Ophthalamia: A Journey in Darkness (reissue)

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By Tate Bengtson

A Journey in Darkness is a truly singular work within the realm of Swedish metal. There really is nothing else like it. Recorded in 1993 at Unisound Studios, the pseudonymically-inclined all-star lineup consisted of It (aka. Tony Särkkä of Abruptum and Vondur), Mourning (aka. Robert Ivarsson of Pan Thy Monium), Winter (aka. Benny Larsson of Edge of Sanity and Pan Thy Monium) and, most famously, Shadow (aka. Jon Nödtveidt of Dissection).

The album concentrates on a fantasy world created by It. This world, known as Ophthalamia, is shadowy, perverse, and heretical in nature; in a nutshell, it involves a female Satan figure known as Elishia. While the mythology of this world is too abstruse for myself (and presumably other mere mortals who are not inducted into that secretive and powerful cabal of illuminati known as “role playing gamers”), the gist of this fantasy world is important in that it directly inspires the music of A Journey in Darkness. This is a world where melancholy and pain are tortuously intertwined, where the relationship between good and evil is inverted, where strange magick conjures uncanny outcomes.

The songs all possess a dual structure, which is an Ophthalamia signature. Each track is composed of two pieces, one a haunting atmospheric bit (usually consisting of piano and spoken word) and the other a more traditional metal song. Alas, most of the atmospheric bits are pompous at best and silly at worst. Adding insult to injury, these atmospheric excursions are tacked on to the actual tracks such that it makes it impossible to bypass these best-left-forgotten ideas. Still, the impact is relatively small and not every atmospheric break fails; indeed, several play undeniably important roles as buttresss for the more metallic songs. Despite this, some of the more garish attempts to create atmosphere interrupt the album’s momentum and unintentionally introduce an element of comedy.

The full-on metal tracks are where the value of this album rests. The Ophthalamian world inspires slow and strange riffs which twist with deliberate exaggeration. The otherworldly oddness is reinforced by the band’s frequent digression into bizarre tangents, often with alarming suddenness. There are some impressively catchy moments, such as the perfectly-phrased chorus to “This is the Pain Called Sorrow/To the Memory of Me,” a sprawling opus that oscillates between midtempo groove and Sabbathy doom with ease.

Shadow turns in a dramatic performance, his semi-intelligible snarl delivered with a shrewd sense of calculation, each syllable carefully controlled as its utterance merges into the larger phrase. Winter’s measured percussion sticks to a doomy tempo, although he offers up some toe-tapping grooves near the end of “Little Child of Light / Degradation of Holyness [sic]” that worships at the altar of 70s rock (or, at the very least, Cathedral’s midtempo moments). However, the star of the show is It, who proves to be a non-stop riff machine, an indomitable force who brings cohesion to otherwise unwieldy song structures. It recognizes that complexity is best tempered by simplicity. The key to his approach is that the individual ideas are elegant in construction, interlocking with one another in formations both byzantine and bizarre.

While having A Journey in Darkness more readily available as a result of this reissue is wonderful, the quality of the reissue itself is unexceptional. While there is nothing egregiously wrong with it, the layout is dull and there are no bonus tracks, liner notes, or band photographs. Certainly an essay contextualizing this album and explaining some of its more perplexing elements (such as its relation to A Long Journey, Ophthalamia’s re-recorded version of the album presently under discussion) would have been welcome. A reissue should be an opportunity to situate an album in its proper historical and aesthetic framework; that is not the case here.

Despite my disappointment over the bare-bones quality of the reissue, A Journey in Darkness is a vital slab of enigmatic and esoteric doom metal that is fascinating due to its pedigree and impressive due to its musical qualities.

(Peaceville)

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Sean Palmerston

Sean is the founder/publisher of Hellbound.ca; he has also written about metal for Exclaim!, Metal Maniacs, Roadburn, Unrestrained! and Vice.