hear something new or something original. I don’t know, many people get pissed but at the end some of them will be happy, I guess.
TP: What are you listening to these days? Are there any albums you’ve been stuck on?
MM: Lots of music. I like lots of music. It feels like I’ve been stuck the last 10 years with the same kind of music. I listen a lot to a kind of tango, instrumental tango. I like jazz, heavy metal, blues.
TP: Are there any new releases you’re excited for?
MM: I would be interested in the Mars Volta new album and Tool, of course. There’s not that many bands coming out with albums soon.
TP: What’s next for Opeth?
MM: Home for three weeks, actually. We have four shows left on this tour, so we’ll be home in a week. Then summer festivals, and then I think coming back to the US in the fall. I think it’s going to be headline touring, but it’ll be smaller cities this time.