@ Nwcastle O2 Academy, November 9 2011

Screaming quality and yet refusing to indulge in any quality screaming, new man Mikael Akerfeldt’s bold transition from death metal growler to progressive rock singer appears seamless.

Employing every trick of the prog trade to thrilling effect – the ambient lighting, giant keyboard stack, offset drum kit, mid-set tuning and careful instrument changes replete with roadie cameos – the Opeth frontman has found his calling.

If this is the end of the Swedish juggernaut’s trad death sound as we know it then it’s time to celebrate the fact. Who really wants to listen to inaudible grunts when meaningful melody is an option?

Not the majority of those packed into Newcastle’s Academy if an overwhelmingly positive reaction to Opeth’s new direction is a barometer. A mix of fans raised on the band’s heavier back catalogue and those intrigued by the quintet’s expansive new sound mingled freely – a shared respect for the talent of the musicians before them clearly evident.

Talk of division within the most committed ranks of the Opeth army may not be without foundation. Yet here, to a man (and even the odd woman), there was an acceptance that there is no going back for a band reinvigorated by a fresh challenge and a potentially glorious future.

True to his word Akerfeldt mixed lighter moments from Opeth’s long and celebrated history with a healthy slew of tracks from the outstanding Heritage. And thrown together in one softer-edged setlist it became clear that the band’s quieter moments always hinted at a sea change in sound somewhere down the line.

At the same time as Jethro Tull were picking up their Spirit Of Prog prize at the 2011 Classic Rock Awards, a new contender for the accolade was making a serious play for the hearts and minds of Dream Theater, Rush, Yes and Porcupine Tree fans everywhere. It would have seemed daft to even consider Opeth as prog rock standard bearers 12 months ago but Heritage, and Akerfeldt’s decision to ditch the screams, has changed everything.

Right now Stockholm’s finest are making music for middle aged men with beards and glasses, who appreciate real ale out of glasses with handles and probably enjoy their closest personal relationships online. But Opeth know that the market for progressive rock stretches far beyond that clichéd demographic in 2011 and they are perfectly positioned to emerge as genre leaders within two years.

And the ace in the pack is Akerfeldt. Quite apart from being able to craft some of the finest tunes around, the droll Swede is a delight to behold on stage. His dry humour, intimate knowledge of the British rock scene and devotion to fellow countrymen Abba makes for some of the finest banter on the live circuit. Likening Sting to a sperm was one of the most astute and amusing lines of the night but there was plenty more where that came from.

Otherwise faultless, Akerfeldt’s failure to carry out his threat of playing two hours of ‘cock rock’ was the only disappointment for the Europe fans in the house. But that’s for another night and another incarnation.

Simon Rushworth