Perched precariously at the front of the stage, the four members of Alcest look dwarfed by the headliners’ gear under wraps just behind them. It’s not an auspicious sight but the sound they create is big enough to command the crowd’s attention.
Opening proceedings with ‘Opale’, the lead-off track from this year’s “Shelter,” their doomy shoegaze casts a spell over the curious and the already-devoted. A hazily hypnotic set leaves some confused but on the whole tracks like ‘Autre temps’ and set closer ‘Délivrance’ are well-received. Some ignorant bleating during the interval reflects more on the narrow-mindedness of the complainers than on Neige et al. Their music is not for everyone but its beauty shone through tonight to those open enough to appreciate it.
A lot has happened to the headline act in the eight years since they last graced this stage. That was a substantially different line-up and echoes of a career-defining anniversary concert at the prestigious Royal Albert Hall still reverberate in some of us, if only to phase out the memories of a difficult night at Brixton Academy on the last tour. A cursory look at the document of that night in 2006, The Roundhouse Tapes, shows the distance travelled stylistically too – ‘Demon of the Fall’, ‘Blackwater Park’, ‘Ghost of Perdition’ seem a long way from the lighter prog of “Heritage” and “Pale Communion”. As any ardent fan knows it’s all part of the same continuum but it does add a frisson of tension to the night: would Mikael Åkerfeldt pull out the death metal classics which the disrespectful noisily and rudely craved that night in Brixton or would he forge ahead with his current vision?
‘Eternal Rains Will Come’ suggests the latter path. More muscular than the recorded version, its sinuous riffing would seem to please both sides of the fan divide. As if to back this up ‘Cusp of Eternity’ comes out fighting. No, there are no death growls but this is still heavy music of the highest order. ‘Bleak’ follows and Åkerfeldt turns back the years, proving he still has one of the best throats in the business. Going further back to “Still Life,” ‘The Moor’ gets a rare outing. Its rhythmic complexity, storytelling and wandering minstrel clean guitars seem to stick two fingers up to say “What do you mean, we’ve turned prog? We’ve always been prog”. The gorgeous ‘Windowpane’ is always welcome but perhaps overshadows some equally strong material from the “Damnation” album.
A slew of heavier tracks flesh out the main set. ‘Advent’, ‘April Ethereal’, ‘The Lotus Eater’ and the Satanic majesty of ‘The Grand Conjuration’. Whether coincidence or by design they encore by mirroring the support act’s final song with a storming rendition of ‘Deliverance’. It’s a truly breathtaking finale.
This has been a night that consolidates Opeth’s reputation as one of the best, most adventurous and risk-taking metal bands of the last two decades. It had something for everyone and yet was unsatisfying in one regard. The set list felt as though it were pandering to the gobshite hecklers that made that Brixton show problematic. “Pale Communion” is an incredible work and three songs did not do it justice. Where were ‘Goblin’, ‘River’, ‘Faith In Others’? Those ‘fans’ who have been complaining for the last few years about a perceived ‘new direction’ don’t deserve to be accommodated. Mikael, summon that bravery, have the courage of your convictions. We are along for the ride, we trust where you’re taking us. Stop looking in the rear view mirror at those who got off at the last stop. Fuck ‘em.