Album Review: Opeth, The Roundhouse Tapes

Opeth, “The Roundhouse Tapes”For all the immeasurable community and sheer mass of music it’s spawned, it’s surprising that metal has such a small number of masterpiece-grade live albums to its credit. Tribute, Alive, Binge & Purge. . . then what?

Part of this may be the general inflexibility of how fast-and-furious songs are constructed – really, how many free-form exploration metal jams have ever been even remotely listenable? – but mostly it’s just a matter of metal shows being more about the experience in the crowd than the music emanating from the stage; while it’s easy to capture the sound of being there, it’s almost impossible to capture the feeling of being there. How high or low do you mix the psychopath blindly throwing elbows? What’s the proper reverb level for that guy on meth who just got out of jail? How do you run a compressor on the guy who swears up and down this band totally sold out the day they busted out the acoustic guitars and Mellotron but has still seen them every single time they’ve played in this time zone?

Yet against all that conventional wisdom, Opeth throws its hat into the ring once more with The Roundhouse Tapes, the group’s second live effort and (presumably) final release with the Mikael Akerfeldt/Peter Lindgren guitar attack. Taken from a 2006 show in London, the setlist runs as more or less an Opeth 101, from the all-out chopsfest of Morningrise‘s “The Night and the Silent Water” to the subdued jazz leanings of Damnation‘s “Windowpane,” and of course live staple “Demon of the Fall.”

Truth be told, The Roundhouse Tapes is not a great live album. It’s a pretty good one, that much is certain, but anyone who’s heard these songs before knows exactly what to expect, Akerfeldt’s sometimes-hilarious stage banter notwithstanding (“This one [“Under the Weeping Moon”] has some lyrics that are absolute black metal nonsense.”). But frontman antics aside, there’s not really anything here that an Opeth fan hasn’t heard before, nor is there anything that could realistically convince a non-fan to become a believer.

The more logical advice would be to take your $20 and actually go see the band for yourself; anyone who’s been to one of their shows will tell you they’re among the best concerts you’ll see, metal or otherwise. But therein lies the paradox of the heavy metal concert: more than any other genre, metal is as much about the people listening to it as it is about the people playing it, and yet without the music to cling to there would be no reason whatsoever for a metal show to happen, because there would be no fans to create the uniquely heavy atmosphere that makes shows by bands like Opeth great in the first place.

To put it another way: Which came first, the metalhead or the metal? We may never know the answer. And while Death metal still doesn’t have its At Budokan, it’s nice to know people are at least working on it.