2023 marks 20 years since Opeth released the Damnation album. At the time it was viewed by many as a big change in direction, although in essence it still contained a lot of the softer musical attributes which the band had been putting on their albums for many years prior. The major difference was that this entire album was deliberately aimed to showcase the more mellow side of Opeth, which in hindsight was a natural progression in the exploration and expansion of the song-writing. Yet who could have possibly known at then that eight years later the band would make a huge shift in musical direction, and fully abandon their death metal roots for a far more progressive style. And that is why this particular album is so important; it marks a point where band leader Mikael Åkerfeldt had gained the confidence to push the band in whatever direction he felt that he must.
For anyone that is unfamiliar with the history of Opeth, I’ll give you a brief catch-up. They began in Stockholm, Sweden back in 1990, and strongly identified with the death metal scene of that era, although there were always elements of far broader musical genres within their compositions. Overall, from the first release, Orchid in 1995, their music could be classed as aggressive heavy rock, with pounding drums (lots of double-kick work), distorted guitars, and guttural ‘death growl’ vocals. But even during these early years, their compositions had many lighter moments with soft acoustic passages, clean guitars, and even clean lead vocals on occasion. As the band progressed through the remainder of the ’90s, they incorporated more of these less-typical death metal qualities, to a point where on their fifth studio album, Blackwater Park, it felt like they had hit the perfect balance. This album received huge critical acclaim in 2001, and on reflection it is viewed as one of the most seminal moments in their career.
The question back then would have been how to follow up such a success, which at the time may not have achieved huge sales, but the fans and critics absolutely adored it. Well, the history of Damnation shows the direction that the next song-writing sessions took, as main song-writer Åkerfeldt kept on producing beautiful and haunting tunes, admitting at the time that he wasn’t listening to much metal during that period, to a point where he had accumulated so much lighter material that he made a decision to make a double album, which later gave way to creating two separate albums, each with their own identity. The record label changed their minds on a planned joint release, and instead opted to put out the harder rocking Deliverance in November 2002, viewed by many to contain some of the band’s heaviest material to date. Damnation was finally released in April 2003 as their seventh studio album, featuring all the softer material from the same recording sessions.
Damnation is still a band effort, containing performances from the other three members of Opeth, but it also had Steven Wilson providing backing vocals and keyboards, as well as having some involvement with the musical arrangements (he even wrote the lyrics for one song). Wilson was brought on board to finish off the production duties for Deliverance, which had a troublesome recording session, fraught with technical issues and with Åkerfeldt continuing evening writing sessions to complete the album. Yet even back then, Wilson admitted that it was the Damnation album concept that drew him into the entire project, as although being responsible for the superb production on their previous Blackwater Park, he was more excited to be involved with this mellower side of Åkerfeldt’s song-writing. And it was Wilson that suggested using keyboards on certain songs to give them that extra texture, which eventually led to Opeth expanding their line-up to include a full-time keyboardist.
The eight tracks on this album clock in at just over 43 minutes, and as such make a rather good transition over to vinyl. Side 1 features just three songs, while the remaining five are all squeezed onto side 2. The final production still has Steven Wilson at the helm, but this particular edition features his 2015 remix, which was part of a joint remix/re-release of Deliverance and Damnation combined. The original 2003 release sounded beautiful enough, but this re-tweaked version has some minor adjustments using more modern technology from 12 years later, to enhance it even further. Opeth’s heavy rock music can sound quite dense, yet the stripped-back approach to this selection of songs has allowed more space for the instruments and vocals to breathe. It truly is a very beautiful sounding album, with that gorgeous underlying melancholy vibe.
I’m not going to do a track-by-track review of this album, basically because it’s been out there for over 20 years now, and any fans of Opeth will know this material inside out. But for anyone not that familiar with the band, and not really a fan of metal in general, then this could be the perfect gateway album for you to discover the beauty of Opeth’s music. This was in fact the first release where Mikael Åkerfeldt sang clean vocals on every single song, so there are no death growls included here, and no heavily distorted guitars or double-kick drums either. His voice has a fabulous quality to it. I love his tone and his vocal phrasing, and the subtle vibrato he uses too. To this day he still sings with guttural vocals for the band’s live shows, yet the two Opeth albums that followed this one ended up being the last to include that style, and from 2011’s Heritage onwards, he has always sung with full clean vocals in the studio, alongside the band taking a much more progressive rock style to totally move away from their death metal roots.
This really was a pivotal album for Opeth with regard to how their musical future would evolve. It’s easier to see it in hindsight now after 20 years, but back then it was quite a bold move for a band that were classed as heavy rock to do a complete album of mellow material. Yet on reflection it truly was a sign of things to come. The introduction of keyboards added another dimension to their music, allowing more light and shade, and now not purely from acoustic guitar passages as it had pretty much been in the past. These songs also allowed Åkerfeldt to explore and express himself better vocally, no longer feeling restricted by the metal stylings that were expected from Opeth until this point. And lastly, there were now zero limitations on the creative direction he could push his music, thus allowing him to truly indulge his song-writing skills, to produce an album that has stood the test of time and still sounds incredibly fresh and timeless over two decades later.
Now I haven’t got a vinyl copy of the original 2003 mix, so I can’t make an exact comparison to this newer version. However, I do have both mixes in digital form, and in the same format too. Therefore I am able to make a fairly accurate A/B comparison between the two digital releases and pick out the main differences between them. Firstly, I can instantly hear that the bass guitar has a much improved tone. The sound slightly blooming in resonance within certain frequency bands has now gone, and with it comes a more pronounced top-end poke to the notes, giving it a ‘tighter’ sound overall. The acoustic guitars also seem to have some of that lower mid-range tubbyness reduced, with also some higher-end sparkle given to the strings. The electric guitars seem to chime more brightly, the keyboards feel like their higher range has been extended, and the vocals definitely sound like there’s a bit more air in the tone too. Even the percussion and the cymbals feel more alive, for want of a better word. So there is a noticeable difference between these two mixes.
Now there’s every chance that some listeners, especially those that grew up with the original mix and have listened to it for the last 20 years, might actually prefer that one and feel that it has a ‘warmer’ quality. I fully understand that, and totally respect that opinion. However, for me personally, I definitely prefer the 2015 remix. That perceived warmth, to my ears, muddies the sound somewhat, and with that now reduced I can hear everything else breathing far more clearly, especially with the higher range tonality also being enhanced further. I’m not sure if this is purely down to Steven Wilson’s experienced remixing with fresh ears and better technology at his fingertips, or possibly it’s down to the full re-mastering by Jaime Gomez back in 2015 – I have a gut feeling that the truth probably lies somewhere between the two. Regardless of who is responsible for the change in audio quality, for me personally, this is the better mix, so it’s logical that if the remix is the improved version in digital form, then likewise the 2015 remix on vinyl should also be the superior one.
This remix album has been available on vinyl before as part of the ‘Deliverance and Damnation‘ double package in 2015, but this is the first time that this particular version has been issued as a stand-alone release. There has been a demand for Damnation to be repressed on vinyl, so it makes complete sense for Opeth to opt for this later version, as I’m assuming that both Wilson and Åkerfeldt feel that this is the superior mix. And surprisingly… so do I. It is being released on 15th December in regular heavyweight black vinyl, and also in coloured vinyl and splattered versions, and a picture-disc edition is being made available too. It’s a very worthy addition to any record collection, but in particular for Opeth fans collecting vinyl editions, where this would sit perfectly amongst all those other fabulous recordings. As I’ve said previously, for anyone that loves a bit of dark and melancholy prog, yet metal is not really for them, this is the Opeth album that they should explore further.
01. Windowpane (7:14)
02. In My Time of Need (7:14)
03. Death Whispered A Lullaby (7:14)
01. Closure (7:14)
02. Hope Leaves (7:14)
03. To Rid the Disease (7:14)
04. Ending Credits (instrumental) (7:14)
05. Weakness (7:14)
Total Time – 43:03
Mikael Åkerfeldt – Vocals, Lead Guitar
Peter Lindgren – Rhythm Guitar
Martín Méndez – Bass Guitar
Martin Lopez – Drums
Steven Wilson − Keyboards, Piano, Mellotron, Backing Vocals
Record Label: Opeth Damnation
Format: Vinyl (various editions)
Country of Origin: Sweden
Date of Release: 15th December 2023