A One-off Disclosure
Similarly to Steve von Till’s brilliant If I Should Fall to the Field, which makes ethers ascend and swathes of sea mist search into the eye like bumblebees unwittingly following their queen to inevitable doom, Opeth’s Damnation is a record to be experienced on piercingly luminous summer nights. Like that of If I Should Fall, its wash of sound nurses the plight deep within the pores of the mind in a mystically comforting fashion.
I am fully aware that the more discerning reader will be ready to turn the page at this point; this is, after all, the third time Opeth appear in Qvadrivivm. Mikael Åkerfeldt’s enthusiastic opinions garnered the first issue, Peter Lindgren helped to bring out what one zine maker deemed ‘the best Opeth interview, ever’ in the split issue with Cair Andros, and now the latter is here again, this time to dissect the sins and virtues of Damnation. Those of you who have quite understandably overdosed on Opeth stories in recent times are advised to move on to the next article. Farewells bidden, etc.
Damnation is a seductive, mesmeric work. Whilst it is perhaps odd that such an unorthodox album could mark the get-your-act-together record for Opeth, that is what Damnation emerges as. From innovation’s perspective, it totally snatches the sun from the band’s previous three albums.
Escaping definition and eluding terminally stabilised blueprints—there you have in a nutshell what Opeth have often been about. Semi-progressive music, y’know? With their latest efforts, and with the dull Laundromat-grunts, floppy arrangements and mediocre, emotionless songs on them, Åkerfeldt, Lindgren and co. have done nothing to scratch open the hard surface that has blocked them from having a gaze at genuine advancement. This is why Damnation sounds distinctly more Opeth-y than anything they’ve done in the last decade. It goes places.
“We were supposed to record an album after Blackwater Park, which was from our point of view a pretty successful album,” Lindgren recalls. “I guess a lot of people wanted or expected us to record a Blackwater Park II, but we didn’t have any inspiration to do that at all. So we decided that we should put out a heavy album, a really heavy album. That’s how we started everything. But then Mike said he had a lot of acoustic and mellow parts he didn’t know what to do with. Somebody came up with the idea—I think it was Jonas from Katatonia—to release two albums. Once we decided to do that we had a lot of inspiration to put everything together, and it was the same thing in the studio. We offered the record label to do two albums at the same time when we usually record one, and they didn’t think it was a good idea. So the albums only count as one in the contract, but this is just because we wanted to do them so much. When things broke down in the studio with technical problems we still managed to struggle in order to get everything done. But I guess it was just all about how inspired we were.”
The entrancing songs, or better, lullabies, on Damnation are both obscure and starkly pneumatic. In addition to totally destroying all the new material live, as was witnessed by the Jyväskylä leg of their first-ever Finnish tour, they seem almost purposely to deny entry from those who only enjoy the raving death metal intensity of Opeth—even if that intensity has become debatable of late. They are seamlessly pop-like and accessible; finely patterned and certainly capable of appealing to a whole range of punters not yet in on the secrets of Opeth. Writing and recording Damnation undoubtedly demanded a good sense of imagination and an iron-cast work ethic from the band.
“For us it’s hard because we haven’t really done it before,” admits Lindgren. “We’ve mixed mellow parts in our music, but that’s been like small interceptions. It’s easier that way because all you need is one minute of good mellow riffing or a good vocal line. It’s harder when you write a whole song, and especially if you write a whole album! First of all, for us it was hard to make the songs short enough, because even though they were verse-chorus, the songs turned out to be eight minutes long anyway. And listening to the same scheme for eight minutes gets really boring, so we had to struggle to cut them shorter. That was one thing, another thing was to make the album interesting as a whole. If you have eight songs that are mellow, how do you combine them or make them different from each other in order to make the album interesting? I don’t have any good answers yet; we probably know more about death metal or the music we usually play, which is easier for us because we know exactly what works and what does not work, whereas Damnation was an experiment. We probably learned a lot. We’re not confident enough to say that we know the genre or anything. We’re still newcomers, haha.
“We tried to get a 70s kind of feeling to everything. We recorded the drums for Deliverance first and we had this great drum kit with kick drums and everything. After doing that we recorded the drums for Damnation and then we just had one kick drum and not a lot of toms—we tried to strip it down a bit and build it into a jazz kit. We did that with everything, with every aspect of the recording we tried to narrow it down a bit in order to get it more down to earth. So the production is a lot—simpler, maybe that’s a good word. It’s more direct; it doesn’t have a lot of effects and stuff. That’s the sort of feeling we wanted to get, to have it sound like it was recorded in the early 70s.”
In the end, obsequious expansion is a funeral procession. A tenfold pleasure in comparison to its counterpart release, the flaccid Deliverance, Damnation does a good job in bringing a set of quieter, more contemplative rays into the court of metal’s current Roi-soleil. It also hinders the band’s progression of growing more sumptuous by the day. However, Damnation will not be the new main street of Opeth’s musical orientations, as Peter reports.
“I would say that for us it is a brave thing to put this album out. It could ruin our careers; people could call us sell-outs or whatever. But it’s not a sell-out, it’s just an album we’ve wanted to do for a long time. If it goes really well with this record, if it sells a lot of copies, that won’t affect us because we’re not going to do this again anyway. This is just a one-time thing we wanted to do. If we sell a million records we’ve already done it so there’s no point trying to do it again.
“We try to never go back to where we were a couple of years earlier. I don’t know what’s going to come next because we’re going to do a lot of touring but we’re not going to head in the Damnation-only direction. We won’t abandon the death metal vocals because that’s what we’ve done for such a long time and we’ve liked it. Let’s say we gained a few new fans with Damnation—they might be surprised if we put out an album with kick drums and screaming vocals. But still, if they think about it, we’ve done it for ten years so it’s not that much of a surprise.”
If I were in the guitarist’s boots, I would rethink that last sentence time and again. Judging by Lindgren’s departure, maybe he did.
Those of you who were left wondering about von Till, let’s proffer a little praise on If I Should Fall to the Field. The metaphorical bells of the album toll in demandingly heavy tones. If there can be a clear-cut get-go to such a crucially aural, metaphysical experience as this recording, then I am trapped from the beginning, the very seed of it. Supported by admittedly graceful yet quite minimalist acoustic prose on the musical side, it is the Neurosis front figure’s authoritative throat that dictates the rules and regulations on this opus. His trombone of a voice, with its tremendously unique sound and calm fury, will undoubtedly have some compare the album to the less abrasive concoctions of Neurosis. Be warned though: that is not nearly the whole truth. There is a much more ambient and laid-back twist to If I Should Fall to the Field, quite reminiscent in its few-loose-shreds-like compositions of traditional singer-songwriter music, with von Till himself calling to mind a sullen, gloomier edition of Nick Drake or Leonard Cohen. “You hear the thunder but can’t get out of the storm.” Sentences go amiss; words almost ruin the experience. This music is soul-searching, haunting and beautiful beyond expression. A true summernight record.