Opeth
Pale Communion

It’s amazing how drastically Opeth’s revered status in the wider metal community has been skewed and distorted in recent years following a nearly unprecedented run of critical acclaim that catapulted Opeth to a rare level of bulletproof stardom and respect. During a prolific career spanning over 20 years it was of course inevitable that Opeth’s masterful blend of melodic metal, prog rock and haunting acoustic passages would lose some of its lustre as the passage of time stretched on. Cracks in Opeth’s flawless sound began to appear as far back as 2005’s Ghost Reveries and continued on follow-up album Watershed before shit hit the fan with the radical stylistic changes and self-indulgent meandering that earned the band considerable backlash with the release of 2011’s Heritage.

The biggest problem with Opeth’s controversial Heritage release was not the severing of their metallic roots and absence of death growls, but rather the lack of cohesion and focus in the songwriting that plagued the album and made for a maddeningly uneven and frustrating listen. Now it remains clear that Mikael Akerfeldt’s metal days are well and truly behind him as he navigates Opeth deeper into a melancholic fog of 70’s inspired progressive rock shaded with psychedelic and folky musings. Naïve listeners expecting Opeth’s return to their heavier roots with 11th full-length Pale Communion, or those completely scarred by Heritage, would be best advised to let this one pass by and reminisce about the good old days instead. The rest of us can relish in Opeth’s return to form. Pale Communion largely smoothes over the deficiencies of its much maligned predecessor, resulting in a far more song-based and fluid album which stays within the divisive musical boundaries of Opeth’s metal-free formula of vintage progressive rock.

Pale Communion opens with unexpected immediacy on”Eternal Rains Will Come”, as the band launch into a jazz-infected, percussion heavy groove, before segueing into a much quieter piano led passage that has a vintage Opeth feel to it. The song’s flawless structure and vibrant proggy bounce is brilliantly driven by Akerfeldt and Fredrik Akesson’s spindly guitar melodies and soulful leads, prominent basslines from Martin Mendez, and the space filling atmospherics of Joakim Svalberg’s keyboards. Akerfledt’s increasingly confident vocals sound top notch here, with his melodies on the song almost single-handedly besting much of his elusive work on Heritage. Lead-off single “Cusp of Eternity” rocks a dark melodic groove that’s about as straightforward and immediately gratifying as anything on their past couple of albums. It’s not without Opeth’s trademark intricacies and stellar musicianship, not to mention a classic Akerfeldt solo to seal the deal, but it’s the song’s endearing hooks and central melodies that lend it an accessible streak that counterbalances Opeth’s strong exploratory tendencies.

“Moon Above, Sun Below” is the utterly mesmerizing, brilliantly composed centrepiece of Pale Communion, standing out as one of the best songs Opeth have penned in recent memory. The song has a classic Opeth vibe in tone and atmosphere and from memory is the longest cleanly sung composition (10:57 minutes) in the band’s repertoire. Much of Opeth’s trademark mastery of dynamics has been difficult to replicate since eschewing the metal component of their sound. However, here it’s present in spades across a dense multi-faceted arrangement that showcases the band’s stunning instrumental prowess and recaptured songcraft.

Pale Communion hits a mid-section lull that doesn’t greatly compromise the quality of the album as a whole, but certainly flattens some of the forward momentum from the opening few songs. The delicate hues of “Elysian Woes” contains some stirring moments that builds towards a climax that never really eventuates. Meanwhile, “Goblin” is a fun instrumental jam that showcases the band’s instrumental prowess, and whilst clocking-in at just over four minutes it would have been more impactful as a punchy interlude at half the length. Fortunately the jangly, upbeat melody opening the ambitious “River” develops into a striking composition of great depth and beauty. The song’s contrasting dynamic between hopeful rays of optimism and darker shades of melancholic sadness culminates in a gripping instrumental-heavy climax, featuring some heavier guitar work and hard-hitting rhythms. Somber tones and strong melodies highlight the mournful “Faith in Others”, concluding the album in a painfully sad yet beautiful fashion.

Opeth’s signature tone and the wintry melancholy that has formed a comforting glaze across their career is far more apparent on Pale Communion than its predecessor, as the band return to the fluid arrangements and meticulous songcraft that has highlighted the finer points of their career. Smoother transitions and the overall cohesion displayed throughout Pale Communion hints at a band more comfortable in their new skin, confidently moving forward with their progressive rock formula. Impeccably produced by Akerfeldt and mixed by right hand man Steven Wilson, Pale Communion sounds incredible and is enamoured with a rich organic sound that is warm, punchy and flawlessly balanced.

I broached Pale Communion very much on the sceptical side of the ledger. However, following many repeat listens I’ve been well and truly won over by what Opeth have achieved here. Pale Communion features some of the most consistent, emotional and accomplished songwriting of Opeth’s recent career. And despite being unable to captivate me quite like the classic Opeth of old, Pale Communion is nevertheless a triumphant, frequently brilliant album that signals a cracking return to form.

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Written by Luke Saunders
September 8th, 2014

Comments

  1. Commented by: Devils Lettuce

    Great review! This is a great album. The negative feedback these guys get is ridiculous at this point.


  2. Commented by: Cirkus-lizard

    As someone who was very excited about the change in styles of Heritage promised before it’s release, I was ultimately very let down by that album. I am approaching this one much more cautiously, but I will say I enjoy the Eternal Rains track more than anything off of Heritage. I may just have to dive in and see.


  3. Commented by: Gabaghoul

    Excellent review, and very much in line w/ my reaction to the album (and my frustrations with Heritage, though I believe I was more generous w/ my review when it was released. Honeymoon glow and all that.)

    This is far more cohesive and confident and exciting, and definitely feels like an Opeth record. In fact, had this been released after Watershed – and without the defiant proclamations that the band is now done w/ death metal – I don’t think the fans would have reacted so sharply. Now that the ship has been righted, I wonder what the next stage of the journey will sound like…


  4. Commented by: Blackwater Park

    As a longtime Opeth fan and someone who wants to see them succeed, after Heritage I didn’t have high hopes. Well Opeth lived up to my disappointment and have delivered the biggest insult of their career. Maybe this is good for what it is, I don’t know and I’ve listened to it about 15 times now trying desperately to find something redeemable. All I know is that this is not the same band and it is deceitful to put the same logo on the front. What a shame.


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