Prototypical Opeth..this is the one to buy first
This album is the balance point where you get much of the best of the band in its many aspects. Many point to Blackwater Park as THE Opeth album, but I actually like this one better. The high points are higher, the track order is better, and there are fewer lulls. Like BP, it sees both the production and songwriting a bit sharper than the classic Still Life.
Ghost of Perdition - This is Opeth in a song, probably their best ever and certainly top three. It contains Mikael's perfected growls, harmony vocals, folky acoustic guitars, multiple 3-time melodic riffs and of course crushing death metal syncopation. It's a true prog epic, in that there are many different sections that weave in and out with clear purpose and intention. Where many bands have chord beds for improvisational solos, this song is obviously carefully composed. One of the best headbanging moments of all time (the "Devil cracked the earthly shell.you got to live before you die young" section) appears early in two repetitions, and is never seen again. That's songwriting maturity. Rather than milking a good riff, this section serves a purpose within the whole song and nothing more. The solo is relatively brief and simple, and again, is perfectly placed. If you wanted one song to exemplify the entire genre (Prog Death Metal), this is it. 11/10
Baying of the Hounds - This song pushes things further into adventurous territory, opening with a riff more grooving than is typically heard in an Opeth song. Along with plenty of storytelling done in dragonvoice (a frequent but strange Opeth element) this song brings in various keyboard sounds from vibes to mellotron to strings. This song doesn't pull you in like the opener, but it has some great sections, and multiple monster riffs. Akerfeldt also begins to introduce some serious dissonance, prog sound, and weirdness that will fuel Watershed (esp Lotus Eater). 8/10
Beneath the Mire - Opening with a simple groove, a staccato guitar riff backing a violin key melody takes into a slide-y section a little reminiscent of Drapery Falls, but thicker. Harsh vocals enter, as melodic as they can be, breaking through the thick layers at just the right time. Multiple solos also punctuate this piece, and while none are as memorable as track 1's guitar break, they are perfectly placed. This song is a good example of apparent harsh breaks in the music actually making melodic and thematic sense. It takes multiple listens, but is worth the effort. I especially like the classically proggy outro. 7/10
Atonement - This is a mid-tempo song with clean electrics and plenty of keyboards, effected vocals, strummy guitars and a fairly straightforward lead over some laid-back drums in four. The 70's prog influences allow the repetitiveness of the song to stand-up, but is a let-up in creativity. Not as poor as the closer, but a still a little weak. 6/10
Reverie / Harlequin Forest - The most epic song on an album with several epic-length pieces. This one has some great moments and some overlong sections, but the overall structure is that of classic prog, a multi-section narrative with a unified theme. Much of the storytelling here is done in a low clean voice, with good melodic content which maintains the listeners interest well. When the growls come in (8:30 is a great example), they make sense and contribute to the song. 7/10
Hours of Wealth - The best quiet piece of the album, this song contains both clean electric and acoustic guitar, mellotron and does evoke Damnation to some extent. However, it's actually a little quicker and, if possible, warmer than the chill of Opeth's all-clean album. There are near a capella parts with just keys, nice harmonies, a tasty solo in Akerfeldt's jazz-bluesy style. A very nice transition piece, though certainly not a highlight in itself. 7/10
The Grand Conjuration - The album closes in more listener-friendly fashion, first heavy and then light. This song, which was not surprisingly chosen for a video, is based around a simple 3 note/chord pattern that gets varied and twisted in many different forms, but provides a very simple anchor that makes this song much easier to understand on first listen. Similarly, the light whispered vocals, slow addition of instruments and angry chorus border on formulaic. Interestingly, this light touch hides the fact that this song has the most blackened lyrics of the album. The guitar solo section has a fairly straight tapping section and more standard metal sound than Mikael usually employs. At midpoint, the song shifts to a much more proggy section starting with keys and then hitting full blast death metal. This song is a live favorite and it's easy to see why. It pulls you in easy, slowly grows and then releases energy in a sweet angry release. The outro, a return to the main theme, is probably not needed, and seems a little too long. It does work well in the live setting and had it been the end to the entire album (it should have been), I would have also agreed with the choice. 8/10
Isolation Years - the low point of the album for me. Many fans lump Opeth's clean vocal / guitar works into a Damnation bin, but they actually vary widely in quality, adventurousness, melody, and emotion. This one is perhaps the weakest of the entire catalog. The lyrics, the melody, the harmonic structure are simple-minded (almost pop), somewhat repetitive, and seem out of place on an Opeth record. The vocals are well performed but the songwriting is below the band's standard. For me, a disappointing close to a strong record. 4/10
So we have a masterpiece song, one throwaway, and a variety of 6-8/10 songs showcasing the different faces of the band well. Again, I think this is a perfect introduction to the band, perhaps the best example of their typical sounds. The following album, Watershed, is moving in a new direction, Damnation is the equivalent of a side project between Steven Wilson and Akerfeldt, and other works are simply more uneven than this record. Not a masterpiece, but very good extreme prog metal.