Opeth – Pale Communion

Opeth - Pale Communion

Admittedly, I had avoided listening to the new Opeth record for a while before finally caving in and checking it out. It’s certainly not been for a lack of love for the band or their illustrious career, but rather that I was almost certain to be disappointed by anything in the vein of their post-Watershed retro style. It must have felt like I was a girl waiting on a pregnancy test to see if she was going to have a child with a man she didn’t love; the best-case scenario (being that the album was good, or negative on the pregnancy) would be relieving, but there wouldn’t be a sense of catharsis or ecstasy involved, the sort of things Opeth‘s early work was often prone to conjuring. Even if Pale Communion turned out to be good, I supposed, I still wouldn’t be able to shake the disappointment over Opethhaving exchanged their unique (though countlessly imitated) progressive death metal trademark for some brand of retro-prog- an oxymoron if ever I’ve known one. Somehow, Opeth‘s second plunge into this style has succeeded in doing what I previously thought impossible: not only has it sold me on this shift, it has finally proved to me that Mikael Åkerfeldt is capable of brilliance outside the melancholic strains of metal. This is the album Heritage tried to be, the one Storm Corrosion hinted at. Even if it doesn’t match the perfection they achieved with Opeth‘s best work, Pale Communion stands as a refreshing (and unexpected) burst of creative inspiration.

Although I’ve always had more of my heart in prog than metal news some years ago that Opeth had drifted towards a classic progressive rock style was immediately disappointing. Although the original definition of the style referred to a group of artists who meant to push rock music to the limits of its ambition (often with the help of classical music theory), in recent times it’s often associated with hollow musicianship, twenty minute songs that go nowhere, and an overarching desire to relive and fetishize the ‘good old days’ between 1969 and ’75, sort of like a Civil War reenactment but with more mellotrons. Anyways, Heritage was much less guilty of this self-important retro kitsch than Transatlantic or a host of other horrible modern prog acts, but it felt much less relevant than the work they had done before. With Pale Communion, I’ve realized my dislike of “Heritage” was less to do with the style itself, and moreso the fact it was otherwise incoherent and lacked conviction. There is plenty of the classic prog spirit here (ranging from the legendary King Crimson to Jethro Tull and Italian proggers Goblin) but it’s imbued with a life and energy that far outweighs what I’d normally associate with the retrogressive scene.


If anything’s changed since 2010, it’s that Opeth have become confident enough in this new style to finally outstretch their wings and write full-bodied compositions over the individually appealing ideas that dotted Heritage. With the exception of the sappily cheerful piece of hippie drivel “River”, the songwriting is tight and expertly realized. The epic scope adopted in “Eternal Rains Will Come”, “Moon Above, Sun Below” or even “Voice of Treason” bridge the previously non-existent gap between Ghost Reveries and Watershed , balancing grooves and general weirdness without letting one get the best of the other. Among these tracks, the gorgeously melancholic closer “Faith in Others” sounds most like the classic Opeth we know, picking up where “Burden” from Watershedleft off and arguably being the most emotionally intense ballad the band have ever done, complete with dynamic vocals and sombre string accompaniment. Opeth’s musicianship remains a constant joy, with particular props going to Martin Axenrot who, again, fuels the music with some of the best drumming I’ve heard this side of jazz fusion.

If there was ever something I liked about Heritage, it was it’s sense of surprise and general weirdness, as if they had aimed to make an album based around the wigged-out keyboard solo from Watershed‘s “The Lotus Eater”. Opeth have consolidated that weirdness on Pale Communion, bolstering it with the virtues of solid songwriting and form. “Goblin” is a perfect example of this fusion of chaos and order. Taking its name from the band that most readily inspired it (along with heavy doses of King Crimson) the song shifts seamlessly from one disjointed idea to another. I can see it being the track fans will have the most difficult time getting into an appreciating, but it comes together in a way that feels satisfying. While I find the throwback vocal harmonies on “Eternal Rains Will Come” sort of hokey, it’s a total masterpiece from the instrumental angle, and while I didn’t care for its eerie successor “Cusp of Eternity” when I heard it alone as a single, it enjoys new life within the context of the album. Really, it’s just “River” I don’t like, and even then it’s just for the overly cheery vocal section. Then again, that seems to be the track most people are swooning over. Maybe I’m weird and need to see the cheery side of life more often. Maybe everyone else is wrong.

While I’ve warmed up to most aspects of this ‘new’ Opeth, the change in style hasn’t translated well with Åkerfeldt’s vocals. I’m of the belief he’s always been a better harsh vocalist, but even so, his clean singing on Ghost Reveries and Watershed was rich and full of feeling. I’m not getting much of that emotional resonance in Pale Communion. He’s lost none of his technical ability or range as a vocalist, but there’s something still missing from the formula. My thoughts towards his vocals now are similar to the ones I had for Heritage as a whole; the weight of the influences have become much more apparent in the delivery. Even if Mikael’s voice remains distinctive, the performance feels less intimate, and more as if he’s adopted a new vocal persona to better fit the progressive rock archetype floating in his head. Sometimes there’s a clear nod to Jethro Tull‘s Ian Anderson, but most times it sounds like he’s amalgamated a host of ballsy heavy prog and hard rock vocalists into a melting pot and tried his best to replicate it. Anyone who appreciated the bombastic side of Åkerfeldt’s voice will find more to love on Pale Communion, but it doesn’t do much for me. With that being said, there are moments (most notably “Moon Above, Sun Below” and “Faith in Others”) that highlight what I loved best about his voice.

When all is said and done, I don’t think Pale Communion will ever achieve the acclaim of Blackwater Park or Still Life, nor does it strike me in the same life changing ways that my personal favourites Ghost Reveries and Morningrise did. Even so, the album demonstrates a full-bodied return to excellence for Opeth, and confidently demonstrates the amount of potential this new approach has in store. At the very least, it’s a conscious improvement from what I consider to be the weakest point in their career. Sure, If I ever wanted to hear vintage prog traditions thoughtfully explored and modernized, I could turn to Änglagård, another group of Swedes that still might do it better than Opeth. I think part of me would still like to hear Opeth return to their golden ratio of prog and death metal, but for what it’s worth, I’m very glad this album exists.


1. Eternal Rains Will Come (6:43)
2. Cusp of Eternity (5:35)
3. Moon Above, Sun Below (10:52)
4. Elysian Woes (4:47)
5. Goblin (4:32)
6. River (7:30)
7. Voice of Treason (8:00)
8. Faith in Others (7:39)


* Mikael Åkerfeldt – vocals, guitar, production, art direction
* Fredrik Åkesson – guitar
* Joakim Svalberg – piano, keyboards
* Martín Méndez – bass
* Martin Axenrot – drums, percussion

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