Between Rock and A Hard Place

Death metal icons Opeth bond with the trees, finding their inner folk singers
Kayos Productions

The flourishes that Scandinavians bring to death metal are like the condensed milk in Vietnamese iced coffee: They help the diabolical brew go down more smoothly. While bands like the young Finnish group Rapture and Swedish goth-metal stalwarts Katatonia make churning, melancholy doom-metal with a strong pop flair, Sweden's Opeth draw upon their record collections and grand ambitions to forge a feisty new hybrid of black metal and progressive rock. As over-the-top as these guys may sound to indie-weaned ears, their biggest gestures carry a deep emotional resonance, and their love of craft makes their sonic explorations sound like more than mere stylistic dilettantism.

Over the better part of the past decade, Opeth has quietly brokered a summit between the black metal and classic prog cliques in the Hard Rock Cafeteria. The headbangers appreciate the group's harsh, windswept attack of guitars, and the way in which frontman Mikael Åkerfeldt sometimes sounds like wolverines are trying to give him a pedicure. The Mellotron crowd likes the band's softer, almost pastoral interludes and extravagant musical toolbox, culled from Åkerfeldt's love of obscure '70s progressive bands. Opeth's commitment to the prog part of the equation includes a long-standing association with Steven Wilson of British art-rockers and cult faves Porcupine Tree, who has lent his production expertise and backing vocals to the group's past three releases.

Yet, despite Opeth's overwhelming musical denseness and structural complexity, there's a certain restraint to their music. Åkerfeldt's singing voice (as opposed to his screaming voice) is unaffected and warm--more suited for folk singing, if anything. And the band's melodic flourishes can hardly be likened to the bombast of bands like Kansas or Dream Theater: The mix of contrasting elements is potent enough that there's no need for histrionics. 2002's Deliverance played Opeth's hard and soft tendencies off one another to stunning effect. The title song includes at least three massive slashing hooks, not the least of which is a stark, primal kick-drum/bass duel created when all the other instruments drop out of the mix ten minutes into the cut. At the same time, the record had some of the band's prettiest passages--the ominous, climbing transitions of the title track, and the melodic languidity and tight Britfolk harmonies of "A Fair Judgement."

The winsomeness carries over to the band's latest, Damnation (Koch). This isn't too much of a surprise, considering that, in interviews, the band has stated that Damnation is meant to be a contemplative complement to Deliverance (the two were originally intended as a double disc). But the extent to which Opeth commit themselves to the project is a bit unexpected: There are no ear-rattling percussive tirades, no thick, tricky riffs, and no punishing screams. Deliverance is an unapologetically lovely record--a throwback to the gentle side of the vintage rock Åkerfeldt loves. But don't mistake quiet for mellow: The guitars are still menacing, if unamplified. The percussion simmers marvelously, particularly on "Closure," where the ascending riff is pushed along by pulsing, Middle Eastern rhythms. "Weakness" gnashes its teeth over its flaws, and the Ronnie Montrose-meets-Carlos Santana mellowness of the instrumental "Ending Credits" is an interesting oddity. Still, apart from the mood, which is best described as wistfully unsettling, there's a sense of uneasiness after the record stops playing--a cross between puzzlement and dissatisfaction. Is Damnation an artistic cul-de-sac? Is it an invigorating stylistic side trip? What am I, a magic eight ball? On all accounts, signs point to "yes."

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