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Opeth – Damnation Review

After one of their heaviest metal albums, Deliverance, Opeth took a completely different turn by releasing Damnation, their seventh full-length studio album, just five months later. The album, produced by Steven Wilson, was released on 22 April 2003. According to Mikael Åkerfeldt, he dedicated this album, along with Deliverance, to his grandmother, who died in a car accident while the albums were being recorded.

The album was a radical departure from Opeth’s typical style and death metal sound, since it was stripped down to all clean vocals and clean guitars. The album was greatly inspired by 70s progressive rock (especially King Crimson) and mellotron, played by Steven Wilson, was used prominently to fill in for the heavy sound that we are used to in previous Opeth albums. In 2014, TeamRock put Damnation at #91 on their “Top 100 Greatest Prog Albums Of All Time” list.

Some fans liked it, some didn’t; but despite the controversial opinions, it was critically acclaimed for the most part and there is no denying that it helped a lot of people to get to know Opeth.

Line-up

  • Mikael Åkerfeldt / electric & acoustic (6- & 12-string) guitars, vocals, co-producer

  • Peter Lindgren / guitarsMartin Mendez / basses (fretted & fretless)

  • Martin Lopez / drums, percussion

With:

  • Steven Wilson / piano, Mellotron, Fender Rhodes, backing vocals, co-producer, mixing & mastering

Track List

1- Windowpane (7:44)

Alongside being the opening track of the album, Windowpane is also the longest song of the album. While one of the purposes of creating this acoustic album is to broaden the audience of Opeth, this song is also the most popular song of the band(considering the song, it is pretty normal). Starting off with a dissonant melancholic guitar riff, the heavy bass and groovy drums enter the song, complementing each other and satisfying our ears.

Blank face in the windowpane Made clear in seconds of light Disappears and returns again Counting hours, searching the night

Mikael Åkerfeldt wrote this song for his grandmother since she died during the recording of the album. We can feel the alienation he felt from his mother with every word of the lyrics and also the cold-distant synth work on the background of the song by Steven Wilson. He certainly interprets the feeling needed for the song the best way possible and arranges the keyboards in a beautiful way.

The song has melodic bluesy guitar solos in-between the verses. Mikael has mentioned many times that 70’s prog guitarists, especially Andrew Latimer (Camel), has been an inspiration and impact on his playing style (he once said the song Benighted was a rip-off from the Camel song Never Let Go). Throughout the song and the rest of the album, we are able to hear those influences clearly on Mikael’s guitar.

Windowpane is a great opener song which shows that Opeth wants to invite more people to its music by showing their softer side, while not leaving the complexity, instrumentality, and distinctiveness of the albums before Damnation – as much as possible.

2- In My Time of Need (5:47)

I don’t know how many times we will mention that Opeth shows that they are more than a metal band in this review; they sure must have wanted to make a statement. In “In My Time of Need,” what surprises the listener the most must be the syncopated staccato vocal technique. The first verse is sung by Åkerfeldt syllable by syllable, making sure that the listener understands what he is saying, highlighting the meaning behind the music. Compared to the brutal vocals in Opeth’s previous work, this is quite new, and it obviously worked for them.

The song is about loneliness and suicide (no wonder Steven Wilson produced the album). While many other highly emotional pieces of music use metaphors and literary devices to explain their feelings, but this song is very straightforward. He starts the song by saying “I can’t see the meaning of this life I’m leading” and continues to say that he is “close to ending it all.” How else can he say it? The man wants to die! This is where the vocal technique comes in. Because his life is in a rough patch, Opeth made the brilliant choice to remove the smoothness of Åkerfeldt’s voice. He is close to suicide, but we can see that he is still trying to hold on to life as he says “Would someone watch over me in my time of need?” He is inch by inch getting closer to death, but not faster than that, thus the syllable by syllable singing.

Although the lyrics and the vocals hold such a deep thought, the music in the background is almost as if it is a lullaby. The clean electric guitar sound, the choir, and string synths all add up to a mellow sound. Even when the song is coming to the end of a buildup, the band kicks back to the clean guitar sound and never eases the anticipation of the listener. The synth sounds in the chorus partly make up for this, but can not cover the amount of resolution the distorted guitar creates. In contrast to the simple instrumental sections, the bassline must be carefully listened to in order to further appreciate the piece.

With a simple and soft instrumental composition, a rare vocal technique, and lyrics that would even depress Jerry Seinfeld, “In My Time of Need” is almost like a song that you would hear just before you close your eyes and die.

3- Death Whispered a Lullaby (5:50)

Written by Steven Wilson, the third track Death Whispered Lullaby is told from the perspective of Death calling to hurt and kidnap a child to let go of his life(just an interpretation). With the chorus, “Oh, Sleep my child” Death tries to convince the child by relieving his soul, making him “sleep”. Death also makes the child aware of what’s going on around him, since s/he might not be able to understand everything and Death can manipulate him to end its life: 

Out on the road There are fireflies circling Deep in the woods Where the lost souls hide

Death Whispered a Lullaby starts with a disturbing guitar riff as if it is trying to prevent us from entering the song inside the song. However, as it proceeds, it says “well since you decided to come, you have the feeling the fright and terror” and chorus enters. Normally, Mikael would vocalize this kind of scary characters with his growling technique, but for Damnation, he decided to remain habitant, yet still moving. Also throughout the album, Martin Lopez also shows his versatility by playing many different styles and maintaining the true feelings throughout the album and this song is one of the examples.

With the chaotic finale of the song with the atmospheric shredding, which actually reminds the listener of the finale of the song The Raven That Refused to Sing(by Steven Wilson), Opeth shows that it can deliver the darkness of the previous albums without getting as heavy and brutal as them – with the specialty of Steven Wilson.

4- Closure (5:16)

With the song Closure, the Swedish band shows their Nordic influences and versatility of the Scandinavian traditional folk music, which inspired acoustic guitar intro of the song. As the song proceeds, we see that they blend their heavy prog metal elements with their traditional music. In the second part of the song we hear them blending fully, since the unused percussion such as tambourine enters the song, until the song ends suddenly (like the songs Pull Me Under by Dream Theater and I Want You by The Beatles).

The song is told from the perspective of a person who has suffered a lot of depression and tried to grow personally. However, when he tried to end the depression from the root of it, he couldn’t find any reason why s/he’s so depressed at all. It is common for depressed people to not find the origin of their sadness since depression is something that grows on you little by little every day until you fall into the clutches of it. Considering the theme of the song, maybe the song has the most relatable and honest theme on the whole album. Indeed another hopeless and nihilistic(!) song by Opeth, fits the general feeling of the album.

There’s nothing painful in this There’s no upheaval Redemption for my pathos All sins undone

5- Hope Leaves (4:27)

The fifth track of the album, Hope Leaves, starts off with a clean guitar arpeggio that reminds the listener of the start of Windowpane, the first and maybe the most widely acclaimed song of the album. But instead of an instrumental section, it is followed directly by Mikael Åkerfeldt’s melancholic vocals. With his vocals in this song (and the album as a whole), Åkerfeldt shows that his abilities as a singer include more than just growling and those low notes that we are familiar with in other Opeth albums.

The song is about someone, quite possibly a man, who has lost a person that Is very dear to him. From the first lines, it is clear that the memory of this person is holding our narrator back because of the “lonely photograph” beside his window in his room; presumably, he sees it every day as a result. In the chorus, Åkerfeldt creates a juxtaposition between being hold back (symbolized by the wound that is always bleeding) and being forced to move on (symbolized by the road that he is always walking). And by saying that this person will surely never return to the narrator, it is safe to assume that the person from the narrator’s past is deceased.

The song doesn’t have an epic guitar solo or any distortion. It even ends with a simple fade-out technique that approximately lasts a whole minute. But it has great lyrics by Åkerfeldt and it just shows how emotional and versatile in their style Opeth can be.

6- To Rid the Disease (6:18)

The sixth track of the album, To Rid the Disease, has a start that even though is played with a clean guitar gives more chills than a simple distorted riff can ever create. After two repeats of this gloomy chord progression, Åkerfeldt welcomes us for another melancholic vocal performance. Though it is rather relaxed and slow, when combined with Peter Lindgren’s guitar, it creates an unsettling feeling that is hard to comprehend at first.

Though I used the word “welcome” to describe the entering of the vocals, the lyrics itself is quite the opposite. Opening with “There’s nobody here, there’s nobody near”, Åkerfeldt sets the tone of the song with themes of loneliness, hopelessness and as the song progresses, the contrast between death and life. Quite possibly the most striking line of the song is what gave it its title: “Faint movement release to rid the disease”. Though it can be interpreted in many different ways, one that comes to mind is the slight movement of the body right before death where the muscles contract one last time as a result of a reflex. Continuing this analogy, this reflex can be seen as the body getting rid of life, which in this case is called a “disease”. This is supported by the rest of the verse with lines like “Who’ll cry for his state, we know it’s too late” which can be associated with death (the idea of everything being too late and the hopelessness this brings).

Like the other songs on the album, To Rid the Disease ends with a long repetition, with small changes every now and then, that builds up to the final chord; however, looking from a harmonic function perspective, this is the fifth chord of the key (the song is in D minor) and this A minor chord’s role is thus dominant which leaves the listener yearning for the resolution. By not giving a resolution, Opeth deliberately keeps us on the hook and we feel the urge to keep listening. Even though they took a great risk by creating a “softer” album that not a lot of fans really enjoyed, this band still knows how to keep a listener on the edge.

7- Ending Credits (3:36)

Ending Credits, quite ironically not the last track on the album, is the shortest one. And there is a very good reason for it: There are no lyrics, just an astonishing guitar solo. Yes, if we had to describe this solo by the legendary Åkerfeldt himself with only one word, it would be “astonishing”. It is actually a short solo that repeats itself but it is just the perfect ending for an album like Damnation that is known for its clean guitar work. Though, with the other songs on the album, the band proved that they can still create music that is a treat for ears even if they don’t go the usual heavy metal way; this is the definitive proof that Opeth is more than just distorted guitars and growling like a beast.

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