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KOCH Records, 2003
Swedish death-metal stalwarts Opeth established their reputation by seamlessly blending ear-splitting metal with softer acoustic sounds in complex proggy compositions. But "Damnation" surprised many by being 100% soft, with not a grunt or growl in sight. And those approaching it from either extreme of their audience should find a lot to like here. Fans of prog-rock will appreciate its rich arrangements and nods to classic and modern melodic prog. Metallers might see it as sacrilege, but those who are not allergic to gentler stuff could see it as a set of windswept rock ballads with a creeping dark edge. The people who should be most satisfied with this are Porcupine Tree fans, as producer Steven Wilson's hallmarks are all over it - the breathy vocal overdubbing, the imaginative studio effects and most of all his flair for arranging webs of crisp, glittering guitars. I don't know whether Opeth had as much an influence on Porcupine Tree as the other way round, but it was certainly a mutually beneficial partnership.
Most of the songs follow the same pattern of alternating pretty "acoustic" passages, hooky choruses, and liquid guitar solos. All smeared liberally with gentle vocal harmonies and stringy keyboards. If you've heard their harder metal stuff, you can almost imagine that the abrasive rhythm guitar riffs have been replaced by the same riffs on a Mellotron. The pinging middle section of "Windowpane" is neo-prog through and through. "Closure" closes with the kind of determined Middle-Eastern flavoured riff that also works well in a heavier context. The instrumental "Ending Credits" reminds me particularly of Camel. Tbe spacey finale "Weakness" has a lovely gloopy guitar sound, presumably one of Wilson's production tricks.
They're very good at this style, and each of the songs taken alone is a quality piece of work. But an entire album of it makes for a not completely satisfying listen. Opeth are at their best when mixing light and dark. I appreciate they might have felt like a break from their usual style of seamless hard-soft blends, and they're perfectly entitled to experiment at this stage in their career. I suspect that they made an entire album of soft stuff to make it more clear to their listeners that this was an artificial experiment, and not a permanent change of direction. If it had been, say, 70% soft, then, ironically, their metal fans may have become more worried.
So when can we expect their 100% ball-grinding heavy album then? It's not "Deliverance" that's for sure, there was still plenty of quieter stuff there!
April 11, 2006