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Opeth’s Mikael Akerfeldt: My 10 Favorite Metal Albums

Bandleader shouts out classics including Judas Priest’s ‘Sad Wings of Destiny’ and Morbid Angel’s ‘Altars of Madness’

When it comes to his musical tastes, Mikael Åkerfeldt has no problem labeling himself an “old fart.” It’s not too surprising to hear that the Opeth leader’s listening preferences tend toward the retro, given that the Swedish guitarist, vocalist and songwriter has spent the past 20-plus years reconciling his adolescent love of death metal with earlier influences like Eighties metal and Seventies prog.

“I’m born in 1974, so I grew up with the New Wave of British Heavy Metal and the German scene and the U.S. scene of the Eighties and that kind of stuff, so I think today’s metal scene is a bit too sterile for my own taste,” he tells Rolling Stone. “I’m not excited about a new metal band or a new metal record because I’ve tried, and most of the time, I just feel it’s just too un-metal-sounding – too polished and too streamlined to fit the genre. It’s just not interesting enough for me, you know?”

Åkerfeldt is the latest musician RS has polled on the subject of their 10 favorite metal albums – a project that stemmed from our own 100 Greatest Metal Albums list – and the list he prepared reflects this sentiment. None of the albums he chose was released after 1990.

It’s an interesting fact, because for many fans of the genre, Opeth have been one of the bands who have defined the sound of modern metal. From their 1995 debut, Orchid, a striking amalgam of Åkerfeldt’s growled vocals and lush, progressive song structures, through 2001 extreme-prog masterpiece Blackwater Park – which landed at number 55 on Rolling Stone‘s 100 Greatest Metal Albums list and at 28 on our 50 Greatest Prog Rock Albums tally – Opeth have demonstrated a willingness to color outside arbitrary subgenre lines. The band’s recent efforts, including 2016’s Sorceress, have burrowed ever further into Åkerfeldt’s often-quirky, always-fascinating retro fantasies.

“We’re still a metal band, when we want to,” he tells RS. “But of course sometimes we don’t want to be the heaviest band. Sometimes we want to be the most quiet band, or the most whatever else.”

As a listener, he seeks out that same spirit of individualism. “I think ultimately what I’m looking for is that it’s something different, that I haven’t really heard before,” he says of what guided his own metal top 10 selections. “And it was easier in the early days of metal music to distinguish the bands from each other. Everybody had their own sound, I thought: You wouldn’t mix up the Scorpions with Iron Maiden.”

Here are Mikael Åkerfeldt’s 10 favorite metal albums, with his commentary on each.

9

Deep Purple, ‘Stormbringer’ (1974)

It’s difficult because I love all of the Deep Purple records. I love The House of Blue Light or Perfect Strangers; the early ones; I love the ones with the first singer [Rod Evans]. But I just went for Stormbringer, which Ritchie Blackmore, not that I know him, but he wouldn’t agree. He hates that record, I think. But he wrote a couple of songs. He wrote the best songs on there. He wrote the title track, “Lady Double Dealer,” “Soldier of Fortune,” “The Gypsy.” All fantastic, amazing, well-written, classic hard-rock songs, with a great singer, David Coverdale, [and a] great backup singer – and I would have wanted him to be more of a backup singer, maybe – Glenn Hughes. Ian Paice, of course, is one of the best hard-rock drummers in the Seventies, I think. 

It’s just an amazing record, I think. It’s got the best rock ballad, top-three rock ballad, in “Soldier of Fortune,” a song that we have covered, actually, live, and recorded a couple of times in the studio. Beautiful, beautiful song. David Coverdale was such a good singer in those days. Such a fucking fantastic, phenomenal singer. And then you have the songs that Glenn Hughes wrote, like “Hold On” and “Holy Man.” Good songs, but he wanted to be Stevie Wonder. It’s true! I think he was so influenced by Stevie Wonder. In interviews, he said that he met Stevie Wonder, and Stevie Wonder was a fan of his, and Stevie Wonder said that he was the best white soul singer he’s heard, or something like that, which kind of egged him on, I think. So he was writing these soulful songs that were by no means bad; they were great songs, but it wasn’t really Deep Purple songs. And I think those songs were the reason why Ritchie Blackmore doesn’t like this album. … He made this famous quote, which I’m not sure I should repeat, about the Stormbringer record being “shoeshine music.” … It’s allegedly what he said to Glenn Hughes about his songs on there. 

But it’s a really, really good album, I think. It deserves a place in any top-10 hard-rock list. Just like most of the other Deep Purple records, as far as I’m concerned; they’re all stuff that you should be aware of. You should pay attention to what Deep Purple did. It makes me happy that you’re doing these kind of things, to once again spread Deep Purple in Rolling Stone. Because a lot of people have forgotten. Like our fans, when I talk to them, and I mention Deep Purple, they go, like, “Isn’t that dad rock?” I’m like, “Yeah, but it’s fucking good!” … You know, that’s where it all comes from. Like these bands the younger kids are listening to today, they wouldn’t really be there without Deep Purple, if you know what I mean. But that’s beside the point because it’s so fucking good, that’s all they should know. 

8

Yngwie J. Malmsteen, ‘Rising Force’ (1984)

That wasn’t the first record I bought with him. … My friend had Rising Force, like, copied on a cassette tape. So I heard it and I was like, “That’s not possible. … Nobody can play like that.” It sounded like a synthesizer; it sounded so clean and so effortless. Like, it must have been some studio trickery or something. But it was beautiful songs, absolutely gorgeous guitar playing, and it was also extreme because parts of it were so fast. And as an aspiring lead guitar player, I thought that it just killed Eddie Van Halen; it killed Michael Schenker, Uli Jon Roth, all those guys. It was just something on a completely different level than what anybody else was doing at the time. 

And I had, like, the equivalent of four bucks, I think. So I went down to the local record shop where I lived and picked up not that record, but I bought Marching Out, the second album. That was the first one I got, which is an equally great record, I think, but it’s also more of a vocal record. And [Rising Force] only had two songs with vocals on it. And I was really intrigued by the fact that this was an instrumental, or 80 percent instrumental record. And it still maintained my interest, from the first note to the last. And his playing was just … it was magical. … It’s like Robert Johnson, like “Crossroads,” selling his soul to the fucking devil, that kind of thing. There was something about Yngwie Malmsteen in those days that was just demonic, I think. He played like nobody else; he created a whole new genre for lead guitar players, a whole new arena. And not only that: His guitar playing is great, but these metal songs, they’re so well-structured and so well-written. … And I’ve played it so much and I’ve tried to play, like, the slower things that I could make out how to play myself, but once I did, it went into this fast run and I couldn’t play along anymore. But it’s still one of those records, to me, that’s a party record. But it’s also a party-killer record to other people. 

But it’s a beautiful record that I would recommend to metal fans out there, especially guitar players, of course. It is an acquired taste because there’s a lot of things going on there, lots of notes, lots of fast guitar playing. But it’s so tastefully done. It’s not just mindless shredding on that record. It’s just beautiful. And his tone on there is just the best … like since the Eighties and up till now, he’s got the best tone – on that record and on the Alcatrazz record [No Parole From Rock ‘n’ Roll] – of any guitar player in the world. Nobody has outplayed him when it comes to metal music since.

7

Entombed, ‘Left Hand Path’ (1990)

It made me so proud when that record came out. I’d been a fan of the band Nihilist, which was the band name before they changed it to Entombed. Because I think there was a U.S. band called Nihilist, that put out like a promo record or something like that … so they changed their name to Entombed. That was phenomenal. The cassette demo that I bought when it came out, it had, like, three songs on there and it had that sound, which was like, “Fuckin’ hell, what’s this?” It was the most brutal, heavy guitar sound I’d ever heard in my life. 

And I was waiting for [Left Hand Path] to come out. On the release date, I was hanging outside the local shop, House of Kicks Records, on the day it was released and bought it right away. And I think it might have actually been the same day that Morbid Angel did their signing for Altars of Madness, actually. So I got my Altars of Madness copy signed by Morbid Angel, and as well, I got the new Entombed record, on the same day. So it was a good death-metal day. 

But that record, again, it’s like what it says on the sticker; it says “crushing guitars.” And that’s really what it is. That record just spawned a lot of bands from Sweden that tried to emulate what they were doing on that record. Like the riffs are a bit kind of rock & roll–y to a certain extent. They’re a bit more bluesy you could say, even. But with that guitar pedal, which was a Boss HM-2 Heavy Metal pedal – which I had, and I thought it sounded like shit. … It just made everything sound like if you were walking through wet snow. [Imitates staticky sound]

It came out pretty close to the Altars of Madness record, and those two records became two of my absolute favorite death-metal records of all time and still are. And I was immensely proud of Entombed because they were not only from Sweden, but also from my hometown of Stockholm and from the southern suburbs, just like me. So when I saw them around town when I was out walking, I was like “Fuckin’ hell.” It’s like seeing fucking Michael Bolton. They became my idols, you know, and to this day, they still are. When I meet them, I’m like, “Oh, the guys from Entombed.” And I’m still a little bit starstruck when I meet those guys.

It’s just a phenomenal death-metal record. And touching upon what I said earlier, I’m looking for something unique and something like an identity of their own. They really had that, and it was just very inspirational and influential to find yet another band that had a sound that was completely their own type of sound. But like I said, there were so many bands that tried to copy what they did: They bought the same guitars, the same pedals, recorded in the same studio, they wrote their songs in similar ways. I think Entombed were basically kind of leading the way for Scandinavian death metal in those days, and for a few years on, actually. And that all started with this record. 

6

King Diamond, ‘”Them”‘ (1988)

Again, it could have been any of the first, let’s say, three Mercyful Fate records: Melissa, Don’t Break the Oath and In the Shadows, which I also love actually. And the King Diamond records up until The Eye, which was the last fantastic King Diamond record, for me. But “Them” was one of those records … when that came out, and that drum fill that starts the whole thing after the little intro, there’s a drum fill from Mikkey Dee just makes you go like, “Fuckin’ hell, that’s the best drum fill ever.” It’s much like [Rainbow’s] “Stargazer.” It makes you sit up straight, just sucks you in right away. 

[It’s] a very metal-sounding record, but it also has these beautiful vocal melodies, beautiful vocal harmonies. It’s got the acoustic guitars, great riffing. It’s a bit poseur-y–sounding; it’s a bit kind of glancing to the Hollywood scene in one way, with the riffs and that kind of stuff. But with [King Diamond’s] vocals, his lyrics and the image, of course, it made them anything but a hair-metal band or a cock-rock band. But it definitely has those aspects on the early King Diamond: a little bit of a hair-metal band with more of a dark lining, if you know what I mean. But that record, I played it so much. I used to fall asleep to it – I used to play either “Them” or the record before, Abigail, when I was going to bed. … I listened to those records to fall asleep, like, every night for I don’t know how long. But it’s filled with classic songs. It’s a complete record. Again, the composition, the sequencing of the songs on the record just flows, like the concept record that it is. It just makes sense, in a way, I guess. Since it first came out, it’s remained one of my all-time favorite metal records, and that’s why it’s on the list

I did a few concept records on my own. Starting with our third album, My Arms, Your Hearse, and the one after, Still Life, and to a certain extent, Ghost Reveries. They were influenced by King Diamond because I wanted to write concept records just like he did. So he was the main reason why I gave it a try. But I was too self-conscious to do different voices and jump to different characters like he does [laughs]. It didn’t really work as well for us. But he’s definitely the reason why I wrote a few concept records. Definitely. More so than Roger Waters, to be honest.

5

Morbid Angel, ‘Altars of Madness’ (1989)

That was a stepping stone into heavier music for me, more extreme music. Because I wanted to be cool and listen to the heaviest type of heavy metal, if you know what I mean, but I didn’t like Venom. I thought they were shit. Now I kind of like them, but I just thought they couldn’t play because I was a big fan of Uli John Roth and Ritchie Blackmore. Like, “Where’s the guitar solo? Where’s the good singer? Where’s the riff?” … I just couldn’t… I tried with bands like Sodom and after a while I started liking bits and pieces here and there, but Altars of Madness changed a lot for me. It just catapulted me into that world, more than Sodom and those bands had done before. I was kind of pretending to like [Sodom’s] Obsessed by Cruelty, but I didn’t really like it. … Like, I made a patch on my jacket that said Sodom, but when I came back home, I put on Fireball by Deep Purple [laughs]. 

But Altars of Madness was my first genuine love, when it comes to extreme forms of music. I thought that was a very musical record, and it spoke to me as an aspiring guitar player. At the time, I was in a band, my first band, and we were playing some kind of thrash, death-metal type thing because we figured … you know, nobody could sing and it was a way out for singers who couldn’t sing – just scream instead. But Morbid Angel had that finesse that a lot of the other death-metal bands didn’t have, as far as I was concerned. And I absolutely fell in love with that record. And to this day, if I’m drunk, I will probably be sitting with my beer, and you put on that record and I’m gonna be miming along with all the lyrics. It’s a phenomenal death-metal record. Also, it’s got the best death-metal vocalist of all time in David Vincent. 

So it’s on the list because, like I said, it’s my stepping stone into extreme forms of metal music. And I owe that album and that band a lot, because that’s when my interest in this type of music really started to happen and when I really started to develop as a songwriter because I could see that you could do intricate things with death-metal music. You didn’t just have to play fast all the time, stupid fucking riffs – you didn’t even call them riffs. You could do something a bit more elaborate, like that record, and it really helped me in my search for a musical identity of my own, I think.

It also has guitar solos, and I love guitar solos. Even if they were a bit Slayer-ish, there was a certain Eddie Van Halen touch to Trey Azagthoth’s playing. And lo and behold, he is a big fan of Eddie Van Halen. Like I say, it was just the musicality to that band that didn’t really exist in the other bands. They were focusing more on being brutal, or “heavy.” And Morbid Angel still were brutal-sounding and heavy, but they also had that finesse, that I don’t think even the band Death had that until later on. And I love Death. Leprosy is a fantastic record – should have been on this list. But Morbid Angel just blew the competition away. 

4

Led Zeppelin, ‘Led Zeppelin II’ (1969)

I don’t really think of [Led Zeppelin] as a heavy-metal band, but they were there at the beginning. They started what became heavy metal, together with Uriah Heep and Black Sabbath and Deep Purple. So they laid the groundwork for what eventually became heavy metal. 

I wondered, “What Zep record should I put on there?” Because I love almost all of their records. I love them up till Physical Graffiti. Zeppelin fans are most into those records up until Presence and In Through the Out Door. “Whole Lotta Love,” it’s like [Black Sabbath’s] “Paranoid” – I don’t really have to hear it again; I can just kind of close my eyes and listen to it in my head. “What Is and What Should Never Be,” beautiful. There’s something about that song that makes you just drift away. “Ramble On”; “Moby Dick,” even; “Heartbreaker.” It’s got those classic Zeppelin songs. But it was so difficult for me to pick one [album]. … My initial gut feeling was to pick Zeppelin IV, because it’s got “The Battle of Evermore” and it’s got “Going to California,” and the softer songs which I absolutely love, but something just makes me go back to Zeppelin II more than the others. At least in the recent year or two, I’ve been listening more to that record than the others. 

Also, Zeppelin III is an underrated record; I think it deserves more credit. If you can call a Zeppelin record underrated, but in the discography, I think it’s underrated. Since you asked me to do this [at] this time, I just happened to pick Zeppelin II, and I don’t really know why, but it’s as magical as the others up to Physical Graffiti

3

Rainbow, ‘Rising’ (1976)

Fantastic record. To be honest, Rainbow never put out, like, complete masterpieces, but the positive things outweigh the negative things to the point where it kind of always ends up in my top five. It’s either that record or the first Rainbow record, which was just called Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow. I love those two records, and the third one with Dio. I’m a sucker for Ronnie Dio, so, the three Dio records and the live album that they did. But Rising, obviously, it’s got “Tarot Woman,” it’s got “Stargazer,” which is, like, the biggest masterpiece of hard rock, one of those. It’s up there with “Stairway to Heaven” and those types of songs.

Even “Do You Close Your Eyes,” those types of songs, they’re kind of cheesy in a way, but it gets your foot stomping. That record is “Tarot Woman” and “Stargazer,” to me. … They could have those two songs and the rest could be boogie-woogie shit songs that I never want to hear – it would still be a masterpiece record. … They have the other epic song on Rising, the last song, “A Light in the Black,” which I’m not too fond of, actually. I don’t love that song – it’s a bit too meandering to me. But “Stargazer,” “Tarot Woman,” especially those two songs, kind of pulls the weight of the rest. It’s just a fantastic sound, musicianship, Ritchie Blackmore in his most kind of experimental mode, breaking away from Deep Purple and coming up with these masterpiece, epic songs. Cozy Powell on drums. Ronnie Dio on vocals – you can’t go wrong. It’s the ultimate lineup of master musicians right there. 

“Stargazer,” when I go for walks, which I call my “old-man walks” … I had a bunch of those, listening to Rainbow in my headphones, and it makes me cry because it’s so good. Tears start rolling because it’s so fucking good.

For us, everyone in this band loves “Stargazer.” I think every serious fan of hard rock music would love “Stargazer.” It’s just one of those all-time, epic masterpieces. 

2

Judas Priest, ‘Sad Wings of Destiny’ (1976)

That’s my favorite Judas Priest record. … I don’t know how many vinyl copies I had of that record, but I have worn out at least one – one copy that I couldn’t play anymore because I played it too much. There were just no tracks, no grooves left on the vinyl. And I love the entire record with the exception of the song “Genocide,” which I’m not crazy about, to be honest. But I’m a big, massive fan of Rob Halford’s vocals in those days, especially when he had a bit of a cleaner voice. He was doing these high-pitched things, and he had this soft, calm voice that he doesn’t use too much today. He still sings great, but he doesn’t use this particular voice too much anymore. 

And it’s also a bit progressive, I think. You know, this was before they became the “Metal Gods.” There are songs on there that are still in their live sets like “Victim of Changes” and “The Ripper,” and they’re great songs, of course, but it also had a beautiful ballad called “Dreamer Deceiver,” which I absolutely love. I can sing Glenn Tipton’s guitar solo when it kicks in. It’s just, again, a timeless record that will always sound fresh to my ears. … And they have a lot of those records in their discography, up till, whatever, Defenders of the Faith in the Eighties. There’s something magical about this band, but this is the most magical record, as far as I’m concerned. 

1

Black Sabbath, ‘Sabbath Bloody Sabbath’ (1973)

Sabbath Bloody Sabbath to me is the most orchestrated Black Sabbath record, together with the one that came after, Sabotage, which I also love. … [Sabbath Bloody Sabbath] just happens to be my favorite record [by] my favorite hard-rock/metal band. It’s got beautiful strings. It’s different than the other ones; it’s got orchestrations on it. That was actually done by the same guy that orchestrated our last record, [Sorceress,] a guy called Wil Malone. So that was cool to work with him. And it’s also Ozzy Osbourne’s best vocal performance, I think. He’s got a great, great voice, and it’s definitely his best vocal performance. It also has my favorite Black Sabbath song, which is the last song on the record, “Spiral Architect,” which I saw when they reunited for the first time in the Nineties. … I saw that they were playing that song live and I was like, “Fuckin’ hell, I’m gonna hear my favorite song, my favorite band, and I’m gonna hear it live.” But because he’s now not as great of a singer as he once was, he had kind of remade the vocal line so it was a completely different vocal line to that song, and I was a bit disappointed, I remember. 

But it’s just a fantastic record. There’s not a weak second on it. All the songs, they put [them] in the perfect order. Great sound, great heaviness. It’s got the acoustic things. … It’s just a timeless piece of music that I will listen to till I die basically. It will still sound new then.

I love [earlier Sabbath], too, of course. I don’t need to hear “Paranoid” or “Iron Man” or “Snowblind” ever again. I can just listen to them in my head if I want to, because they’ve been overplayed, you know, like all the shows I’ve seen with Ozzy, all the shows I’ve seen with Sabbath, all the cover bands I’ve seen, radio, whatever parties you’ve been to, those songs have been played so much that I don’t need to hear them ever again. I still love them, of course, but … I know those songs too well. But with Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, even [the title track], which is also one of their hits, you still kind of discover things every time you listen to it. Or you get the shivers, if you know what I mean? … Maybe it’s a bit more complex so it takes more time to digest than “Paranoid,” for instance. I still find things in that record that make me go, “Hmm, that’s nice.” And I’ve played it, I don’t know, thousands of times. 

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