Opeth, Wembley Arena, gig review: Swedish prog-metal veterans play their biggest UK headlining show to date

Having conquered the Royal Albert Hall, Drury Lane Theatre, the Roundhouse and Union Chapel, Opeth turn their attention to another renowned London venue

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The initial signs when walking into the vast, cavernous, soul-leeching shed that is Wembley Arena are not good. It was always going to be an ambitious feat for a band with 10-minute long songs, unconventional song structures and death metal growls to sell out a 12,500 capacity room but Opeth are renowned for defying convention. After all, this is a band that is as comfortable in the exquisite environs of the Royal Albert Hall as they are in the sticky-floored, beer-stained squalor of Brixton Academy. But it’s immediately obvious upon walking into Wembley Arena, quite comfortably the largest room they’ve played in London to date, that it’s nowhere near full to capacity, with the seats at the back of the arena having been brought forward to cordon off half the room. To say this is a great shame is an understatement; after 12 albums that have maintained a consistently high quality whilst also paradoxically doing whatever the hell they wanted to, Opeth deserve to sell out rooms of this size on an artistic level, but sadly, the music industry rewards commerce over merit. It’s testament to the band then that they manage to gloriously snatch victory from the jaws of defeat by playing one of the best shows they’ve ever played in the capital.

Vincent Cavanagh during Anathema's performance of A Natural Disaster at Wembley Arena

Before that triumphant turn however, we’re treated to a majestic opening set by contemporaries Anathema. The Liverpudlians have provided excellent support for Opeth before, and it’s easy to see why the two complement each other so well, both bands having roots in extreme metal that they’ve since shunned for more progressive pastures. Wembley Arena isn’t renowned for its quality sound, with support acts often particularly stunted by a muddy, undefined dirge, but thankfully, there’s none of that sort of nonsense tonight; Anathema sound absolutely humongous, with their complex, multi-layered music actually given space to breathe within this spacious environment. Opening with a one-two emotional punch of Thin Air and the utterly sublime Untouchables Part 1, it’s a relief to hear that none of the intricacies of their sound are lost at all in a venue so notorious for reducing superb bands to an unintelligible mush.

The mixture of tribal and electronic percussion on Distant Satellites is absolutely awe-inspiring, building to an utterly destructive climax that evokes the industrial disquiet of Nine Inch Nails at their cataclysmic best. As always, Lee Douglas provides one of the set highlights with a gorgeous rendition of A Natural Disaster; not many vocalists are able to enrapture such a large crowd, but Douglas does so with ease. The only flaw to their set is it’s not longer, only seeming to play 45 minutes of their allotted 1 hour slot, but if the new song they end with tonight is anything to go by, we have a lot to look forward to from Anathema in 2017.

Opeth from left to right, Fredrik Åkesson, Joakim Svalberg, Mikael Åkerfeldt, Martin 'Axe' Axenrot and Martín Méndez (Caroline Traitler)

As the members of Opeth take to the stage one by one and peel out the opening jaunty jazz-inflected opening riff of the title track from latest studio album Sorceress, it quickly becomes abundantly clear that they’re not here to mess about. The simple staccato metallic riff that ushers in frontman Mikael Åkerfeldt’s entrance hits like a battering ram, and if that weren’t enough to shake the very foundations of this building, surely crashing straight into a colossal rendition of Ghost of Perdition will at least cause some structural damage. Åkerfeldt brings his usual flair and dry sense of humour to proceedings, effortlessly addressing the elephant in the room by saying he’ll tell his friends that playing Wembley felt ‘intimate’. Any fears that a half full arena would have any impact on the evening are immediately shattered, and Opeth go on to conquer this venue just as they have countless others across the capital. Demon of the Fall, Heir Apparent and The Grand Conjuration must all be contenders for heaviest material played within these four walls, and as is to be expected from Opeth, they’re all played with faultless precision.

But tonight is a game of two halves, with the band using the second half of the set to play material exclusively from Deliverance and Damnation, two diametrically opposed albums both recorded during the same bleak period for the band. Lesser bands would suffer for putting four broadly acoustic downbeat songs in the middle of their set, but Opeth aren’t most bands, with the songs from Damnation sounding all the more haunting and beautiful for being surrounded by such devastatingly heavy material. From Deliverance, we get an absolutely crushing Master’s Apprentice, and a rare outing of By The Pain I See in Others, which Åkerfeldt informs us has only been played live three times ‘because I think it’s a bit s**t.’ He’s wrong of course and it’s fantastic to hear it before the band bring the whole evening to a close with a punishing Deliverance that elicits a spontaneous and deserved standing ovation. The odds may have been stacked against them, but Opeth have managed to deliver, over 16 songs and 2 ½ hours, a set that alongside their legendary show at Royal Albert Hall in 2010, will go down as one of the highpoints of their career.