Opeth benefits well from the perspective of hindsight. For more than 20 years the Swedes, led by singer-songwriter Mikael Åkerfeldt, have taken their audience on a journey loaded with stylistic twists and turns. Every new album features new surprises, new developments, new signposts in Opeth’s continuing evolution as a band. Yet for every surprising moment that throws listeners for a loop, those surprises make more sense when considering Opeth’s career arc. A neophyte might wonder how band could evolve from the death/doom metal extremity of the 1995 debut Orchid to the ornate, highly melodic progressive rock sounds of 2014’s Pale Communion, but looking at every one of the band’s 11 albums, that metamorphosis turns out to be rather graceful.
The first seven or eight years of Opeth’s discography serves as the first rising act of that arc. From Orchid through three subsequent albums – 1996’s Morningrise, 1998’s My Arms, Your Hearse, 1999’s Still Life – the band further refined its sound, whether tightening the structure of the habitually meandering songwriting, embracing cleanly sung vocals to offset Åkerfeldt’s death metal growl, or learning to balance the expressive nature of the band’s musicianship with its firmly established extreme side. If there’s one common opinion from both fans and critics about Opeth’s early era, it’s that 2001’s Blackwater Park was the complete realization of that early sound, in which all ingredients coalesced most seamlessly. At the time Åkerfeldt similarly felt the need for a change, and the next two albums would not only be a marked departure but would signal a new era of unprecedented experimentation and growth.
For a change of place, Åkerfeldt decided to offer two distinctly differing explorations of Opeth’s light-and-shade hybrid, in the form of a double album. One disc would delve into the darker, heavier side of the Opeth sound, while the other would expand upon the band’s rapidly developing melodic side. Partially influenced by Blackwater Park co-producer and kindred spirit Steven Wilson, Åkerfeldt felt the need to somehow liberate himself further in his music, and the end result was Deliverance and Damnation, a sprawling, 105-minute experiment that showcased how much Opeth had grown, and how limitless future possibilities had become.
Clearly not thrilled with the prospect of selling an expensive double album, record label Music For Nations refused to release the opus as a double album, instead releasing Deliverance and Damnation individually, five months apart in late 2002 and early 2003. Both were greeted with much acclaim, but being forced to compromise creative freedom in favor of a quick buck stick’s in an artist’s craw, and13 years later Deliverance and Damnation have finally been re-released as Åkerfeldt had intended, featuring brand new remixes and remasters of both records, as well as five-channel surround mixes on DVD.
Structurally Deliverance bears a strong resemblance to the overall direction of Blackwater Park, gracefully weaving back and forth between aggressive and mellow. However, while not front-to-back as inspired as Blackwater Park, it has enough moments that easily qualify as “peak Opeth”. “A Fair Judgement” is a gorgeous lamentation that shows the band could excel at more doom-oriented arrangements than, say, more death metal-oriented fare. “Wreath” and “By the Pain I See in Others” are fitting examples of the darker, more violent fare Åkerfeldt wanted to explore on this record, but the one classic moment can be found in the title track. Arguably the greatest song Opeth recorded, the 13-and-a-half-minute “Deliverance” is a masterful exercise in control and dynamics ebbing and flowing between surprisingly simple movements before segueing into a thrilling final half, punctuated by a four-minute coda whose syncopation, brute force, and gentle melody rivals the progressive metal genius of Meshuggah. Drummer Martin Lopez is the driving force throughout, transforming what in lesser hands would be a rigid movement into something that swings, glides, and steps with the nimble agility of a dancer.
Damnation, on the other hand, marks the first time Åkerfeldt steps outside his metal comfort zone, moving more toward the sounds of 1960s and ’70s progressive rock. Nary a blastbeat, power chord, nor death growl can be heard, and this focus on subtlety suddenly shows a new side of Opeth, one that doesn’t have to rely on bombast to create stirring music. Wilson’s influence is undeniable, as he helps guide the band through waters that are uncharted to them, the music accentuated by mellotron and vocal harmonies. At 43 minutes this is the shortest album in the Opeth discography, but because its melodies are so understated, because its mood is so similar throughout, it’s a deceptively challenging album, one that needs to settle into listeners’ heads over time, but soon the mastery of “Windowpane”, “In My Time of Need”, and “Closure” starts to surface.
The key attraction with this new reissue of both albums is the remix by Bruce Soord, who creates an entirely new listening experience while not for a moment compromising the integrity of the original release. The clarity is stunning, the space between tracks, as well as the sheer dynamic force, especially on Deliverance. While the liner notes by Akerfeldt and Prog magazine editor Jerry Ewing are valuable and well written, the packaging could have been better. Presented in a DVD-sized digipak, not only is it flimsy but looks dated, an awkward fit in a fan’s collection.
Oddly enough, Opeth would cautiously step back after the experiment of Damnation, fine-tuning that balance of heavy and mellow on a pair of excellent follow-ups in 2005’s Ghost Reveries and 2008’s Watershed. It would not be until 2011’s Heritage, however, that Opeth would steer completely towards progressive rock, leaving all traces of extreme metal behind, and looking back a dozen years, the signpost that was Deliverance and Damnation seems a lot clearer than it initially looked.