26th August – Roadrunner Records
01. Eternal Rains Will Come
02. Cusp of Eternity
03. Moon Above, Sun Below
04. Elysian Woes
07. Voice of Treason
08. Faith in Others
Pale Communion, the eleventh studio album by progressive metal act Opeth sees the band continuing their lumbering journey away from their death metal roots in favor of more traditional 60′s and 70′s inspired prog rock. Like their last album, the divisive Heritage, Pale Communion is an exercise in homage, hearkening back to the earliest musical influences of band members – and indeed the progressive metal scene at large - such as Yes, Genesis, King Crimson, and you know, practically every other classic progressive rock band you’ve ever heard.
Pale Communion starts off not with a bang, or even a delicate whimper, but more of a stumble – but it eventually finds its way into a healthy, eventful gait. Opening track “Eternal Rains Will Come” is introduced with a weird electro-inspired funk riff, with cymbal crashes, the drone of a mellotron, and snappy bass popping off around it. This lasts for a minute or two before bleeding out into a very soft, quiet moment of piano music, before building towards the bulk of the main song. A beautiful guitar melody is accentuated by delicate and well tempered drum fills, while the bass thrums away beneath it all, standing out and keeping your head moving through the gently shifting melodies of Mikael Åkerfeldt’s lead guitar. The whole piece is held together and carried onward with a distinct, multi-layered, overdubbed vocal performance from band frontman Åkerfeldt.
It’s a pretty great track, but only after a minute or two of unnecessary bullshit. This sort of disjointed songwriting was a big problem with the band’s last effort, and while that record wasn’t as bad as many fans and critics would have people believe, there were obvious problems with the songwriting, and to see Pale Communion start off with a bit of fumble, one can’t help but feel a bit of apprehension grow within themselves.
Luckily Pale Communion continues onward, leaving behind that little bit of a flub, and moves into several tracks of downright brilliance. The cornerstone of this album is the strength of the composition. That seems like a no-brainer for the most part, but the biggest problem with Heritage wasn’t the lack of extreme metal elements; it was the lack of good songwriting. Any change in direction by any band or musician can be accepted and loved if the material is thought out and well written, but Heritage - with its lumbering deluge of worship music and prog rock pandering – fell to the wayside due to lack of proper craftsmanship. The songs meandered on and on, without any sense of real identity, or purpose. They definitely had moments that called to mind the classics of yesteryear, but it did little to re-spark the magic of those old prog albums.
Pale Communion, on the other hand, does not suffer from those same missteps. With this album, Opeth have found their voice in the confines of their new genre. The songs have a feeling of oomph and drive, created by the more in-focus bass lines and drum production. Snappier riffs and smarter melodies bleed into one another, creating wonderful displays of music that are all at once a throwback to bands and styles of old, while simultaneously new and vibrant. It has a voice that is reminiscent of the past, yet still completely different and independent.
The biggest example of this change in craft would have to be tracks four and seven: the epic “Moon Above, Sun Below” and “Voice of Treason” respectively. The biggest qualm I’ve always held with Opeth is that they have made it painfully obvious that they really enjoy what they are doing, to a fault. Many of their longest ‘epics’ feel like little more than meandering drifts through the band member’s ego, rather than actual bouts of artistic craftsmanship, but every moment on these rather lengthy tracks feels purposeful. Melodies exude emotion and technical prowess, and atmosphere is built for the sake of payoff instead of just sheer atmosphere for no real reason. “Moon Above, Sun Below is dark, and classically Opethian, without any need for the death metal trappings, while “Voice of Treason” has some of the most memorable vocal melodies on the album.
It is hard to imagine the band that created Ghost Reveries could have so dramatically changed into the one we see before us now; pianos, clean guitars, and operatic vocals accompanied by cellos, and flutes, are a far cry from the death metal growls of old – but while the change has not sat well with many a fan, Pale Communion has the possibility of making believers out of us all. Its smart songwriting effortlessly creates a vibe that is both heavy and ethereal, without giving too much time to either one of those natures. Pristine production, and a palpable sense of love and care for the music being created by the band – a sense that was hard to feel on some of the albums in the pre-Heritage era – top off the pros of this already fantastic album.