While primarily known for his work with black metal/noise-pioneers Abruptum and assorted non-musical activities in the – at least locally – infamous “True Satanist Horde”, it is the strange entity of Ophthalamia that remains as Tony “IT” Särkkä’s (RIP 1972-2017) greatest artistic achievement. Ophthalamia’s debut album A Journey in Darkness stood out in the early 1990s black metal-environment with its anachronistic and all-around peculiar mode of expression. In rough terms, the music can be described as a blend of black-, doom-, and heavy metal with the conceptual and structural trappings of 1970s progressive rock.
Being a Finnspång-act, it comes as little surprise that Ophthalamia ended up in Unisound Studio with Dan Swanö as producer-cum-engineer (as well as a musical contributor to the album, but more on that later). The production is spacious and clear, with a mix that grants each instrument its due space while keeping a healthy emphasis on the guitars. This fits the band’s style, since Ophthalamia’s music is relatively clean and subtle. There’s a lot of focus on individual notes, accents and harmony that would have been lost had they opted for a “credible” lo-fi production.
The instrumental approach is quite unorthodox given the context. Whereas most Scandinavian bands of the time did their best to disown the past, Ophthalamia makes no excuses for resuscitating the corpse of heavy metal. Along with contemporary Scandinavian black metal and Viking-era Bathory, main inspirations include the early works of Black Sabbath, NWOBHM and traditional doom metal á la Candlemass and Saint Vitus. Working with this conflux of influences, guitarist Tony Särkkä creates a distinctly personal style that sets the tone for the album. Many of the riffs convey a sense of immense desolation, similar to that of Dave Chandler’s work in Saint Vitus. These are complemented by long, folk-tinged melodies and drawn-out lead excursions, occasionally accentuated with lush NWOBHM-styled harmonization. There’s a certain bluesy, or even jazzy character to the guitars, which display the same kind of eeriness that Tony Iommi achieved when appropriating the minor pentatonic scale in the early works of Black Sabbath.
The work of bassist Robert “Mourning” Ivarsson is ideal, staying close to the guitar lines and shifting to counter-melodies when they seem fit. More extraordinary though is the drumming of Benny “Winter” Larsson. An unsung hero of Swedish black- and death metal, Larsson has a keen ear for what’s going on in the music, providing a steady rhythmic backing with a wide variety of fills and accentuations at his proposal. The vocals – provided by Jon “Shadow” Nödtveidt of Dissection – show considerable vocal and emotional range, shifting between rasps, chants and declamatory speeches. Somewhat amusingly, except for the spoken words in “Little Child of Light/Degradation of Holiness”, the “female” vocals are not that of a woman but Dan Swanö himself, who also provides his services as composer and lead guitarist on selected tracks.
As explained by main-man IT in several interviews, the music of Ophthalamia is set to evoke a world of fantasy and struggle. To achieve this goal, the music is constructed narratively in the manner of a 1970s progressive rock band. Projects pertaining to such a high level of ambition tend to fall flat, but it kind of works here. Granted, there are a few issues that needs to be addressed. Some of the songs are inclined to meander a little too far into self-indulgent territories, and when they do it’s an ugly thing to witness. Also, there are certain passages that sound misplaced or arbitrary in their context, both in a purely musical sense and in the emotions they are designed to evoke. However, if taken as a whole A Journey in Darkness succeeds in providing a dream-like, immersive experience saturated with gothic overtones and accompanying melancholy atmosphere.
After the technically accomplished but less convincing follow-up album Via Dolorosa (1995), Ophthalamia would replace their homebrewed style on the speedier and more conventionally melodic Dominion (1998). However, it is their debut proposal that has best stood the test of time. Highly recommended to those who wish to explore the less-travelled pathways of early-to-mid 1990s black metal.