“Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.”
–George Bernard Shaw
This couldn’t be more true for Opeth’s latest album, “Pale Communion”. Meaning, this album takes a prog-rock direction instead of the band’s normal black metal/prog metal schtick. Now, to most Opeth fans, this would be an unwelcome turn of events. However, the result of Opeth’s sudden change of heart is great. This is an album that just keeps on giving even though I feel like this album is Opeth just getting into prog-rock as a whole, so there’s some (but not many) off-bits.
The first track, “Eternal Rains Will Come”, starts off with this kickass Boston-like organ. It sounds like I’m being abducted. I listened to this song with the sound all the way up in the dark of my bathroom and it was one of the scariest moments of my life. Badass. Anyways, the track continues this organ/bass/drum riff, slowly ascending, until about a minute and a half into the track. Then it goes into this surreal spacey slow jam, complete with lush and vibrant guitars and ambient synths. But the kicker is, the bass, drums, and organs come back in, along with beautifully sung vocals by Mikael Akerfeldt. When you hear it, you realize that you’re listening to a prog-rock record, and it may be a while. That’s one thing I really like about this record: Opeth’s undying nature to be about change, and to never be stale. You can tell they have major moral and cultural influences on their music, such as Miles Davis (who famously said “It’s not about standing still and becoming safe. If anybody wants to keep creating they have to be about change.”) You can hear Opeth really really trying to make a good record rather than make a good prog-rock record, and that’s where the heart and soul of the record lies. They would rather make a good record regardless of the genre than make an okay record that sticks to the genre of music they’re so used to.
The next few tracks, “Cusp of Eternity”, “Moon Above, So Below”, and “Elysian Woes”, don’t carry the same weight and gravity that “Eternal Rains Will Come” has. Nevertheless, the songs are still great. I just wish they had the same prog-rock flamboyance that the first track had. They start to feel more rocky than prog-rocky. Not that it’s necessarily a bad thing, but I’ll be damned if I’m not starting to believe that prog-rock might actually be Opeth’s true calling. Cusp of Eternity is the weakest track off this album. It’s a great track, but I feel like it’s the one song on the album they had to put there to keep the album complete. The vocals are a little weak, especially during the chorus. The song has some great guitar riffs though, some that will stay in my head for the coming days.
The bass and drums are syncopated as usual: one of Opeth’s strong suits is great communication between the bass and drums. “Moon Above, So Below” is Pale Communion‘s longest track, clocking in at 10:53. This track is fantastic. The organ is not an instrument of musical nature in this track, but one of haunting souls. It has this very creepy ominous vibe to it, it’s wonderful. I feel like I just walked into Dracula’s castle when I listen to it.
“Elysian Woes” is my favorite of these three songs, beginning with this beautifully morose guitar playing wonderfully dissonant scales accompanied by a moving vocalization by Mikael. The bass hits a minute and a half in, and it sounds so beautiful. Probably the most beautiful bass intro I’ve ever heard in prog-rock. But, that’s a problem with this song. While prog-rock can be beautiful, it’s not supposed to be. It’s supposed to transcend the world you live in, into a pessimistic anti-paradise, and I feel it didn’t do that for me with these tracks.
However, the remainder of that album picks this up quite well. “Goblin”, my favorite track off the album, has a sort of laid back guitar/bass riff while the organ lays down a funky beat. It’s great. The b-section of this song has just a straight up Gran Turismo OST vibe. It made me feel like I was going to buy a car. After this, the guitar descends into a jazzy riff. It’s straight up old school, like something Allan Holdsworth would do.
“River” starts out with a guitar reminiscent of Jefferson Starship’s “Find Your Way Back”. It then goes right into this Tenacious D style singing (only way I can describe it, really) and it’s awesome. It makes me feel like I have wings on my back, flying me to the afterlife. After that, the last two songs are what make the album have a lasting impression. “Voice of Treason” gives me a sort of “men leading into war” vibe, and it scares the shit out of me. Makes me feel like I’m going to have my shit invaded. Badass. I imagine a large scale war in the start of a downpour within the valleys of a large area. It’s so fucking cool. “Faith in Others” has this really really cool King Crimson vibe, with a baroque feel. You can really tell Opeth was largely influenced by bands like King Crimson and Emerson Lake & Palmer and even early Genesis in this track. The keyboards are straight up Keith Emerson emulation, with the building ambience bits. The baroque sort of ascending nature of the song is so reminiscent of early King Crimson, it’s sonorous. The vocalization is similar to early-Genesis Peter Gabriel, with a bit of distortion on Mikael’s voice. It’s a great song, and I loved the many progressions.
Pale Communion is fantastic, even though it’s Opeth basically moving on and changing with a bit of rust around the edges. I believe it’s a little better knowing that Opeth only has greater things in store for themselves. I can’t wait to hear more from them.
Opeth is one of those bands that almost anyone can enjoy. They somehow were able to make music that was heavy and beautiful, as well as being melodic and technical, all at the same time. With this diversity, there was something for everyone to be found in their music. Hell, one song could even have parts folk music fans would enjoy, and others that metal heads would be aggressively head banging along to. Recently, though, Opeth seems to have dropped the intensity they once had in order to pursue a prog rock sound. With Heritage being the start of that idea, this new release, Pale Communion, continues that exploration.
When the first song, “Eternal Rains Will Come”, starts (very abruptly might I add), this new sound is not very apparent. This starting jam is actually very intense and sounds like something Opeth would play during their earlier, more “metal” era. Then, in traditional Opeth fashion, this intensity falls into a more melodic section. During all of this, the skilled musicianship of the band is very apparent as they play that complex, yet beautiful style I previously mentioned. After a little while, Mikael Akerfeldt’s vocals hit and we instantly melt in our seat from sheer gloriousness. This man literally has the voice of an angel with such incredible range, never hitting a bad note throughout this whole album (I would even go as far as to say his whole career).
With this first track being as great as it is, I had hopes for the rest of the album. Unfortunately, I was quickly disappointed by the second song, “Cusp of Eternity”. The track is actually oddly simple for an Opeth song, with a straightforward song structure and some not so grand sounding instrumentation, excluding a very good guitar solo in the mid section. This doesn’t make it necessarily bad per say, just nothing I really found all that interesting.
For the rest of the album, these first two tracks can be applied to any song to form my general opinion. The middle of Pale Communion leans towards the second track, with songs like “Elysian Woes” and “Goblin” being pretty disappointing and, overall, just sounding like some filler. Then there are the fantastic songs like “Rivers” and the outro, “Faith in Others”, that follow the same greatness as the first track. Both of these songs have some great writing and builds, which are complimented by band’s skillful instrumentation.
Speaking of instrumentation; the musicians’ skill is one thing, like the vocals, that never lets me down. Each member can make swift transitions from playing something crazy and intense, to something chill and atmospheric. “Moon Above, Sun Below” is a great, ten minute showcase of this, as there are multiple times when the band is able to switch moods via their playing. The sound of each instrument comes out very nicely and well produced, nothing ever being overpowering. I especially like the changing tones of the keyboard. Some songs will have an almost violin-sounding synth that Opeth uses multiple times throughout their discography. Others will feature an organ that sounds like it came straight out of an Emerson, Lake & Palmer song. There are a small few sound choices I did not like, however. An example is the string hits used throughout the song “Voice of Treason”. To me, they sound like they came right out of a stereotypical hip hop song, but that may just be getting too nit picky.
With all that being said, Pale Communion has a lot of good and bad mixed within it. Songs here can be a flat out snoozefest due to directionless songwriting. Others songs achieve the opposite with a sense of purpose and great structure that displays sheer beauty. Add some awesome, skillful instrumentation as well as one of the best vocalists you will ever hear, and you have Pale Communion: a fairly solid release for the band.
Tracks worth checking out: “Eternal Rains Will Come”, “River”, “Faith in Others”.
Pale Communion is out now on Roadrunner Records