Review Summary: Bleh.
It's fair to say that some bands are better within their comfort zone than others; from the moment Opeth's debut Orchid came out, their goal has presumably been to bring 70s progressive rock and folk-oriented beauty to the normally extreme nature of death metal. Whereas bands like Tristania and Within Temptation would use the "Beauty and the Beast" approach to contrasting vocal dynamics/styles, Opeth essentially brought this concept to their instrumentation. In one song alone, you could get a fast death metal riff, a soothing acoustic segment, some light jazz touches here and there in the soloing, the occasional classical detour, some occasional black metal screams (mainly in their early work), the list goes on. Well, around the time the band's fourth effort Still Life came out and had a more polished sound, it felt as though we were entering a new chapter in their career. While Blackwater Park was a more than solid successor to Still Life, sadly the following two efforts weren't.
Deliverance and Damnation were released to showcase the band's heavy side and light side, respectively. While Deliverance has a few songs similar to Damnation, its main focus is on heavy distorted riffing and an emphasis on Mikael Akerfeldt's inhuman growling. Damnation, on the other hand, was more focused on mellotron-laden 70s progressive rock with a strong emphasis on its melancholic atmosphere. While both albums are terribly flawed, Deliverance seems to be the weaker effort in the long run; why? Well, to get straight to the point, the album is split into two halves. One of them is great; the other one's awful. It's one of the very few albums I've ever heard where it's literally split down the middle in terms of quality, and it makes for an extremely frustrating and ultimately average experience.
The first half is where things really shine; here, we have "Wreath," the title track, and "A Fair Judgement." Every song here exceeds the ten-minute mark, some more deserving of a long length than others. "Wreath" is probably the song that suffers the most from length here, but at least there's enough to keep you on your toes. The beginning riff is definitely an odd way to open up an album for starters; while it has that 12/8 time signature Opeth is obsessed with, the drums are a bit off-kilter when combined with the guitar work. They constantly switch between a weird rhythm with off-beat snare drum placements and the typical swinging rhythm Opeth normally utilize. Anyway, while the beginning sounds quite intimidating, the song quickly goes into a melancholic set of melodic guitar patterns. Unfortunately, this part does go on for a bit too long and even the solos aren't really interesting enough to justify each set of chord changes. Luckily, a pretty nifty speed metal section (!) picks up the pace with a guitar solo that almost sounds middle-eastern in execution. Anyway, the song's flawed but definitely great. The reason so much of this writing was spent on "Wreath" is that the rest of the album is quite similar in style, for better or for worse. The only deviations from this are the more subdued piano-driven "A Fair Judgement" and the interlude "For Absent Friends." The title track, however, is the best example of the Opeth formula done well on this album. With a nice mix between wonderfully dissonant guitar patterns, sorrowful acoustic guitar picking at choice moments, and a healthy amount of tempo changes to spice things up, this song pretty marks the direction the overall album should have taken. The song also showcases Akerfeldt's clean vocals more, since the folkier moments almost always call for them; that's always a plus. The main riff sounds deliciously evil, switching between dissonant guitar melodies in different keys to create a dark and eerie mood. "A Fair Judgement" is the curveball of the album when you get down to it, trading in the growls and overall brutality for a beautiful piano ballad. While it does get louder later on, as power ballads go, the song keeps focus until the very end. Similar to Damnation, this song maintains a consistently sorrowful atmosphere as the cleanly-spaced piano chords are constantly ascending and descending between two keys to create "peaks and valleys" mood-wise. The overall piece is just as well composed as the two that came before it, and serves as a nice conclusion to Side 1.
Unfortunately, here's where the real shit begins. "For Absent Friends," "Master's Apprentices," and "By the Pain I See in Others" are the songs on the second side, and absolutely kill what the album might have been going for. "For Absent Friends," while refreshingly short, doesn't really have a purpose on the album other than being an average interlude. The continuation of the soft ballad-esque ideas from "A Fair Judgement" is nice, though. However, I can't even begin to describe how awful "Master's Apprentices" is. Not only does it just plod and plod and plod, but nothing about it leaves any impression whatsoever. It doesn't have nearly as much atmosphere as the title track, not nearly as much tempo variation as "Wreath," and certainly not nearly as much interest in dynamics as "A Fair Judgement" did. Most of the heavier portion of the song consists of multiple variations on its already-dull main riff, and the band members sound like they're simply going through the motions as there are never any instrumental surprises. The clean vocals around the 4-minute mark at least offer something different from the monotony, but that more-melodic section's very short-lived. As with many of their songs, the middle contains a folkier segment to lighten up the distortion, but it sounds like it could have been switched out with any other acoustic segment Opeth have performed. There's nothing really noteworthy except for some ambient guitar effects that arch over the acoustic strumming. The entire song is just plain horrendous, and it's baffling to me that it's still so acclaimed by the band's fanbase. "By the Pain I See in Others" isn't much better either, as it could have ended around the four-minute mark. Admittedly, the song doesn't start badly at all; in fact, the melodic line kicking it off sounds very inspired and suitably dark. The verses are a little odd, with distorted growling combined with soft acoustic guitar work, and the "choruses" (if you can call them that) are thunderous and almost akin to speed metal with the tempo they shift to. On top of this, the breakdown that follows is absolutely crushing, combining double bass and fast guitar picking with that speed metal-esque tempo mentioned before. However, this is where the song should have ended. The rest of the song is, for lack of a better way to say it, really damn boring. It rehashes all of the ideas from the previous songs and plods at the same time signature throughout. The soft moments are predictable and the heavy moments are extremely repetitive after being constantly thrown in your face.
It's a shame because this could have been one of Opeth's greatest albums. Unfortunately, this goes down as Opeth's worst effort because the second half brings it down completely. Even worse, Damnation isn't much better than this either; it would take the follow-up Ghost Reveries to get the band back on track before it was too late. As for this album, it's completely average; just download the first half and forget about the rest of it.