Ever since their formation in 1990, Swedish metallers Opeth have been no strangers to wild experimentation and unexpected detours into the creative leftfield.
Even their 1995 Orchid debut showcased a bunch of musicians who simply refused to exist within the usual confines of death metal – borrowing elements from long-distant worlds such as jazz and classical and then fusing it all together into something greater than the sum of its parts.
But even the band themselves would admit that 2003’s Damnation album – a 43-minute love letter to their vintage progressive rock influences – was something they never quite saw in their own destiny. After breaking out of the underground and making their mark internationally with the Steven Wilson-produced Blackwater Park in 2001, the Stockholm-based quartet now had the world’s attention.
For singer/guitarist and mastermind Mikael Åkerfeldt, who had undertaken the role of writing virtually all of the music early on, it was now time for his band to really spread their creative wings in the form of two records – the extreme brutality of Deliverance and its calmer companion, Damnation, released six months later.
So when exactly did he realize his metal band was going to start working on music that would had little to do with the guttural roars and blastbeat fury they were typically associated with, and did he ever consider releasing Damnation as another project entirely?
“I definitely wanted it to be an Opeth record,” says Åkerfeldt, talking to GW via video conference from his living room on a chilly day in Stockholm. “Before Blackwater Park it didn’t feel like that much was happening around the band. We were active but we didn’t tour or have much going for us. Suddenly that all changed. We became aware of the fact that people knew who we were. I had this idea of doing two records, one heavy and the other more ballady and calm…
“I’d always wanted to make a more chilled-out album, but at the same time had never envisioned it actually happening. So I pitched the idea for releasing both together, and the answer from our label at the time was no. I asked for some adjustments to our contract – an additional sheet of paper that said we’d make both for the price of one, counting as a single album.
“That’s how much I wanted to do it! And, of course, then they said yes. It’s a terrible idea for a band to do that, playing into the hands of the label, giving them an extra release for nothing – and they insisted on separate release dates – but that’s how we got the green light.”
For Blackwater Park you mainly used a black PRS CE24 that you’d bought from Katatonia guitarist Anders Nyström, as well as a Seagull acoustic guitar. What do you remember about the gear in the studio for Damnation?
“Not much! [Laughs] I’d recently gotten a Martin acoustic. It was a 000-16GT, the GT standing for Gloss Top. It was actually a guitar player from Nevermore, Curran Murphy, who sold it to me. I think he worked in a guitar shop.
“When we toured together on the Blackwater Park cycle, he told me he could hook me up with a nice Martin on a good deal. So I got it through him, and it ended up being one of the main instruments for the record.
“I had my first two PRS guitars, which I was very happy with. And even though I wanted an old-school kinda sound, I didn’t really feel the need to get vintage gear. Most of the electric guitars were recorded with my blue Custom 24 from the late ’80s.”
That would have been your second PRS guitar – the first being the black CE24, correct?
“Yeah, it was the second PRS I ever owned and one I’ve used a lot in Opeth. It’s a really good guitar that had been modified. There was originally a turn knob with the five pickup settings, which allowed you to split the humbuckers.
“It was a really good idea, except that you couldn’t really get hold of it properly when you were on stage. I had the same problem with my first PRS and needed to put black skateboard tape to get traction around the switch.
“The blue one had been modified to a regular three-way toggle switch, and that was my main guitar for both Deliverance and Damnation. [Former Opeth guitarist] Peter Lindgren had his 1973 Gibson Les Paul Custom, from the year he was born. It was a really good guitar, though the frets were worn and the neck had been broken at some point. I can’t remember if there was anything else.
“Usually I borrow some extra guitars from my friends, but since we had a couple of PRS guitars and Peter’s Les Paul, that was all we needed for those records. I brought the black CE24 to the studio, but I can’t remember using it much.”
What can you tell us about the amps heard on the recordings?
“Fredrik Nordström, who owned Studio Fredman, had a Fender Twin that we used for most of the clean tones. We even brought that along to the second studio, as we had to record a lot of things elsewhere.
“He had also had an Engl amp and a 5150, which is what most bands would have used when recording there, but for Damnation it was mainly the Twin. I think we might have used some of Steven Wilson’s plugins too.”
The opening track Windowpane is the one you’ve played live the most. There’s a certain dreaminess to the ninth chord from the intro riff.
“I actually learned about ninth chords from Stevie Wonder, particularly the song Visions from the 1973 album Innervisions. That song starts with those kinds of chords. I remember when I first heard it, I thought, ‘That’s a beautiful chord; it sounds special – so I’ll nick that at some point!’”
The first solo, in the key of F# Dorian, feels like a nod to Andy Latimer from ’70s progressive rock group Camel.
“I don’t improvise much so I definitely sat down to write the solo. For both records, when it came to leads, I didn’t have much of an idea before going into the studio. There was no demoing. I guess I just sat down and played. We usually set aside a day or two for solos, because they are usually written right there.
“Whatever I played on the record is what I thought sounded nice. And you’re right – Andy Latimer was one of my idols at the time, and still is. It’s a sound I almost tried to copy. I wanted to sound as close to him as I could. I think the end result was quite interesting.
“One thing I noticed while practicing that song for our last tour was that the guitar tone is very dry, much drier than I remember it. When I think of that solo, I imagine a nice spring reverb or delay or something – but it’s dry and not as warm-sounding as I remember.
“Steven Wilson was there for a lot of the lead guitars. He always seemed to like my guitar playing and say things like, ‘That’s beautiful, that’s awesome, let’s keep that!’ And I’d be thinking, ‘Really?!’ I think he gave me the confidence I needed. I’ve always loved coming up with things in the studio. I don’t have a problem leaving it to the last minute.”
There’s another riff halfway into the song that, like a lot of these tracks, utilizes open-strings ringing against a motif that jumps around on one string.
“I’ve always felt riffs like that can be a bit hideous. I’ve been thinking about this stuff a lot lately, especially when relearning some of these old songs. For some reason, I used to like sticking to one string for leads and riffs. I’d often choose to play things around the neck instead of right under me.
“I soon learned I wasn’t being very economical with how I played these parts, especially when I’m playing live and singing. I had to relearn some of these parts and play them in the same position. But it did help with writing some of these parts, like this riff, where I’d stick on one string and leave other strings ringing out to make it sound more colorful and interesting.”
In My Time of Need has a very interesting Am9 voicing, which adds to the ambience.
“It’s definitely an unusual-sounding chord. I play it with a barre across the fifth fret, the seventh fret on the A string, the ninth fret on the D, the G and B barred at the fifth before adding in the eighth fret on the B. That song’s working title was Old Man’s Rock. I wanted a big chorus, and I probably nicked it from somewhere, as I did with Windowpane, actually… that song’s vocal melody line was taken from Grand Theft Auto III, believe it or not!
“There was a song you could play on the radio within the game and it had a nice vocal line, so I took inspiration from there. With In My Time of Need, I just wanted a singalong type of ballad. I like those simplified songs every now and then, especially as we like to go off on a tangent and do things that are weird with confusing time signatures.
“My favorite type of music is usually the simple stuff, straightforward songs. My favorite tracks that I’ve written are usually the simpler ones, though I wouldn’t say this is one of my best, funnily enough.”
Closure is one of the album’s more experimental offerings, with its haunting Middle Eastern melodies and frenetic outro.
“I always liked Friends by Led Zeppelin and wanted to do something like that, with the higher D chord against a lower dropped-D drone. So that’s where I got the intro from… Thanks, Jimmy! And he nicked a lot of stuff himself, so I’m allowed to steal from him, right?
“Usually if I come up with something that sounds like an opening riff, it will set the tone for the rest of the song. Especially if it’s something weird like Closure. It’s not a typical rock ’n’ roll song. I didn’t want to leave that kind of Middle Eastern sound and go into something more regular. The rest of the song had to feel moody and ethereal.”
Hope Leaves – along with Windowpane and 2016’s Will O the Wisp – is one of the very few songs you’ve used a guitar capo on. Was that to make the wide stretches a little easier?
“It was just luck! The use of a capo wasn’t really something I thought about too much. I just stuck it on there for the fun of it. I was lucky in a way, because playing it higher in B instead of A added a fragility to my voice that I wouldn’t have gotten otherwise. As you say, I’ve only used a capo on a few Opeth tracks, like Windowpane, Hope Leaves and Will O the Wisp – the first two on the second fret and the latter on the fifth.
“I guess it did make more sense for Hope Leaves because it’s a wide stretch. When we play it live these days we don’t bother with the capo, though we still have one for Windowpane. I don’t know why – maybe just to make the singing a little easier for me!”
The opening riff from To Rid the Disease is a great example of how you can take an idea and simply move one note one fret at a time to create a lot of tension and dissonance.
“That intro probably came from listening to loads of Queensrÿche when I was younger. It’s a good song, I think. The chorus came from an old song I’d written called Mordet I Grottan with a project called Sörskogen. I thought it was such a good chorus, I had to reuse it.
“The chord progression itself is pretty standard… but we’d never done anything like this before. We hadn’t done much ‘standard shit’ before Damnation, and I guess I wanted some of that stuff in there.
“I really like the folky pastoral parts from this song, with all the strummy chords. There’s a moodiness to it all that I really like, which is why it’s one we’ve played live a lot – along with Hope Leaves, Windowpane and In My Time of Need.”
You must be very proud of this album. Some would even say it’s your finest work.
“A lot of people seem to love it. I remember we were actually mixing Deliverance with Andy Sneap when I got the final Damnation mix from Steven Wilson. Me and Peter were in a hotel room in England. We only had one set of headphones and a portable CD player, so we couldn’t listen to it together – it had to be one at a time.
“I asked if I could go first and he said, ‘Sure, go for it!’ I remember closing my eyes and thinking, ‘Oh, my god!’ It suddenly made me feel so mature. I remember getting the shivers! It was not… death metal. At the time I really loved death metal, and I guess I still do, to some extent. But I was amazed we could do something like that. And though we’ve always been experimental, it made me realize we could progress into genres unknown to us or our fans.
“Steven’s mix was amazing; I mean, the songs are good, some of them I would consider great, but the mix is perfect. It’s not dated or too retro, it’s just really atmospheric. There was a lot of Mellotron, which I was happy about. I wanted more keyboards and vintage sounds, and the mix brought it all out. I don’t know who else could’ve done justice to those songs. Looking back, I’m very proud of what we achieved.”