The Swedish progressive metal band Opeth’s Deliverance was released just over 20 years ago, on November 12, 2002. It was the first of a pair of studio albums — Damnation, recorded at the same sessions and intended to be the second disc of a two-CD set, arrived on April 22, 2003. The decision to split them up was the label’s, not the band’s. They played songs from both on tour, and in November 2003, capped off this creative phase with a live DVD, Lamentations: Live at Shepherd’s Bush Empire 2003.
I’ve always felt like the two albums should have swapped titles. Deliverance is easily Opeth’s heaviest and most aggressive album, while Damnation is their softest, verging on 1970s symphonic prog-rock at times. They do work very well as mirror images of each other, though.
I had come to Opeth’s music relatively recently when Deliverance was released. I’d heard their previous album, 2001’s Blackwater Park, but was totally unfamiliar with their earlier work. Still, I got the chance to interview bandleader Mikael Åkerfeldt in January 2003, almost exactly between the two albums, and wrote a feature for the Cleveland Scene. I’m reproducing it below because it’s Thanksgiving week, so I’m feeling lazy, and anyway, I still stand by everything I wrote then.
The Scene piece in full:
Symphony of Destruction
Swedish thrashers Opeth give progressive metal its Deliverance.
If “what gets magazine covers” is the primary criterion for passing muster in music these days, garage rock — with its sartorial and sonic nostalgia and its empty attitudinizing — is the future of rock. And with the recent success of bands like the Strokes, the White Stripes, and the Hives, this is fast becoming a reality. It’s therefore that much more interesting to see acts like Radiohead, Sigur Rós, and Godspeed You Black Emperor! gain critical praise and (in at least two cases) mainstream success for embracing the sonic ambitions of prog and art rock — two genres that couldn’t be further removed from the base, greasy thrills of garage rock. For a death-metal band to emerge alongside these groups, release an album on which five of six songs pass the 10-minute mark (the sixth is a two-minute interlude — a breather, like the acoustic bits that once punctuated Black Sabbath albums), and have it go over with critics and audiences alike, is doubly shocking.
Hence Sweden’s Opeth certainly deserves all the attention it’s been getting of late. Opeth does more than demand focused listening; the band rewards it. The group’s latest album, Deliverance, is rooted in Swedish death metal, but owes just as much to early ’70s progressive rock, particularly Yes. It’s not a concept album, though, and it never forgets to rock — damn hard, in fact. If you need to categorize it, it’d fall somewhere between Fragile and [Metallica’s] …And Justice for All, with the former’s detours into quietude and the latter’s long-ass songs and ferocious, almost ridiculously complex riff-scaffolding.
As a spin of Deliverance suggests, Opeth has had a long time to develop its ideas. The band formed in Sweden in 1990, just one more death-metal band from a country already stuffed to bursting with long-haired, angry guys with pointy guitars. Bandleader Mikael Åkerfeldt doesn’t exactly swear by Opeth’s early material, saying, “Before we got the record deal, we were just a standard death-metal band. Pretty shit, really. But when I got in touch with the whole prog rock and symphonic rock scene, I saw a different way to write music, and that we could incorporate that in our sound and make death metal symphonic.” Indeed, by the time Opeth released its first album, 1995’s Orchid, the band was already dishing out the kind of lengthy, ultra-complex pieces that would become its stock-in-trade: The album opens with the 14-minute “In Mist She Was Standing,” giving fair warning of its large-canvas vision.
Seven years later, Deliverance holds to that ambitious pattern, and it’s a tough listen. Opeth’s previous record, 2001’s Blackwater Park, mixed extremely heavy metal with softer, almost folk-rock passages, but there was a clearer separation between the two elements. In many ways, it was a more accessible album than the new one. The first track on Deliverance is “Wreath,” an 11-minute blast of energy that goes through five or six distinct sections, all but one of which are constructed around roaring death-metal riffs. It’s a truly savage piece of songwriting, coming at the listener like a wall of black ice. It starts fast and gets faster; Åkerfeldt’s vocals become an indecipherable roar mingling with the guitars, with the whole thing propelled by Martin Lopez’s surprisingly intricate drum patterns. By the time the song finally ends, the listener could be forgiven for feeling a little out of breath — and somewhat disoriented. When the title track kicks in, both longer and faster than its predecessor — and with no break between the two — Deliverance starts to feel like an endurance test. Opeth’s shows should have people on the sides of the pit, ready to hand moshers cups of orange juice, as though they were running a marathon.
Åkerfeldt admits the new record is hard going — it was a conscious choice. “Deliverance is a pretty dark and extreme record, and faster than before,” he says. “Both Blackwater Park and Still Life were kind of midpaced, and I wanted Deliverance to be brutal.” The standard of baroque brutality he’s set, though, means it’s going to be all the more interesting to hear the band’s next effort. “It’s called Damnation,” Åkerfeldt says, “and it’s going to be released in springtime. It’s like the sister of Deliverance — the complete opposite. It’s a very beautiful and delicate, mellow record, and it sounds like…it sounds like one of the classic albums you’d have in your collection, from the ’70s. It’s got a very down-to-earth sound, and the songwriting process was a bit different. I didn’t have the same dynamics, because we didn’t have the heavy guitars and the screaming vocals. So I had to rethink my whole perception of how to write songs for Opeth. Some of the quieter parts on Deliverance could probably be likened to what Damnation is, but the whole production sounds like a ’70s production. We have loads of vintage keyboards on there. Not like Rick Wakeman, but old Mellotrons and Fender Rhodes.”
In the wake of punk, bands like Yes and ELP didn’t suddenly become bad musicians, but they did become victims of a kind of pop-cultural revolution. Only music that sounded “raw,” and that got its point across in four minutes or less, was acceptable. That limiting viewpoint has largely persisted to this day. But in the death-metal underground, even though many ideas were lifted from hardcore punk, the appreciation for instrumental technique and complex songwriting has never really gone away. To those paying close attention, a prog-thrash crossover could be seen as inevitable. “I’ve always been a fan of mellow music, rock ballads, that kind of stuff, as well as the heavy, extreme stuff,” Åkerfeldt says, “but we never could find a way to incorporate both styles into the music. When I got into the whole symphonic rock scene, it really helped me see a way to do that and make it more extreme, yet more mellow on the other side as well.” Opeth’s success with critics and fans may be a small signpost pointing toward a mainstream reassessment of progressive rock: Thanks to these Swedes, metalheads no longer have to say no to Yes.
I saw Opeth on that January 2003 tour. They played Irving Plaza, and searching reveals that Paradise Lost and Tapping the Vein opened the show, though I have no memory of that. (Hell, I have no memory of Tapping the Vein at all.)
I stayed an Opeth fan, and interviewed Åkerfeldt again in 2008, when Roadrunner Records flew me and another writer to Sweden to meet the entire band and hear their album Watershed. Then, between 2011 and 2014, we worked together a few times, because I was Roadrunner’s web content editor. I did a couple of fun YouTube videos with him and with Opeth’s other guitarist, Fredrik Åkesson, but they’re no longer online. Beginning with 2011’s Heritage, Åkerfeldt took the band away from death metal, truly embracing ’70s prog and to a lesser degree ’80s AOR. I like the music they’ve made in this second phase of their career a lot, too (their best prog-era albums are 2014’s Pale Communion and 2019’s In Cauda Venenum), and have seen them four or five times all together over the years. The last time was in 2016, and at that show their manager gave me a copy of a deluxe remixed/remastered edition of Deliverance and Damnation. That new version, which was released on CD and audio DVD, was a genuine improvement — even louder, even heavier, and yet somehow richer and fuller, too. You can stream it on Tidal.