Wesley Stace (John Wesley Harding) Talks Opeth’s Pale Communion

The acclaimed singer-songwriter outs Opeth's prog-metal mastermind Mikael Åkerfeldt as… a singer-songwriter.

Death metal, despite entertaining us with sensational, amusing and occasionally horrific headlines, is the one genre of music I could never get into. Why?

Easy: Growling, the most ludicrous and unintentionally comical vocal style rock has ever produced (including the Chipmunks), a sound once described by The Atlantic’s James Parker as “a man vomiting in a cathedral.”

Also: death metal English, the compulsory lyrical mode, an absurd blend of periphrasis, pretension and self-aggrandizing doom that communicates little (as wittily anatomized here). Death metal may be quite good musically, if you like having your skull pounded by a triggered bass drum, but if you don’t like the vocals, let alone what-you-can’t-hear-them-saying, it doesn’t seem worth trying to find a way in.

But I found one: Opeth!

I’ve recently had a bit of a heavy metal breakthrough, which I wrote about here. Basically, my five-year-old son got me into Black Sabbath (he kept asking to hear “the theme to Iron Man” and I finally gave in) and, upon downloading a Sabbath greatest hits collection, and being pointed by some caring friends in the direction of AC/DC, Priest, Budgie, Diamondhead and beyond, the gates of Hell opened and we were listening to “War Pigs” on the way to school. It’s not unusual: very few musicians, I should think, listen only to music in their own genre, and I don’t tend to spend my time listening to singer-songwriters.

I do, however, listen to a lot of prog, as I’m sure does Michael Åkerfeldt, the mastermind of Opeth. In interviews, he’s mentioned that he’s into Nick Drake and Scott Walker, as well as “folk and prog-rock and ’60s and ’70s types of music.” So he isn’t only listening to death metal and I’m not only listening to Nick Drake: perfect. Truth be told, Åkerfeldt isn’t making death metal anymore either; he’s making prog. This seems to be his most pressing problem: a lot of his audience don’t get (or don’t like) that he’s moved on.

Pale Communion isn’t going to heal that schism, if he cares, and perhaps its title hints at that. The watershed album, the controversial one, wasn’t the wonderful Watershed (2008) — growling, pummeling riff-fests next to acoustic ballads of overarching beauty (and often those two ingredients appear in the same song) — but the last one, Heritage. You could tell it was all change by the cover alone, so different from the grim sepia or monotone of previous albums: a painting of a tree neither dying nor withered, but one fully involved in the circle of life (the band members being the fruit in its branches), for which the artist had used nature’s full rainbow of colours. These combined elements hinted at a range of emotions that the bipolar demands of death metal (I shun God/I am alone/This cover is black, etc.) could never allow. It was the “growing up” album. Side four of the vinyl, which features the long, discursive “Folklore,” and then a beautiful instrumental, “Marrow of the Earth,” is perfect— death metal surrendering its pentagram for a bit of Pentangle. Most importantly, Heritage featured NO GROWLING.

I think I get “growling” and you do too: it’s a reaction to screaming, high-pitched girly metal vocals, and represents the hyper-masculine voice of the monster, the dead or the undead, the damned soul, in endless ventriloquial conflict with the clean voice of the singer. But No Growling equals No Death Metal, and obviously this can cause a little separation anxiety in a purist audience. Opeth didn’t help by subsequently doing a ballads-only tour — the crowd missed the Cookie Monster who had, as it were, gone acoustic.  One interviewer later described those shows as a “communication breakdown.”

I say this as a fan (and it won’t be big news anyway): Metal is for adolescents and is, in itself, adolescent. Its solipsism — coincidentally, the same isolation one also needs to learn the wicked chops the music requires — does not concern itself with romance. If it did, it would be heavy rock. It’s all about good and evil, and the angry adolescent caught between them, a lyrical stance that hasn’t evolved greatly since the immortal words of the title track of Black Sabbath’s first album: “Oh no, no! Please God help me!” It has yet to work out that everything isn’t black and white.

Åkerfeldt, who has now entered the “depressive” phase (in Kleinian terms), has had enough of this dualism, though he knows not to say so in print: the final song on Pale Communion is called “Faith in Others,” which almost brings a tear to the eye, even when what appears to be the opening of the theme from M*A*S*H is played on the piano two minutes in (or perhaps it’s because of that). Tears could be the problem.

On Pale Communion, the by-the-numbers symbolism of the lyrics stands in stark contrast to the free-for-all, devil-may-care feel of the music. The album opener, “Eternal Rains Will Come,” starts off with a totally Canterbury jazz-rock riff, then reminds me, in specific order, of: Metallica, Soft Machine, Egg, Mountain, King Crimson, a lovely instrumental Mike Oldfield passage (or maybe Dire Straits, if I’m being mean), then back to the genius Mountain bit, and that’s before the singing even begins at 3:10, when it all gets very Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. And in case that sounds dizzying and weird, let me assure you that it is glorious. However, I don’t think it has anything to do with death metal, not that that matters in the least; it’s prog, pure and simple, masterfully played, without overly processed modern production, and bound to please if you have any hankering for that kind of thing. If you’re waiting for the cameo by the man in the midst of his holy vomit, in disappointment thou shalt remain. Each song has the seductive, epic sweep for which every underwhelming new James Bond theme strives: Åkerfeldt has killer riffs and melodies at his fingertips. Pale Communion is all the ’70s prog I like rolled into one.

Åkerfeldt says he doesn’t like praise for his lyrics, because they’re “bland,” which I take to mean that he considers them merely to be satisfying the genre. Perhaps writing a new song called “Elysian Woes” (as if he’d put all his deep thoughts into a Seussian Death Metal Lyric-Generator which spat that back out) is as disappointing to Åkerfeldt as his need to name the cool instrumental “Goblin.” (You literally can call an instrumental anything you like, and that’s what he chose…) Yet he also claims that his lyrics are increasingly personal, apparently the result of the feeling, shocking to many a new parent, of no longer being number one. In an Invisible Oranges interview, he said of one recent song: “It actually means something to me, it’s something that can be traced back to my private life, which made me go, ‘That’s interesting, I’ve never really done that before.’” I’m sympathetic: I just made the same leap on my last record.

In other words, Åkerfeldt, having sought refuge behind the various standardized tropes of metal (in the same way that prog-rock lyricists often sought to differentiate themselves from pop lyricists by writing about supposedly weighty themes, avoiding the openly emotional by flipping open Lord of the Rings and writing fantasy), has become a singer-songwriter, one in the unenviable position of being unable to free himself from a genre whose strict rules don’t encourage original thought. The irony is that death metal lyrics, all about souls in torment, are probably the least effective way of working out tormented feelings. Åkerfeldt’s more personal anxieties can’t be fully explored via the received symbols of the Encyclopedia Deathmetallicana.

Åkerfeldt, who is a bit of a genius, should move on. The people who like him will follow, and those who can’t won’t. Let them shout “Judas!” — a man who, in death metal terms, might be considered the ultimate hero. That never hurt anyone’s career; those who were alienated by the growling will hear him for the first time. Given Åkerfeldt’s history and his musical chops, he is already blessed with as broad a palette as all the other singer-songwriters put together.

It’s an arsenal I’d kill for. When I was 18, I fell for the folkie idea that three chords (and The Truth) were enough.

Now I’m 48, having seen and heard a few more things, and I don’t think it is enough. Which is why I love Opeth passionately enough to say: Free Mikael Åkerfeldt!

Wesley Stace recorded 19 albums under the name John Wesley Harding. His latest, Self-Titled, was the first released under his own name. He has also written four novels: the most recent, Wonderkid, was published by Overlook Press in March. His series of Cabinet of Wonders is ongoing in NYC. You can follow him on Twitter here. (Photo credit: Ebet Roberts)