Opeth – Damnation (2003)

Hello and welcome to the spruced-up ZaRecords. There’s a spring vibe in the air, and I thought I’d give the blog a little make-over, making it more user friendly when it comes to searches and backtracking. Even if the theme is slightly different, the style of the content will not change – it’ll be just easier to find.

Opeth is one of the bands I discovered about eight years ago, and they’ve been with me ever since. They were the band I went to see in Budapest for my first “major” concert. Obviously, I still hold a soft spot for them, and there’s plenty of reason to do so, regardless of personal motivation.

Source: opeth.com

This band started off as so many “extreme metal” groups do, setting out to become “the most evil” death-metal band out there. It’s funny how these things turn out, given that throughout the years, Opeth has become one of the most refined, complex and melodically enchanting groups in rock, managing to elegantly graft a wealth of prog-rock influence on their more brutal, metal background. One after the other, the albums they issued seemed to gain depth right before the listener’s eyes, and it was clear that Opeth had managed to create a very intriguing branch of metal – eclectic and yet very well grounded, close to its roots, especially after their initial team-up with Steven Wilson, of Porcupine Tree fame, as a producer. Steven Wilson himself is known for creating music which is notoriously hard to classify, incorporating influences from rock, jazz, blues, metal, post-rock and so on on every album in a truly tantalizing mix. This influence became clear on Opeth’s Blackwater Park album, and it only continued to grow, naturally and of its own accord, ever since.

The band were always cautious about alienating their initial, metal fan base, so at first this perceived dichotomy between a softer, more melodic side of their music and the unrelenting, brutal, “evil” sound of their death metal side led them to issue what is basically a double album, the formidable Deliverance/Damnation records, released in 2002 and 2003 respectively. Deliverance is the harder of the two, while Damnation focuses more on the prog-rock influence, containing no death-metal growling and very little specifically metal sound structures. Damnation was my first contact with the band and it impressed me so much I found myself ready for almost all of their other work, even though I hadn’t been a metal enthusiast before. This album is extremely smooth, marked by a mesmerizing touch of sadness and poetry, flowing from the speakers like a nightly torrent of melody and Gothic imagery. Opeth don’t lose their edge on Damnation, it’s not a “ballad album”, it’s simply a different conceptual approach to the darker themes and flashes which constitute the basis for their brand of metal. The music shifts elegantly between acoustic passages to electrified, mourning stretches of sound, with unparallelled swiftness and balance, so much so that the album as a whole induces imagery of a high-wire ballet, breathtaking and dangerous, constructed in such a way as to keep an ominous, autumnal mood throughout.

Mikael Åkerfeldt’s vocals are exquisitely meditative and yearning on this album, which is definite and satisfying proof that the band don’t have to rely on the contrast between growling and clean singing to empower their softer passages. It’s a rare moment indeed when an originally death-metal band demonstrates this level of code-switching ability to such an extent. The album is so coherent it even manages to incorporate the slightly cheesy, artificial-sounding keyboards in such a way as to be impossible to imagine without them – the music gives the eighties vibe of the instrument a renewed meaning, it creates the perfect context for it to shine the way it does, via its pronounced theatrical air. As I mentioned before, there’s a clear Gothic influence to this album, a twisted reference to a shadowy circus as a musical metaphor for confusion and emotional turmoil, which is thankfully done with grace and subtlety. The lyrics don’t obnoxiously force home this point, allowing the music to really take over and do the “talking”, which is great, since there’s so much eloquence in every phrase and every passage it would’ve been a shame to muddle it with excessive poetic meanderings. Åkerfeldt manages to sing in such a way as to create the impression of a broken, segmented whisper, only complementing the whole, never showing off, even though his soaring voice is truly one of the highlights of the album. I guess that’s what’s truly remarkable about Damnation – the feeling that even the silence is part of the music, that even the pauses are nothing if not integral, fascinating parts of the show.

My recommendation is to enjoy Opeth’s Damnation in solitude and warmth, with wine and a good Gothic novel (Charles Maturin’s “Melmoth the wanderer” comes to mind). I hope you like the new layout and to see you soon!

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