This past weekend I was lucky enough to see Opeth and Katatonia, two of my favorite metal bands. I have seen Katatonia once before, and I think I’ve seen Opeth four times before this show. I guess you could say I’m a fan.
Originally the show was supposed to be at the Crocodile Rock in Allentown, Pennsylvania, but due to some interesting legal issues that I might write about later, it was moved to the newly-renovated (although you might not know it) Sherman Theatre in Stroudsburg. Ticketmaster sent me an email about the change and offered a refund, which I appreciated, and the theater itself sent me an email and left me a voicemail. Now that’s service! The venue change meant an extra hour or two of driving, which was a pain, but in the end I think it was a better show for it.
I’m just going to come out and say it. The town of Stroudsburg sucks. After walking from end to end, it appears that Stroudsburg only has three things: hookah bars, regular bars (mainly Irish pubs) and antique stores. And when I say antique stores, I mean weird stores with old and old-looking stuff in them. If you’re looking to knock a few back after spending the day smoking hookah and buying mid-century Grand Marnier bottle holders and Tiffany lamp reproductions, then Stroudsburg is the place for you.
The Sherman Theatre is an old-style hall like the Trocadero in Philly, except it only has seats on a mezzanine located all the way in the back. Unlike the Troc, sitting in the seats at the Sherman has a downside. The main floor, which is huge, reminds me of the Theater of the Living Arts due to the slope down to the stage. It works really well for shows in both of these places because you can see over peoples’ heads. The extremely high ceilings also made for an interesting experience, as it made the venue seem much larger than it probably was.
Katatonia started promptly at 8:00 PM. They played 11 songs, and that took about an hour. They must have had plenty of time for a sound check, because they sounded far better than the last time I saw them. They started off the set with Buildings from their most recent album, Dead End Kings. I really like this song as an opener, with its heavy beginning riff. They continued through, playing a few more from that album and a number from Night is the New Day, which is probably my favorite one of their albums. I did notice that they played one or two older songs, which was unexpected. This time, I noticed a few guitar solos which I did not remember seeing last time. Altogether, although I think they sounded much better this time, I think that their set is too.. rigid.
For example, Katatonia has no live synth/keyboard player. This is not a problem, for as you can see here, it is not difficult to hear the ambient sounds in the background which are important to set the mood in their music. The problem is that because they’re playing to backing tracks coming from a computer, everything has to be played to a metronome in their ears. It leaves no room for improvisation or changes on the fly; if they slowed down or took a few more measures for a solo, the computer will play things when it was supposed to anyway. Just about everything about the set that they played on Saturday was planned in advance, and none of the band members really needed to see or hear each other to come in at the right time or play the right thing. It’s the opposite of classical or jazz groups, where the entire performance is a conversation between individuals and small groups. Although I appreciate the work it takes to get a set of songs nailed down and play it with digital elements, I have a feeling that Katatonia’s players are good enough that they could do it without. Also, I’m sure they could find a keyboard player who would love to play with them.
The first glimpse of Opeth that I had was the huge pedalboard on top of a Marshall full-stack during Katatonia’s set. Opeth finally came out at about 9:30, and the room filled up pretty quickly. They started with The Devil’s Orchard from their newest album, Heritage. I thought this was a funky song to start with, and I also interpreted it as a reminder that this album’s prog-rock departure is the direction they’ve headed in, and that’s that. Immediately following that song they started playing “Ghost of Perdition” from Ghost Reveries. That was when it became apparent that the double-bass pedal was far too loud. That would be a theme, and later on in the set I would struggle to listen to the most memorable bass lines (for example, here in Blackwater Park, which was the encore song, and the octave shifts here in Deliverance). That, and standing close to the stage was difficult. The bass drum would vibrate in my chest and make breathing hard during the heaviest double-bass parts.
Other than those few minor complaints, Opeth really blew me away. Mikael went from soaring clean vocals to deep growls with no change in his facial expression, let alone effort. The solos were many and interesting to listen to. The band was rehearsed and tight without being perfect reproductions of the albums. And there was a surprise for us: the first song I ever heard from Opeth, Demon of the fall, performed acoustically! Apparently they played in a church and wanted an evil song to play, so they arranged this one for acoustic guitar and bongos. It doesn’t get much more evil than hand-percussion.
They played for a full two hours, which means it was a long, dark drive home at midnight, but it was totally worth it.
Katatonia: 3.5 / 5
Opeth: 4.5 / 5
Stroudsburg, PA: 1 / 5 (and the 1 is only for Flood’s craft beer selection!)