The Swedish demon can be heard in all his glory on Opeth’s twelfth studio album—a study in getting timeless sounds and performances on a new-world recording.
by Mike Haid
Listening to the airy, floating, Baroque-style “Persephone,” the opening track from 2016’s Sorceress, one would never imagine that when Opeth was founded in Stockholm, Sweden, back in 1989, it was an out-and-out death-metal band. The second cut, the album’s title track, offers no further clues; the opening ’70s-prog-like groove is nudged along by drummer Martin Axenrot’s bouncy Purdie/Porcaro shuffle and an ELP-esque synth-bass hook, then shifts into a 16th-note power-metal vibe. And just as you’re settling into that, the band unleashes a ’70s-style fusion flurry straight out of the Return to Forever playbook.
This unpredictable combination of genres and sounds is certainly far different from the band’s early approach, but it’s highly appealing—and speaks volumes about the depth of Axenrot’s influences and creative reach. “This album allows me lots of room [to play] classic hard-rock drumming,” Axenrot says. “That’s more where I come from, so it felt natural and made it easy for me to get into the mood and feel of each song’s unique style.”
According to Axenrot, the old-school approach extends to the way the drum tracks were recorded. “Just like on the last Opeth album, Pale Communion, bassist Martin Méndez and I were well rehearsed for Sorceress,” he says. “We had our parts finished in three days. My opinion is that the last part of a song is played with more conviction if you’ve played through the whole song, rather than just doing a separate take on each part. Cutting and pasting takes away a big part of the presence and dynamics in drum tracks.
“It is amazing to me what you can do with today’s technology,” Axenrot adds. “So of course a small adjustment to an otherwise great take is absolutely fine with me. But for me to deliver my best, I must get it all done in the same take.”
Classic-rock signposts can be found throughout Sorceress, for instance on the very Jethro Tull–like “Will o the Wisp.” Axenrot plays a smooth, relaxed 6/8 groove but doesn’t come across as if he’s mimicking any of the great Tull drummers. In fact, he says, “I never sit down to study a drummer. I don’t believe in the schooled approach at all. I like listening to bands and songs, and if I like a song, I’ll play along with it. And if I’m lucky, I’ll learn something that adds to my drumming. As Al Pacino’s character said in Carlito’s Way, ‘You can’t have a late start, and you can’t learn it in school.’”
Still, Axenrot is not without his drumming heroes. “The players I’ve been influenced by, and am still inspired by, are all in bands that play music I like,” he says. “They all have a musical approach to their drum parts; they’re playing with the song and are a huge part of the band’s overall sound. They all also have a signature sound that is easily recognizable. Drummers like Ian Paice, A.J. Pero, Dave Lombardo, Mitch Mitchell, Cozy Powell, Charlie Watts, Mikkey Dee, Kim Ruzz, and Simon Phillips—these are the kinds of drummers that have influenced me the most.”
When pressed, Axenrot does acknowledge Phillips’ work on the classic Judas Priest album Sin After Sin as an influence on one Sorceress track. “My inspiration for the intro of ‘Chrysalis’ was based on the way Simon played on the 6/8 masterpiece ‘Dissident Aggressor,’” Martin says. “I have always liked that kind of aggressive China-cymbal-based shuffle with a somewhat slower, old-school double bass drumming approach. A groove like this also needs to be unedited and not quantized. If it had been digitally adjusted to so-called perfection, the feeling and dynamics would have been completely lost. There is also an old Uriah Heep vibe on ‘Chrysalis.’ Lee Kerslake and Ken Hensley made their shuffling drum-and-organ parts a trademark, and this song follows a similar path.”
The playing of another Axenrot influence, Deep Purple’s Ian Paice, shows on the blazing Sorceress track “Era,” with its constant motion and rudimental-style power drumming. When told that his syncopated, flowing chops authentically capture the same raw emotion found in early-’70s rock recordings, Axenrot responds, “It’s very interesting to hear so many different associations people get by listening to our music. In the case of ‘Will o the Wisp,’ the working title was ‘Jethro,’ so we all were clear about the direction and influence. But what goes on in [lead vocalist, songwriter, and guitarist] Mikael Åkerfeldt’s head is another thing completely. He has very diverse tastes in music, so who knows what influences he’s channeling when he’s creating these songs. I just listen to what he’s created and come up with a drum part that I feel best fits the song. The fun thing for me on ‘Era’ is that it’s structurally quite simple and straightforward, but the drumming is really intense throughout. The demo had a different beat in the intro, which we played around with and then changed in the studio. This track is actually much harder to play than it sounds.”
Axenrot describes taking a cinematic approach to coming up with his parts. “On ‘Era’ we tried to create a feeling like everything is close to boiling over—like someone is chasing you. This is often how I come up with ideas for my playing. I think about how I can create something to enforce how the song is supposed to impact the listener. So I think in terms of, say, walking in mud, or being chased through the forest, or having my back to the wall, or being invisible in the middle of a city. You get the idea.”
Perhaps the heaviest track on Sorceress is “Strange Brew,” which eases into its prog-metal core with subdivisions over 4/4 that create the illusion of an odd meter. “Mikael presented to me the idea that I think he and guitarist Fredrik Åkesson came up with together for this song,” Axenrot explains. “I felt a dark, Jimi Hendrix/Robin Trower blues influence. The group Magma also comes to mind on this one. The initial groove is very intense, with an odd-time-signature feel. It is freely played in the moment, and I think it will be played that way on tour as well. The next part was a bit harder to create, since we follow Mike’s vocals, which differ in length, and then we shift to a bluesy feel. It’s quite an intense journey in just a few bars.”
To help capture the vibe the band wanted for the new recording, Opeth returned to Rockfield Studios in Wales, where classic albums by Queen, Rush, Judas Priest, and Mike Oldfield were made. Producer/engineer Tom Dalgety was once again at the board, and the crew completed Sorceress in twelve days. Among the beneficiaries was Axenrot’s sound, which is fat and punchy, allowing the drummer to sink into the groove and create a thick, meaty pocket.
“I’m very pleased, not only with the sound of the drums but the overall sound of the band on this recording,” Axenrot says. “Having Tom Dalgety recording us again and doing the mix was the key to achieving the exact sound we were looking for. He knew precisely what we wanted and managed to translate it perfectly into the final mix. This record has a more classic, hard-rock spirit, with an organic sound, which I personally like very much. I feel our sound on Sorceress is heavier, in a hard-rock way, and more musically straightforward.
“There’s a very wide spectrum of influences and styles in our music,” Axenrot continues, “which has become a bit of a trademark for us. There’s been a continuous development of our sound since day one. I like the fact that this record sounds real and feels like a live, vibrating band playing together in the same room, creating a powerful energy that is rarely heard in today’s recordings. Sounding analog in a digital age is a challenge. I think we captured that very well on Sorceress.”
Martin Axenrot uses DW drums, Sabian cymbals, Promark sticks, Evans heads, and the 2box electronic practice kit.