Friday, December 18, 2009

Metal Heroes

Much as I love Steve Hackett's guitar playing, I listen to a lot more metal than prog. Granted, I like my metal on the proggy end of things, but I also like a heaping helping of darkness with it. And when I sit down to actually play guitar I don't end up playing much that sounds like Hackett's music either, other than my having learned a couple of his solos. As such, most of my practical guitar heroes are metal players.

My favorite metal guitarists are Mikael Ackerfeldt, Peter Lindgren, and Fredrik Akesson of Opeth. Again, it's not that they are amazing technical players. Fredrik has some serious shred and speed and I love what he has brought to the band, but what has always set Opeth apart for me is the sheer range of what they do and the tremendous contrasts that they put in their music. They manage to be both beautiful and brutal, intimate and epic. Early on in their catalogue they tended towards a lot of twin guitar riffs like on The Night and the Silent Waters -- not just harmonized lead lines a la classic Wishbone Ash but also contrapuntal classical lines and push-pull lead/chord twinned riffs like at the end of this song and all through Demon of the Fall. The lines and the rhythms tend to be complex and non-linear, always looking for something surprising.

As Opeth matured they began adding keys in the mix and giving their compositions more space and openness. As they did this they also began to incorporate more jazz, blues and old school prog elements in as well -- like the ebow and slide playing on The Drapery Falls or the simple, understated blues solos on A Fair Judgment. Yet through it all they have never gone soft or lost their instinct for the heavy and brutal. For sheer brutal bombast it's hard to beat the single chord outro riff for Deliverance or the angularity of the section of Hessian Peel from the solo at 6:15 through to the break at 7:24.

But, as always with them, the heart of their sound lies in those moments of contrast when they shift from sweet to sour. My favorite example of this is probably the section of Ghost of Perdition where the song shifts from the vocal harmonies of 'winding ever higher' with the lovely acoustic guitar playing into a stunningly beautiful and emotional bluesy guitar close that fades on a high, sustained note that resolves the section only to give way to a one-chord, syncopated riff that starts to build the tension right back up like the long slow climb of a rollercoaster towards that big drop. It's especially gratifying to see and hear live. You can watch the shift happen as the crowd goes from singing along with the delicate melody to a sort of rapture at the solo, only to watch the circle pits start to roil like a growing storm with the first notes of the pedal tone. It's like a brutal organism.

Next up, we'll shift from prog metal to doom.

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