Let’s hear it for variety. With a catalogue of Sweden’s most brutal skull-hammering metal under their collective belts, Opeth has now produced an entirely *non*-metal album to bring their quiet side fully out in front. I don’t know whether they wanted to explore the possibilities of these more subdued dynamics outside the usual thrash-metal context or whether they were all on some serious meds, but they’ve proven themselves just as capable at quiet gloomy ballads all the same. For its mellowness Damnation doesn’t lack for intensity either, and in a twisted way it’s stunningly beautiful. Melodies float on dreamy beds of soft guitars and mellotron strings (yes, the dreaded M-word, but it works) with touches of piano as a subtle enhancement. In true Opeth form they’re so utterly bleak they make Radiohead sound like Jimmy Buffett by comparison. this is the most overwhelmingly depressing album I’ve ever heard in my life and it makes me practically suicidal every time I spin it. But otherwise, what’s not to like?
The sound remains generally the same throughout: a series of slow, dreary, grand funereal ballads whose overall tones range between gloomy and evil. On other albums Mikael Akerfeldt has an unfortunate tendency to growl like a deranged Muppet (and sound twice as laughable). Thankfully there’s none of that here. His voice is one of the shining qualities of this disc, actually; instead of only singing an occasional melodic passage among the thrash, he shows a very impressive range and a silky voice that’s never irritating. Makes me wonder why he tries so hard to sound so cruddy the rest of the time.
Not all the ballads are similar in makeup either. “Windowpane” starts things with a bouncy up-tempo groove (albeit that that’s the only ‘up’ characteristic present); “In My Time of Need” drags those slow strings into a dirge; “Death Whispered a Lullaby” is faster, more intense and soaringly grand all the same. “Closure” kicks into a fierce-burning jam for a moment – it’s the closest to metal they come on this album – and gets abruptly cut off on a dime with no warning, like a hanging victim dropping to the noose in mid-sentence. The musicianship is pretty jazzy throughout – tight, restrained and subtly tricky as hell.
Whatever many fans’ expectations may have been, Damnation succeeds admirably at what it does. The songs are consistently well-written and even (gasp) catchy at times – I don’t use the word in the peppy, upbeat sense, but they’re catchy all the same. They’re easy for anyone to listen to (provided one’s in the right mood), and vastly more accessible than the prog-metal/acoustic calm mix that makes their albums popular among the progressive crowd. Those who don’t want furious guitar crunch, or who enjoy actual singing, now have an Opeth album to love all the same. I suggest putting away the razor blades first.. just to be safe.