Monday, 11 September 2017

Damnation - Opeth

Provenance: I'm just back from a trip to Romania to attend the marriage of my old friend Joe to the lovely Elena. Joe's one of a group of guys who I've all known since the age of 11, and gradually became pals through a shared love of music. At one time or another we've all played with each other's bands and to this day remain tight as a group of people. It's really rather wonderful.

As is customary for any group that bond over music, recommendations fly back and forth, and one I was happy to catch was Opeth. So now, as I reflect upon the sumptuary and sublimity of the Carpathian landscape (Transylvania is a beautiful place), lately surroundings, it seems fitting that my first review upon returning home is one of Opeth's most dreamlike and ethereal collections to date.

Review: Well, I've already given the game away by labelling Damnation 'dreamlike' and 'ethereal'. Let me begin by saying that once upon a time, these would not be words readily associated with Opeth. The band - which continues to be led by the multi-talented Mikael Akerfeldt - began life as a progressive death metal outfit. However, since their 1995 debut Orchid, Akerfeldt has gradually allowed his love of classic prog rock to shine through, with 2003's Damnation representing a culmination of sorts; it was both the most nakedly prog album Opeth had put out to date, and also their most mellow.

Gone, then, are the death growls of pure death metal; in their stead is a stately, sorrowful singing akin to that John Wetton contributed to King Crimson's Red. The King Crimson comparisons don't end there, either; again, Red is invoked with some of the guitar tones and the liberal use of Mellotron to produce the very particular note of mournful foreboding that characterises the album. Which is not to say that Damnation is some kind of sequel to Red; it is perhaps unsurprising that Porcupine Tree also spring to mind, given that Steven Wilson co-produces this album.

However, if it never quite reaches the levels of tension or intensity of Red (and let's face it, what does?), Damnation is very much a collection of uneasy moods, thanks to tricksy minor-key arrangements coupled with drumming that is itchy and imaginative, pulling the seams out of the music, both establishing and deleting a groove at the same time. There are songs here too; by which I mean Opeth write strong melodies throughout, twining them sinuously around the skeletal instrumentation.

It's about this time I feel I should digress a little, and state for the record that I'm fucking sick of music publications that act in amazement when unabashedly progressive bands can write a goddamn tune. From Yes to Caravan, Jethro Tull to Genesis, Steve Hillage to Kevin Ayers, prog has been chokka with superlatively hummable music, some of which just happens to be in 13/8. Of course, there are artists in the genre who chose to create more impressionistic music, or to privilege virtuosity over what one might describe as a certain pop sensibility, but prog has earned an undeserved reputation for masturbatory excess and self-indulgence. If we're talking jam bands - well, now you're onto something, brother...

There's precious little fat on Damnation. At times it can feel like a very quiet album, with a spectral piano refrain picked out, or a shivering, chiming guitar figures ringing out over a sparse, empty landscape of sound. It's not a stretch to say that some of this is utterly spellbinding - and when the Mellotron kicks in, one of the few full-bodied instruments in the mix, the effect is at once both startling and thrilling. The guitar work is woozy and beguiling, natural and harmonic minor scales lulling the listener into that weird, heavy-lidded moment between wakefulness and sleep. The last track, 'Weakness', signs off on the most hesitant and tentative note struck on the entirety of Damnation, bringing to a close an album that feels like it was conjured entirely of gauze and ghosts and fog.

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