Immersion can be such a wonderful thing in literature and music. It’s great in movies and other visual mediums as well, but when you eliminate the visuals entirely and force the audience to let themselves envision the world the artist has created, individual interpretation has a magic of its own. I’ve often seen myself gravitating toward the atmosphere of an album because of this, as well as the fact that it creates a tangible environment to explore (so to speak) with the ears. With Morning View by Incubus, I imagine myself resting on a beach watching the waves go by. Homogenic by Bjork gives off the feeling of walking along an icy tundra because of its sweeping strings and the overall tone. Well, with Opeth’s Damnation, two themes always come through without a doubt: contemplation, and pure unadulterated melancholy.
After an impressive string of well-crafted progressive death metal albums, frontman Mikael Akerfeldt thought it would be interesting to create two polar opposites musically. Deliverance would focus on the band’s heavier side, going on to be one of their harshest and darkest recordings, while Damnation would be entirely devoid of death growls or any form of metal. I can only imagine how much this split the band’s fans at the time of its release, as Damnation’s tonal and dynamic shift was easily their biggest stylistic departure up to that time. Now we have Heritage and Pale Communion nodding to the band’s 70s progressive rock roots and stirring up the fanbase even more, but Damnation points to a palatable blend of classic progressive rock, folk rock, soft rock, and some symphonic elements here and there. It still remains Opeth’s most subdued recording to date, and the melancholic vibe is strong in this one that its presence seeps into every song in some way and enhances the emotional resonance beyond just the songcraft. In fact, the black and white album cover, depicting a doll and a wooden desk, is a perfect companion piece to the music within.
Steven Wilson is, once again, at the helm of production (as well as various instruments such as the keyboard and mellotron), and his work is immaculate here. The instruments blend together phenomenally, especially heightening the chemistry between the guitar and bass work throughout the record. For instance, songs such as “Windowpane” and “Ending Credits” are able to layer keyboards, electric guitar, acoustic guitar, and bass work on top of each other without muddling the sound in the slightest. Despite this, the band still capture a sort of contemplative and sparse atmosphere that captures both a sense of bleakness and resignation. “Weakness,” which is an incredibly minimalist duet between Wilson and Akerfeldt, captures the vibe perfectly because of how the keyboard and guitar tones mix. Of course, we can’t forget Mikael’s strong vocal performances, either. His voice sounds dreary and calm, but never in a way that it sounds as though he’s lazy or careless. It’s simply subdued, and melds well with the soft dynamics of each piece; in fact, the harmonies on this album are just gorgeous! There’s one section in “Hope Leaves” that always strikes me as particularly beautiful, in which about 4 or 5-part vocal harmony actually fades into the next instrumental section after the chorus. Little subtleties like that go a long way on this record.
The other members are great as well; Peter Lindgren, Martin Mendez, and Martin Lopez (on guitar, bass, and drums respectively) display both restraint and a decent amount of technicality at the same time, which is a tough balance to effectively pull off. Mendez, in particular, gives a strong bass performance that’s in the foreground much more frequently than in most other Opeth albums; his work on “Windowpane,” “Closure,” and “Death Whispered a Lullaby” is especially strong. As for the lyrics, they’re a bit stripped down this time around in comparison to albums like Blackwater Park or Still Life, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. They might be simplistic and lack some of the incredibly detailed imagery of the past, but the more personal and intimate writings heard here seem very fitting for a softer and more somber piece of work. Even Steven Wilson’s lyrical contribution, “Death Whispered a Lullaby,” is pretty decent; if more Porcupine Tree songs had excerpts such as “Into the dark, there are eyelids closing/buried alive in the shifting sands,” instead of crap like “Xbox is a god to me/a finger on the switch, my mother is a bitch/my father gave up ever trying to talk to me,” I’d certainly enjoy that.
Unfortunately Damnation does get a bit repetitive and homogeneous after a while. The band do their best to try and shake things up, but songs such as “To Rid the Disease” and especially “Ending Credits” just don’t do much for me. The latter seems completely unnecessary, totally hampered by needlessly dull songwriting and highly uneventful passages. Not only that, but it seems bizarre that a song named “Ending Credits,” which sounds like the musical version of a curtain call (especially as an instrumental with a fade-in and gradual fade-out), is the penultimate song here. That’s not taking anything away from “Weakness”, however, which is a great closer. As for “To Rid the Disease,” it’s actually a decent song, but the second half is quite a drag compared to the first. The piano playing by Steven Wilson is a nice touch in the background, but the instrumental flourishes aren’t very interesting and become increasingly dull. “Closure” also has a long outro, but the drumming has become much more lively and the instrumental work is actually quite technically challenging in this section. With the exception of “Hope Leaves,” I prefer the first half of Damnation by a pretty wide margin.
Either way, I can’t deny that this album has grown on me over time. It’s flawed, certainly, but the atmosphere is beautiful in its somberness and the songwriting is top-notch in most of the songs. The reason I consider Damnation a better record than other classic prog Opeth albums like Heritage and Pale Communion is because it seems like less of a blatant throwback and more of a 70s prog-influenced piece with its own identity. Basically, it’s the same old Opeth meeting the old prog legends with a passionate love letter… it might pay tribute to the classics, but it’s still distinctly Opeth. If you enjoy classic 70s progressive rock or want to hear a softer version of Opeth’s typical sound, I suggest giving this a try. It might be a jarring shift in style for the band, but make no mistake: this is the same band, just adorning a different, refreshing coat of paint.