Lamentations: Live at Shepherd's Bush Empire

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Opeth will most likely be remembered for adding class and elegance to the typically foreboding and nasty death metal realm. The Swedish group also surprised many by crossing over from black T-shirt-clad punters to musicianly prog rockers thanks to simultaneously recorded sister albums Deliverance (2002) and Damnation (2003), the latter setting aside their trademark forward-thinking, highly dynamic Scandinavian death metal for graceful, melodic, and contemplative excursions. With Damnation deemed a one-time experiment for Opeth, it seems appropriate that Lamentations: Live at Shepherd's Bush Empire documents a unique period in the band's evolution via a two-hour live show recorded in London, as well as an insightful 65-minute documentary, "The Making of 'Deliverance' and 'Damnation'." The live gig finds the band Jekyll-and-Hyde-ing through a two-hour set, split into mellow and beastly halves. The first is comprised almost completely of Damnation's relatively delicate Porcupine Tree-inspired mood pieces, best illustrated by the dynamic crescendos of "Closure" and "Death Whispered a Lullaby," the Led Zeppelin/"No Quarter" Mellotron atmospherics of fragile number "Weakness," and instrumental "Ending Credits" (which vocalist/guitarist Mikael Akerfeldt describes to the crowd as a blatant Camel rip-off -- a reference perhaps lost on the theater-full of metal worshippers). While the quieter songs lack the hair-whipping immediacy of Opeth's more aggressive material, Akerfeldt, whose melodic vocal abilities shine on such material, appropriately explains the band's M.O. while introducing "To Rid the Disease": "Just because it's slightly mellow doesn't mean it's less evil." Viewing the two-hour show as a whole, however, one realizes Opeth is simply building tension (or impatience?) for the crowd-pleasing, jagged Swedish ice shards to come: Five expansive and stunningly masterful extreme-metal epics, including the inventive, wallop-packing riffery of "The Drapery Falls" and "Deliverance"; Akerfeldt telling the crowd that such songs are "what we really sound like" -- although the group disappointingly delves no deeper into its catalog than 2001's Blackwater Park. While the group isn't exactly the most visually engaging live band, their lack of gimmickry and intense focus on the music are refreshing, and the live show's overall production keeps Lamentations from being a needlessly arid, two-hour sit-a-thon -- mostly thanks to the anamorphic widescreen presentation, extraordinary 5.1 Dolby digital surround mix, and intimate camera angles (although the Akerfeldt "orifice cam" gives a few too many close-ups of the vocalists oral and nasal cavities). The documentary, as the title implies, chronicles Opeth's 2002 recording sessions; disappointingly, the film only brushes the surface of the group's stress-filled studio time -- they faced massive technical difficulties and ended up switching studios mid-way through -- but offers plenty of in-depth, equal-time interviews with all the bandmembers and producer Steven Wilson, touching on writing, recording, and influences. Certainly, only the most diehard Opeth-ateers will appreciate the documentary footage, but as an overall capturing-the-moment-type document, Lamentations as a whole serves only to increase one's appreciation for the band's diverse and unparalleled combination of death metal, unwieldy, ambitious prog, and earthy folk -- and exemplifying exactly why Opeth stands head and shoulders above most of its Scandinavian peers when it comes to creativity, musicianship, and intelligence.

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