Damnation, Koch Records
Acoustic Tour 2003, Portland, OR

As far as Death Metal bands go there are few that take the genre to new heights like these five Swedes from Stockholm. Formed in 1990 by guitarists Peter Lindgren and Mikael Akerfeld the band have created a sound that is not only uniquely their own but encompasses a passion for progression within a tightly contained medium. Their success among critics and fans is staggering. All seven of their full-length albums have garnered rave reviews with four given near perfect scores in a number of music press trades. Still the band remains just under the radar. It could be their music is so unexpected moving from melodic instrumentals to gravel-throated, sledgehammer riffs to symphonic overtures that no one has any idea how to mass market them. Yet, within their subterranean lairs they are wildly successful selling out clubs and small theaters across the US, Canada and Europe.

Granted they are dark, possibly one of the darkest bands out their. Their morose, macabre exterior was established with the 1995 debut, Orchid whose epic death-prog exuded equal parts beauty and brutality. The record was crushing with its double-time tempos and bleak, frostbitten riffs. Moodily expansive with jazz-influenced, melodic instrumental passages that sported an abundance of delicate acoustic guitars and pianos interludes depicted a band destined for greatness. Morningrise (1996) continued the trend extending the songs out to well over ten minutes and painstakingly constructing audio landscapes that played out like a mini motion picture. My Arm, Your Hearse (1998) saw the band reaching their stride crafting tighter compositions with a balanced melodic range which embraced the now fully mature musical prowess within the group. Signed to Century Media by this point the record benefited from a simultaneous release in the US and Europe and saw glowing reviews which established the band as a leading force in progressive metal with death roots.

1999's Still Life continued to capitalize on the bands momentum and saw the group played its first U.S. concert at the Milwaukee Metalfest. The record itself saw the band reexamining their past with a less abrasive death-grip on the Black Metal market. The disc proved to be a gorgeous concept affaire with Akerfeldt’s cleaner vocals surpassing his guttural in impact and clarity. For many this was the beginning of what is considered Opeth’s genius phase in that their next three records Blackwater Park (2001), Deliverance (2002) and Damnation (2003). Recruiting the capable skills of Porcupine Tree’s Steve Wilson as producer the band shift into a remarkable level of songwriting maintaining their black metal roots yet embracing a Pink Floyd-like presentation. Most noticeable is an unprecedented fluidity in arrangements, vocals harmonies and acoustic passages that make way for Eastern-tinged melodies, stoner rock grooves and chilling soundscapes.

Deliverance and Damnation were originally intended to be released together as a double CD. However, by releasing them separately one can appreciate each for their intriguing tympanic assault. Deliverance is a continuation of Blackwater Park complete with blastbeat drum runs, haunting nuances and masterful dynamics but is astoundingly fluid especially through the 10-minute “A Fair Judgement” and the brilliantly acoustic “For Absent Friends”. Damnation is a whole different animal. Its radical departure from its predecessor is what makes Opeth’s 2003 tour so intriguing. Here is Opeth at their acoustic best. Almost sounding like a compilation of the group’s quieter moments, Damnation removes the heavy metal tension and swirls in orchestrated, melodic, acoustic bliss. Removing the explosions of black metal fury and progressive rock excursions the record stands only on its subtle, beautifully assembled songwriting suites.

For fans of Porcupine Tree the announcement of Opeth joining them on their US swing might have been seen as unusual to say the least, then it was announced that the two bands were rotating the headlining spot. When they landed in Portland, Porcupine Tree was up first followed by the dimming of the lights for Opeth. As the band poured onto the stage and took their places on bar stools strategically centered under amber lights, Martin Mendez (bass), Martin Lopez (drums) and guitarist Peter Lindgren framed Mikael Akerfeld with Spiritual Beggars keyboardist Per Wiberg settling in behind. The gentle nuances of “Windowpane” (the first track off Damnation) filled the tightly packed room. The chemistry between the five was immediate, alluring and hypnotic. The band graciously thanked the crowd for their patience then moved into “In My Time Of Need” followed by “Death Whispered A Lullaby.” It was then Akerfeld addressed the fact that they would be doing Damnation in its entirety. “For those who don’t know who we are,” says Akerfeld after the acoustically gentle “Closure”, “We are a black metal band from Sweden. We’re going to be playing an all acoustic set tonight with some surprises. If there are any Porcupine Tree fans still out there, please hang around.”

The rest of the set matched Damnation track by track with Akerfeld injecting the occasional historical facts about the band interspersed with road stories. “Hope Leaves,” “To Rid The Disease,” “Ending Credits” and “Weakness” all followed with the band stopping only long enough to swap instruments. Musically this band is a mindblower – the lethal twin-guitar combination of Akerfeld and Lindgren is astounding, add that to one of the best rhythm sections conceived in metaldom and you have a prizefighter going the distance. The encore brought the band back for “Benighted” (Still Life), the never before played live “To Bid You Farewell” (Morningrise), the brilliant Deep Purple cover “Soldier of Fortune” (Stormbringer) and “Face of Melinda” (Still Life). If the combustibility of their records doesn’t blow you away – their live show will.

All photos ©2003 courtesy of the
Opeth, Koch Records, Demon the Fall (fan site)