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Opeth - Damnation CD (album) cover

DAMNATION

Opeth

 

Tech/Extreme Prog Metal

3.93 | 984 ratings

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James Lee
Special Collaborator
Honorary Collaborator
2 stars Steve Wilson has spent the last few PORCUPINE TREE albums catching up with 'alternative rock'- paring down the song length and improvisation, evolving towards a more accessible sound. Now that he's decided he doesn't need them, his castoff prog bits get used to confuse the development of an intriguingly different heavy band.

That's a bit overstated; the choice of direction was not Wilson's but Mikael Akerfeldt's, and the compositions and instrumentation still have the understated drama and expressiveness that elevated OPETH's previous albums above typical death metal, goth metal, and prog- metal. However, any kind of metal would be welcome here- in its place we get unneccesarily long instrumental breaks and transitions often similar to the ones that made earlier PORCUPINE TREE albums seem derivative, overlong, and amorphous. I'm not quite the metal fan I used to be, but I still miss the dynamic range OPETH offered on their earlier (and, let's hope, later) albums; the gradual buildup or sudden onslaught of heavy distortion and growling vocals was a great counterpoint to the quieter (but no less darkly emotional) passages. Add that to the tightly harmonized and/ or filtered vocals ("Shesmovedon", anyone?) and and you get a diluted version of the band's identity- diluted by both Wilson's characteristic but homogenizing production as well as by the band's decision to display only half of their range.

On the good side, half of OPETH is still more enjoyable than 100% of many bands (if you follow me...). When Wilson lets the band stick with their strengths, the album is a dark wonderland of acoustic guitar and vocals hushed with a confidential immediacy that makes the black-garbed teenager angst of the lyrics seem a little less banal. Most heavy bands would fail miserably if they had to forego the power chords and shouting for a whole album, and OPETH has enough emotive moodiness to almost make it work.

Some prankster could have slipped "Windowpane" into a PT album, and only the realism of the instruments would give it away. It's a decent song, apart from that; the warm, clear guitar delivers the moodiness with an almost jazzy flourish, and the mellotron pads provide the 'bigness' that OPETH would normally turn up the volume and distortion to acheive. This same approach is used for the climax of "In My Time of Need", which again heavily suggests PT in the vocals and production, but also reminds me of ELP's acoustic crooners. "Death Whispered a Lullaby" is almost too gothic a title to be taken seriously, but it's actually a listenable take on the "Don't Fear the Reaper" theme. Despite a lack of heaviness, the melodic lines and arrangements (and the uninspired guitar solo) are unmistakably metal- you could see this as the 'unplugged' version, except that there's no 'plugged' version to begin with. Unfortunately, the climax blasts off into the kind of meandering sonics that neutered "Signify", but at least they had the sense to keep it to a reasonable length. "Closure" is back to PT vocal territory, again with metal-influenced riffs that beg to be liberated with extreme noise. It almost happens- the whole song is a series of crescendos that get increasingly dependent on the percussion (and a mellotron in the background) to provide the drama. More swirling Hackett-ish guitar (there aren't a wide variety of tones throughout the album) heralds the opening of "Hope Leaves", and thankfully the annoying filter on the vocals gets thrown out early. By the way, the filtered vocal craze was pretty much over when Britney Spears did it four years hence- unless you have a really good reason, it's just a production gimmick. "To Rid the Disease" is more of the same, with some piano to spice things up not at all. If you get this far, you either like the sound and won't mind another unremarkable track, or you've already decided you don't care for the album and one more example is unneeded. "Ending Credits" has a nice minor- key guitar melody, but little else; it's a soundtrack-type piece that offers little apart from pleasant CAMEL-ish background music. "Weakness" almost doesn't exist at all; a few vampiric vocals and a leslie-soaked electric piano do not a song make. I'd call it atmospheric if it sounded a little less like just a bit of between-song fooling-around.

Some folks see this as a celebration of the progressive side of OPETH, a justification for all the death-metal moments they've 'endured'. Me, I like the black velvet hammer of their more unrestrained releases, and have some difficulty calling "Damnation" any more of a prog album than anything else they've done. Perhaps adding mellotrons and invoking the name of CAMEL means more to other people, but this album strikes me as just a collection of the simpler, quieter moments of a band whose main forte is complex heaviness. If they continue on this path, we'll have a clear contender for the point at which they stopped being truly interesting. We'll even have Steve Wilson as a scapegoat.

James Lee | 2/5 |

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