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The Sound and the Fury, in 7/8: Opeth live at Webster Hall, Alcest and Enslaved live at Gramercy Theater

There are quite a few things that can be said for the state of heavy metal at the end of 2011. Thankfully, one thing is that the genre is still being pulled in all sorts of intriguing directions, and with no volume lost. Another is that no matter how beloved you are, your fans will still boo if you disappoint them with less than skull-crushing material. You can’t have it all I guess, especially if you’re from Northern Europe and have the requisite polysyllabic name and play death metal. This is what Mikael Ackerfeldt, the leader singer and guitarist for Opeth learned when he and his band tried some more tempered new material. Opeth played songs mostly off their new album, Heritage, as well as various acoustic odds and ends from throughout their career. However, those who came for the death metal of Deliverance or Blackwater Park went home disappointed. Those of us who stayed saw a band firmly in their comfort zone, which is just to the left of whatever we were expecting from them. From the jazzy strains of “Throat of Winter” to the serpentine riffing of “I Feel the Dark,” Opeth’s music bounced and jigged the way it always does, only this time more in the service of melody and atmosphere, rather than pure noise terror. That’s not to say they didn’t let loose every so often, as the Dio tribute “Slither” made abundantly clear. It turns out that in addition to all that King Crimson, they’ve been listening to Thin Lizzy and Led Zep, too. Fun stuff. Opeth are doing what they want, and for that one must give them credit, but still, even I have to admit I miss the mountains of sound they used to conjure. But whatever, they deserve to be happy, I guess.

Those seeking unabashed amplifier worship needed to look no further than the Enslaved/Alcest show the following Sunday. Enslaved are coming off one of the best metal albums in years, Axioma Ethica Odini, and this was their first headlining tour to hit NYC. They brought along with them Alcest, from France. They were led by a man named Niege, who has done more than anyone in recent years to reintroduce beauty and grandeur into metal.

Alcest took the stage first, playing in thick plumes of fog against an ethereal blue backdrop. Their set drew heavily on “Escailles De Lune,” their recent masterpiece, and one that may prove to be the most influential album I heard that weekend. Alcest have become the foremost purveyors of BlackGaze, a blending of the black metal and shoegaze, retaining the volume and serrated riffing of the former with the submerged melodies and epic song lengths of the latter. A crowd that had come for rock-and-roll-infused death metal soon swayed in place, overcome by the piercing riffs and plaintive cries of the band. You wouldn’t think there would be metal to study to, but this it. (Yeah I know. All metal can be studied to—whatever.)

Then came the headliners, Enslaved. There is an interesting comparison that can be made between Opeth and Enslaved. Both came out of Northern Europe during a fertile time for Euro Death Metal. Both made their name on ferociously raw early albums, and both slowly but surely moved away from those original sounds. However, where Opeth emerged from the box and took off running, Enslaved made a more understated break. Understated is an odd word to use when discussing death metal. Records like Eid and Isa introduced flourishes of acoustic guitars and organs, whereas Opeth released an entire album of acoustic songs. With their latest two records, the divergence become even more clear, as Opeth move further into the realm of lounge jazz while Enslaved more or less retain their loud fast roots. Enslaved raced through tracks like “Axioma” and “Giants” as well as material from their new E.P., The Sleeping Gods. The guitars alternately chimed and crunched, the drums pounded and rolled, and the crowd obliged with much frenzied moshing. It was death metal the way we loved it, and that’s what we came for. For all the interesting and weird directions metal benefits from, speed and aggression still rule on the road.