Mikael Akerfeldt of Swedish Metal Band Opeth Recounts Recording Their Classic 'Deliverance' & 'Damnation' Albums

Olle Carlsson
Mikael Akerfeldt

When Opeth’s albums Deliverance and Damnation were released back to back in 2002 and 2003, respectively, their success elevated the progressive metal band’s stature among its peers and fans. While Deliverance was a death metal-influenced project, from its stuttering drumbeats and hard-hitting rhythms to frontman Mikael Akerfeldt's guttural growls, companion album Damnation was its polar opposite, a soft-spoken, intimate collection of foreboding songs. Since Akerfeldt originally envisioned the records as a double album, it made sense to reissue them as a complete package with a 5.1 surround-sound remix on Jan. 1 through the End Records and Music for Nations as part of the band’s 25th-anniversary celebration (on sale here). But even though the albums were a commercial high point for Opeth, Akerfeldt’s memories of their creation aren’t so rosy.

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“That record [Deliverance] was a troubled record for us because we had lots of problems in the band,” he says. “We were becoming a professional band, so we were touring a lot, we were working a lot, and there was all sorts of problems that came into the band during that time, so that’s the main reason why I had disliked that record because I don’t have a good memory of recording it.”

Akerfeldt discussed with Billboard the circumstances surrounding the recording of Deliverance and Damnation, as well as one of the happy memories he does carry with him from that time and how a bizarre incident involving a former bandmate’s girlfriend inspired some of the lyrics.

“We recorded both records at the same time. Damnation leaves a happier memory for some reason, but I think I was more excited about that record because we hadn’t done anything like that. That always sounded great, I think.

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I’d taken it on myself, too, because I felt a bit like I was invincible; that I could write music under any amount of pressure. So what we did with these records was we went into the studio, I had it booked for I don’t know how long, but we had no songs written. I was like, ‘That’s not a problem. I’ll write during the nights and then we’ll record during the days,’ because we’d done something like that with the previous record and I figured I could do it, but I couldn’t.

Listen to the song "In My Time of Need" from Damnation:

On top of that we had lots of personal problems in the band, and to be frank -- today [bassist] Martin Mendez is still in the band and he would agree if you ask him -- the other guys that were in the band at the time, they didn’t really help. Peter [Lindgren], who played guitar at the time, he was always like my right hand, he kind of disappeared during that time. That was kind of the beginning of the end. He went away to a different town to drink beer and to party when we were going to start recording the guitars. I was like ‘F---.’ Also, you can add to the equation that I’m not good with confrontation. I just kind of clenched my fist in my pocket. But I figured that’s showing enormous disrespect to me, to the band, to himself, as a guitar player, to just piss off when we’re going to record. So I figured, ‘What the f--- do you say?’ So I didn’t say anything.

Peter and myself, we kind of reconnected. He stayed with the band for another record after that and so did [drummer] Martin Lopez, but me and Peter, we [later] kind of cleared the air a little bit because when he left the band, it was so close. It’s difficult to talk about things when they’re right there. You kind of need some space and time to think things over. I think he did, too, because he had lots of things to say to me that I was not always so fantastic with my choices, whatever I was saying, so I think we’re friends, even if we don’t hang out that much. But I haven’t talked to Lopez in 10 years.

Of course, it wasn’t all pitch black. We had some really nice creative moments, especially between myself and Martin Lopez when we came up with drum parts together because I had written some music during the night and I showed him the arrangement or whatever I had the next day, and we pieced together a drum beat, which works like a skeleton for us, like the foundation of everything. Once you have the drums down, you more or less know if it’s good or not. That was always very exciting, and even if we weren’t in a great state collectively I think there were moments that we really enjoyed, too. When I think back on it, that was it. That’s the only happy memories from that recording.

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A lot of those songs aren’t about anything. I don’t know what they’re about … in those days I was just writing. I didn’t enjoy writing lyrics. I hated writing lyrics, actually. I didn’t have anything to say. I felt like I said everything I wanted to say with the music itself but then of course you need something to sing, so it’s going to be either some random shit that doesn’t mean anything or something with a bit more substance.

Some songs on Deliverance, like the song 'Deliverance,' were inspired by an event that happened to Peter’s girlfriend. She and a couple of her friends were kind of held hostage by some crazy guy. He locked them inside his apartment, they were partying or whatever, and he started cutting himself and telling them that he’s going to kill them and stuff like that. It didn’t end badly -- they got out of there -- but the guy was obviously some type of lunatic, so that inspired that lyric [for] ‘Deliverance.’

I would love to [record another double album], you know? If it’s good. I would love to do it under a bit more of control. Like if I had unlimited time to piece it together, that would be great … we never felt that we had time to really focus on something ambitious like that, and to this day it feels like everybody puts us back on a tour bus as quickly as possible (laughs) because of the state of the record [industry].”