“I was a wreck, physically and mentally. I wanted to cancel shows, split up the band, all these kind of things”: Aiming to make a “super-heavy record,” Opeth embraced the Mellotron and made Damnation instead

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After years spent wandering the dark caves of the extreme-metal underworld, with 2003’s Damnation album – awash with that most un-metal instrument the Mellotron – Opeth emerged into the light with leader and songwriter Mikael Åkerfeldt now flying the flag of a card-carrying progressive rock fan. Ahead of the album’s 20th-anniversary reissue, Prog spoke to him about a record he says was “a normal prog-rock record, but for Opeth was completely new and unique.”

Opeth frontman Mikael Åkerfeldt was sitting in a cheap hotel in the unglamorous Derbyshire town of Ripley when he heard Steven Wilson’s rough mix of his band’s album Damnation for the first time. It was late summer 2002, and Åkerfeldt and guitarist Peter Lindgren were mixing Damnation’s heavier sister album, Deliverance, with Andy Sneap at the latter’s nearby studio.

“We only had one pair of headphones between us,” Åkerfeldt recalls now. “I said to Peter, ‘Can I go first?’ I listened to it and thought, ‘Oh God, I can’t believe it’s us.’ It was pretty amazing to me. I got shivers listening to it. I’ve got shivers thinking about it now.”

Until that point, Opeth had been viewed as a knotty, complex extreme metal band whose signature sound fused blasts of roaring noise with bursts of clean vocals and moments of bucolic beauty. But Deliverance and Damnation unspliced the two constituent parts of their DNA. Where Deliverance (released November 2002) leaned wholly into the heaviness, Damnation (following five months later) was all clean vocals and crystal beauty.

With its sinuous, stripped-down sound and heavy use of Mellotron, Damnation wore the influence of Camel, Nick Drake and King Crimson’s quieter moments proudly on the sleeve of its brown corduroy jacket. After a decade of swimming in metal’s darker waters, this was Åkerfeldt’s coming-out party as a true-blooded progressive rock fan.

“In a way I think Damnation isn’t that unique,” he says. “It’s a normal prog rock record. It’s not particularly new-sounding in the grand scheme of things, but for Opeth it was completely new and unique.”

The singer is talking to Prog at his home in Sweden, a few weeks before Damnation gets a slightly belated 20th-anniversary vinyl reissue. He went to see hard rockers Europe play a homecoming show in Stockholm last night and he has the hangover to prove it. But even without the alcohol-induced rough edges, Åkerfeldt still has superhuman levels of self- deprecation. “People give so much love to Damnation,” he says wryly at one point. “Even I have to go, ‘Yeah, it’s alright.’ You can’t get too carried away.”

The Opeth that made Damnation had the wind in their sails thanks to the acclaim that greeted their fourth and fifth albums, 1999’s Still Life and 2001’s prog-metal landmark Blackwater Park. By that point, Åkerfeldt had slid into the role of Opeth’s de facto leader (“Pretty much because no one else wanted to do it”). He had a clear idea of what he wanted to do next – and it didn’t involve making a prog record.

“We said, ‘Let’s do a super-heavy record,” he recalls. “But as I was writing this heavy stuff, I kept coming up with things that were softer, like [opening track] Windowpane. I was thinking, ‘That’s not good. What do I do? I don’t want to write a soft record.’”

It was Jonas Renkse, singer with fellow Swedes Katatonia, who came up with a solution: make two records. “I thought, ‘Hmmm, not a bad idea.’ I was very confident in those days: ‘Two albums? Not a problem. I’ve got shitloads of ideas.’” For a vintage rock fanatic such as Åkerfeldt, a double album would have been a logical course of action. Except he wanted to keep the heavy material and the quieter material separate and distinct. “I wanted to release them as two different albums on the same day,” he says. “I wanted each one to stand on their own two feet.”

With Deliverance I was writing during the night and recording during the day, chain-smoking cigarettes, sleeping on the studio floor

That was easier said than done. Both Guns N’ Roses and Bruce Springsteen had released two albums simultaneously. The problem was that Opeth weren’t Guns N’ Roses or Bruce Springsteen, and their label, Music For Nations, said no.

“They maybe saw it as us wanting to get out of the contract early, like when a band does a deliberately shit album,” says Åkerfeldt. “But I was adamant and also not a very good businessman, so I said, ‘Let’s make these two records count as one album – you get two for the price of one, we won’t spend that much more money on recording.’”

The label grudgingly agreed, but insisted the records would come out separately: the heavier, more metal-friendly Deliverance first, the softer, more risky Damnation a few months later. Åkerfeldt had got his way, albeit with a compromise. But that was the easy part.

Opeth’s first choice of studio, Gothenburg’s Studio Fredman, run by Still Life co-producer Fredrik Nordström, was being refurbished. Nordström pointed them in the direction of Nacksving, a cosy former restaurant in the middle of Gothenburg with vaulted ceilings (“Like a monastery,” says Åkerfeldt).

Steven Wilson, who had been introduced to Opeth’s music a few years earlier and had subsequently produced Blackwater Park, was on board to co-produce the two albums. The band would finish off the records at Wilson’s No Man’s Land studio in Hemel Hempstead, following a brief stint at the finished Studio Fredman.

But at that early stage in Nacksving, the band were left to their own devices. “Frederik set up the sound and then pissed off,” Åkerfeldt says. “No one else was there, so Peter and I were sitting there with two-inch tapes, wondering how the hell to do it.” Still, Åkerfeldt was feeling cocky. They’d written most of the last two albums in the studio, so why change a winning formula?

Peter pissed off right as we were about to start recording the guitars: ‘I’m going to a party, I’ll be away for a week or two.’ I guess he lost interest

“I don’t think I had a single finished idea when we went into Nacksving,” says the frontman, who shouldered the burden of songwriting on his own. “And we didn’t rehearse, either.”

That’s when the scale of the task began to dawn on him. He had elected to record the heavy songs for Deliverance first, followed by Damnation’s quieter material. But getting the former out of the way was a tough ask.

“With Deliverance I was writing during the night and recording during the day, chain-smoking cigarettes, sleeping on the studio floor,” he says. “I was tired and not inspired. I just wanted to get it out the way.”

It didn’t help that Opeth themselves were starting to come apart at the seams. Peter Lindgren, who had been in the band since 1991, and drummer Martin Lopez were distracted, which added to Åkerfeldt’s stress. “Peter pissed off right as we were about to start recording the guitars: ‘I’m going to a party, I’ll be away for a week or two.’ I guess he lost interest. He didn’t really play rhythm guitar on the records. I did most of it because he wasn’t there.” (Lindgren and Lopez would make last one more album, 2005’s Ghost Reveries, before departing).

Despite it being largely recorded in the same studio in the same time frame, Damnation would be different in every respect. The stresses that seemed so all-encompassing that they turned Åkerfeldt’s shit grey at one point dissipated. “Once Deliverance was out of the way, it was [relieved], ‘Finally...’”

Where Deliverance was as heavy as granite and as intense as a blast furnace, its companion album was stripped down and graceful. Åkerfeldt cites cult Swedish rock band Paatos as a key influence on Damnation, specifically their 2001 song Téa. Listening to the latter today, its inspiration is difficult to miss. “It was such a beautiful song, I wanted to tap into that sound,” he says. “Basically, I wanted to nick it.”

I have a tendency to fabricate stories about the people that I see – the couple walking by, do they have their daughter locked up in the cellar?

Damnation tracks such as In My Time Of Need and Weakness were enveloped in hushed atmospherics, while Åkerfeldt and Wilson went heavy on the Mellotron on Windowpane and the instrumental Ending Credits. “I wanted Damnation to be a Mellotron record,” says Åkerfeldt. “Steve and I would look at each other and say, ‘Should we have some Mellotron on this?’ And I’d say, ‘Yeah, soak it.’”

The music wasn’t the only departure. Damnation saw Åkerfeldt dispensing entirely with the death metal growl that was still his default setting to that point, swapping it out for a whispery, clean croon throughout. “I was shooting for Nick Drake,” he says of his gentle vocal approach on Damnation. “That shyboy type of voice. I couldn’t sing like Ronnie James Dio, unfortunately, but I could do the fragile loner vibe.”

As with Deliverance, the frontman had little in the way of lyrics for Damnation when he started. “I finished the music and the vocal lines, then did the lyrics at the end, hoping for the best,” he says. The lyrics he did come up with ran from the introspective to the bleak. He insists they were rooted in the abstract.

“I have a tendency to fabricate stories about the people that I see – the couple walking by, do they have their daughter locked up in the cellar? Windowpane came from seeing somebody in the window and just fabricating a story about them, what’s going on in their lives. It doesn’t amount to anything – there’s no, ‘Aha, here’s the big reveal!’”

Still, many of Damnation’s song titles suggest an unhappy mind: In My Time Of Need, Death Whispered A Lullaby, Hope Leaves, Weakness. “The lyrics just came from the situation we were in,” says Åkerfeldt. “I was pretty miserable when I was writing the lyrics. Detached from everything and anything.”

Having been involved in the extreme metal scene for so long, Damnation felt like we could compete with bands within the prog scene like Porcupine Tree

Towards the end of the process of making the two albums, his grandmother sadly died after being hit by a truck. This compounded his despondency. “We did a photo session right after I got the news,” he says. “I could see those photos and, shit, my eyes are just empty. But what could I do? We had this massive project to finish.”

Work on the two albums was completed in the autumn of 2002. Despite the pride Åkerfeldt felt at making Damnation – “I listened back to it and thought, ‘Fucking hell, I sound good’” – he was drained. “I was a wreck, physically and mentally. I wanted to cancel shows, split up the band, all these kind of things.”

That didn’t happen, of course. Having toured Deliverance shortly after its release in late 2002, they returned to the road in North America in July 2003 as support to Porcupine Tree. It was on that tour that they unveiled the songs from Damnation. The half-expected push-back from disgruntled metal fans at the idea of Opeth ‘selling out’ never came.

“That came later, with Heritage,” he says drily, referring to the band’s divisive 2011 album. “Around the time of Damnation, it felt like we could do no wrong. Everything we did, people were like [claps admiringly]. By the same token, nobody said, ‘It’s tremendous that a band that did Blackwater Park and those records could have the capability to do a record like Damnation.’ Nobody gave us that recognition. I was like, ‘What the fuck?’ I wanted the credit for making an authentic-sounding Mellotron prog record.”

He grudgingly concedes the fact that Damnation was their first album to chart in the US and UK – admittedly at No.192 and No.181 respectively, but it was a start. “It had no immediate effect on our finances,” he says. “We weren’t suddenly moving to penthouses.”

Still, Damnation remains one of Opeth’s most beloved albums, and certainly their most accessible (it’s no coincidence that it’s home to their two most-streamed songs: Windowpane and In My Time Of Need). While Åkerfeldt bats away the idea that it radically altered the course of the band’s career – “We already had those elements in our music” – it did give him the confidence to lean even further into his love of prog on subsequent albums.

“It sounds stupid, but having been involved in the extreme metal scene for so long, Damnation felt like we could compete with bands within the prog scene like Porcupine Tree,” he says. “It made us feel like we were mature and capable musicians, not just a bunch of fucking metal scum.”

Dave Everley

Dave Everley has been writing about and occasionally humming along to music since the early 90s. During that time, he has been Deputy Editor on Kerrang! and Classic Rock, Associate Editor on Q magazine and staff writer/tea boy on Raw, not necessarily in that order. He has written for Metal Hammer, Louder, Prog, the Observer, Select, Mojo, the Evening Standard and the totally legendary Ultrakill. He is still waiting for Billy Gibbons to send him a bottle of hot sauce he was promised several years ago.