[Editor’s Note: Opeth Week continues with a Point/Counterpoint examination of Opeth’s 2003 album, Damnation, by our own Dan Obstkrieg and Manny-O-War. Dan hates it, Manny loves it. Beyond that, uh… we’re not quite sure what happened here.]
I don’t fault Opeth for writing Damnation. I don’t view it as any sort of opportunistic compromise or betrayal of their principles. Opeth’s run from Morningrise through Deliverance is astonishing and essentially flawless, but I don’t begrudge the band their apparent desire to explore a wholly different mood on Damnation. What I do fault, however, is the wholesale swallowing of this miserably dull, dreary, and interminably long chore of an album as some stroke of irreproachable genius on the part of so many otherwise discerning and handsome people, including my dear (and apparently easily confused) colleague Manny-O(peth)-War.
To anticipate the obvious counterpoint: I don’t mind that Damnation is soft. I love soft things. I luxuriate in pillowy, wimpy, mopey, lachrymose nonsense. I just don’t think that Damnation represents Opeth doing soft particularly well. After all, it’s not like they took a crack at the progressive pastoralisms of a Wishbone Ash or the deceptively dark Canterbury lilt of a Fairport Convention. Instead, Damnation treads the boards in service of a droning, meandering, soporific kind of folk-prog. It’s as if Opeth wandered into a corner, turned a few times in place, and flopped down to ride out the long winter. It’s a lazy, toothless, flat, and ultimately just plain boring record.
Would you like examples? How about the one-note verse approach of “In My Time of Need,” which sounds like a first-year music student just discovering counter-meter. “Duuuude, it’s, like… the three against the four. Deeeeeeeeep, yeah?” The high harmonies of the chorus to “Hope Leaves” are cloying nails on a terrible chalkboard. “Death Whispered a Lullaby” almost whips up some excitement, but climaxes in either a white bread version of flamenco or a solo that relies almost entirely on effects pedals to make its point before the song just… ends.
The strongest case I can think to make in favor of this generally bad and dumb album is that Deliverance saw Opeth pushing their dense, almost hypnotic and polyrhythmic side to its absolute limit, and that Damnation represented some kind of necessary recentering, a cleansing breath before taking the next step. That argument falls flat, though, on account of how Damnation still feels in many ways tied to the almost punishingly monochromatic songwriting approach that paradoxically made Deliverance (think in particular of its monstrous title track) so thrilling.
Damnation’s biggest sin is that it’s a 40-ish minute album that feels about three hours long and two ideas wide.
Dear “Danny” (Jesus Christ grow up already):
If you asked Spaceghost if there was anything wrong with smooth jazz he’d tell you that there absolutely is not a damn thing wrong with smooth jazz. “It’s got a beat” he says. And that’s Spaceghost talking. He’s a cool guy. Sure, regular jazz is the coolest. Guys bebopping and hard bopping all over the stage while intellectuals sip cocktails is the peak of the movement but it’s not the only iteration that has value. Metal is no different. Sure the hardest of the hard, loudest of the loud and slappiest of the slap-happy might be what the genre is known for but it takes talent and guts to get to that place and most metal musicians don’t start out there. Rather, they learn many styles of music and combine them with a Boss HM-2 pedal for the resulting heaviest of metals.
So, I’m really sorry that when Opeth dropped the harsh vocals, gritty riffs and guttural annunciations in favor of clear electrics, cleanly picked acoustics and Lars Mikael Åkerfeldt’s absolutely perfect singing voice that you, Daniel, were displeased with the result. It really comes down to being offended by an embarrassment of riches. We’re talking about a band that has now released 13 albums and none of them are bereft of value. A band that takes risks, challenges themselves and ultimately succeeds far more often than they flounder.
The songwriting on Damnation doesn’t stray very far from any of Opeth’s other works. While the heavier effects and notes might be removed, the general pitter patter of interplay between the light and dark elements of their composition remains. Tracks like “Ending Credits” are packed with bends and slides reminiscent of Blackwater Park. The buttery solos in “Windowpane” foreshadow some of Opeth’s work to come (particularly that on Watershed) with slippery blues leads softly meandering across velvety rhythms. The whole thing is as sensual as biting into a ripe peach in a hot summer afternoon.
And maybe that’s where it lies, Dan. Maybe it’s your lack of sensuality; your lack of natural heat as a sexual human that leads you to toss such hatred towards a record that provides such overwhelming emotion, dark eroticism and prowess. And, that’s okay. You’re not into the coconut oil lifestyle that Åkerfeldt so handily employs. While I feel badly for your shirt on, lights off approach to the more romantic aspects of life I feel most depressed for your ears and your heart. It’s apparent that your ears are filtering out quality art that could adequately satiate your heart with delicious emotions. Embrace your soft side, Dan. You might be surprised by how much you like what you discover.
Manny, I’ll take your (mostly insipid) points in turn. First, yes, jazz is good. I don’t need Opeth to be Peter Brotzmann but I do need them to not be Kenny G (although if Akerfeldt studied circular breathing in order to unleash a five-minute long growl I would not be poorly disposed to it). Second, although I will agree that Akerfeldt’s singing throughout Damnation is magnificent though mostly restrained, we hardly needed a flaccid album like this to prove that point. QED.
Third, I am SO thrilled that you brought up the cross-cutting similarities between Damnation and some of Opeth’s other work. Of course Damnation was hardly the first time we realized that Opeth had an interest in exploring folk and prog; my basic point is that it is the worst time we realized this. The softest moments from Opeth’s otherwise heavy albums quite literally destroy with fire every single thing on Damnation. “Benighted”? Spanks Damnation with abandon. “Harvest”? Spits patchouli oil without mercy into Damnation’s eyes. “Burden”? “Credence”? Motherfucking “ATONEMENT”? All of these songs make it their life’s work and sole ambition to reveal the unremitting foolishness and superfluity of Damnation.
Fourth, if the brittle and repetitive grooves of Damnation are your idea of a good times sexy party rubdown, then I am about to head out to my local Hallmark store and pick up a value-pack of condolence cards for any victims of your arid and inexplicably overconfident lovemaking. Friend, it feels like about half of Damnation is taken up by sampling a worse version of the synth pads that sound like alien choirs that Radiohead used on “Exit Music (For A Film),” so I suspect your bedroom routine looks something like Thom Yorke flailing around like an old, wet mop slopped into a live electrical circuit while singing “Idioteque,” you idiot(eque).
Oh Danny, Danny Boy the pipe, the lead pipe in my hand, is calling [for your head]. I’m really happy that you, Danny, the guy who obsessed over Yanni b-sides as if they were newly discovered Beatles demos or never-before-heard John Coltrane solos, brought up Kenny God Damn G (a proud member of my tribe). The only thing you’ve ever circular breathed for is endlessly inhaling the farts of famous Greek flatulist Yiannis Chryssomallis (who apparently has a shocking net worth of $50M).
But back to the main point here. I find it somewhat hypocritical that you think Opeth’s similar work across other albums is brilliant but in the context of Damnation it’s foolish and superfluous. You’re bringing up some of Opeth’s greatest single tracks here and at no time did I say that anything on Damnation was competing with “Benighted” or “Atonement.” But I find it hard to believe that you don’t sit in one of your Raymour & Flanagan lounge chairs, off-brand kimono spread wide open and weep at the perfection of the drone-like theme to “Windowpane.” Sitting there in your favorite lounger, looking like the window of a butcher shop, I can tell that deep in your heart lies an unending appreciation for the dulcet tones of a warm acoustic blended with the smooth lead lines of a PRS. I know you, Danny Boy. I know you.
And finally, just because you’ve produced offspring doesn’t mean you know anything about romance or lovemaking. If the harder parts of Opeth’s catalog are what get you rock hard then I worry for the women you bring home and ultimately imprison in the emotional prison you weave for them. Sometimes a soft kiss, the flutter of eyelids on the nape of your partner’s neck, can lead to an evocative caress that unites two souls in passion. The end goal isn’t a climax, Danny. The end goal is connection, love and communication on planes of existence that you can’t even fathom. But you know who can fathom those succulent planes? Lars Mikael God Damn Åkerfeldt.
It soothes my soul to know that there are things of such clockwork regularity in this uncertain world, such as gravity, and the glory of Yanni, and your sheer lunatic stupidity. To help illustrate just exactly how wrong you (and anyone else who inexplicably thinks Damnation is good and not, in fact, bad and dumb and wrong) are, let us imagine that your terrible and incorrect opinion of Damnation is like a gaseous, bloated ostrich bathing in a swimming pool filled with baked beans. Can you see her there, in the piping bean mist where she was standing, grinning like a moron under the weeping moon of your gullibility? She casts a nauseous silhouette across the forest of… September? October? The breadth of your worrisome wrongness perverts one’s sense of time. But look, she stirs! The great bird creaks her ancient legs out of the pool and warbles, “Behold, the twilight is my robe!” as she rubs herself dry against some old bark. She’s singing a requiem for you, Manny, and is ready to drag your sorry bones to the Apostle Islands in triumph.
Damnation is like the advent of all malign things, and when you praise it thusly I can’t decide if the inside of your brain looks like the featureless night, or the silent water where a bunch of idiot ducks circle around, bobbing their awful fuzzy heads in the water in search of some rank nectar. It’s like ransacking a dozen Walmarts looking for the last stocked dregs of a 4 Loko ripoff called Black Rose that your Neanderthal id somehow thinks will make you immortal. The store greeter eyes you suspiciously as you waddle in, lurching and drooling like Quasimodo. “Welcome to Walmart!” he says with a pained grin, and under his breath as you walk away, mutters, “I can’t wait to bid you and your dumb ass farewell.”
Do you understand the depths of your folly? This is all only prologue, because imagine, too, some future April ethereal, when you continue to insist on trumpeting the virtues of this insipid album. You wander the streets slurring a puerile melody, attempting a pathetic solo madrigal. Someone sees you and takes pity on everyone around you by sitting you down soundly in the corner. “Amen,” they all whisper. Later that fall, you’re stomping around in the park like some b-movie demon the Credence Clearwater Revival would decline to write a song about. A bus blasting music which is not execrable runs over your foot, and the driver yells out the window at you as she passes, “That’s karma, bitch!” Epilogue: you are dumb.
Think about it this way: the moor you protest that your feeble opinion is some kind of noble godhead’s lament, the more woefully benighted your pea brain is revealed to be. You can pretend to swoon as though suffering from some kind of moonlapse (what?) vertigo, or that you’re seeing the spectral visitation of the face of some chick called Melinda in your sad morning oats, but it’s all just as sad as that time you asked the stripper Serenity to paint the band Death, and ended up with a globular white cluster of papier mache thrown at the back of your head. If you have such an affinity for this leper of an album, why not go dig up some bleak harvest of drapery at an abandoned mill near Niagara Falls? I hear the Dirge 4 mill is pretty around November, and you could pose for a funeral portrait with all the ghosts of millworkers, broken in a strike and scattered in the air like wispy patterns in some stupid ivy, but guess what? Even those woolly ghosts strewn into black water or covered with an asphalt parking lot know better than to enjoy this soggy wreath of an album that offers deliverance only from a sense of satisfaction with life.
Isn’t this a fair judgment of your stubbornly flawed preferences? I even polled four of your absent friends who’ve gone on to be Paul Speckmann’s apprentices, and they were aggrieved at your folly. How can you be so comfortable with causing all of this wanton pain I see in these others, Manny? How can you keep ghosting on the constant creep of your perdition? Anytime Damnation is played to general acclaim and appreciation, can’t you hear the baying of the hounds, thirsty for the blood of fools, ready to drag your busted-ass ears beneath the mire? I hope someday you can offer some sort of atonement for this crime. Perhaps an “I’m With Stupid”-style shirt that says “
But enough of this reverie. Now let’s imagine you’re trapped in a forest of Harlequin romance novels because you’re desperate for any type of sexual intrigue, and like Burgess Meredith in “Time Enough at Last,” you assume you will have hours of corseted wealth. You attempt a grand mental conjuration of someone to share these dour songs with, but instead are met with years of isolation. Such is the cost of clinging to terrible ideas, Manny! Why not shed this embarrassing albatross before you shuffle off this mortal coil, o thou heir apparent to a kingdom of opinions that reek of moldy cheese and cheap rental bowling shoes? Why not be like clever Odysseus, who had the good sense to steer his men away from the land of the lotus eaters?
But no, friend, you insist on being a reprehensible burden on the rest of us. Have you considered a self-administered swirly? Why not take the porcelain to heart, instead of clinging to an idea that’s about as useful to you as would be a goddamned orange peel to a German mercenary Hessian? Perhaps bad taste is simply a hex with which you’ve been inflicted for all time, from alpha to omega. Or perhaps your heritage as a known bum and fool requires it? The last time we walked in the devil’s orchard together and I said to you, “Hey, Manny, have you thought about reconsidering your wrongness about Damnation?” and you replied, “I feel the dark,” I thought to myself, well, that’s a pretty stupid non sequitur. How the hell did that slither in here? Then you grabbed an apple and choked on it and started hacking like “nePENThe HAXprocess faaaaaaaaaamine” but tried to pass it off like some kind of hip speaking in tongues. Not cool. I’m sorry that I slapped you with an open hand and left the imprint of the lines in my hand on your baby face, but I was tired of you trying to pass off shitty second-hand folklore as some kind of triumphant marrow of the earth.
One of these days, Manny, eternal rains will come and knock on your door, and they’ll inundate your shabby home all the way to the cusp of eternity, tumbling you around so the moon’s above your ankles and the sun’s below your ass. Like Joey Lawrence in heaven, you’d better get your Elysian “whoah”s out of your system, you shin-splinted water goblin. That rain’s fixing you a river, and it doesn’t particularly appreciate your voice of treason, particularly after fronting you a good will gesture of faith in others. See how badly you disappoint us when you go to the mat for Damnation? Why keep standing in support of the drone warbling of this album that sounds like Opeth’s actually good quieter songs being dragged down to hell like Persephone, when instead you could be doing literally anything else in the world, like shadowing a sorceress to help make a big salad from wilde flowers like the will o the wisp, or hitting a brick with another brick, or watching an ugly caterpillar emerge from an ugly chrysalis as an ugly butterfly? R U a Sorceress 2? His eternal majesty Prince Rogers Nelson demands answers.
And see what you’ve done? The kind readers wanted to see a thoughtful discussion, and instead they’ve spent seven damn sojourns drinking up this terrible strange brew of your misguided words, only giving the most fleeting glance to the world that still exists outside of this dilapidated cathedral of words we have built together. This is not the era of Damnation, Manny. It is a poor album doted on by dotards. If we imagine that poor old ostrich still simmering in her baked bean bath as a personification of graceful Persephone, doesn’t she deserve some slight return on her investment of time?
Opeth is one of the most masterful and miraculous bands in heavy music; Damnation is a wet turd on a hot sidewalk.
This article was only about Damnation, with one side arguing that it’s their weakest record. Yesterday, another article argued that Heritage is the nadir. We put the question to Twitter, and readers overwhelmingly sided with Damnation as the best-of-the-least. We also got some hatred for insisting that Damnation is one of the weakest. Maybe we’re the ignorant sluts after all.
Best of the least great Opeth records? THERE CAN BE ONLY ONE.
— Last Rites (@YourLastRites) September 4, 2019