OPETH’s “Pale Communion” – 6 Months Later

Opeth - Pale Communion

Over the last decade or so, Swedish progressive metal titan Opeth has faced an assortment of line-up changes, resulting in striking stylistic shifts with each of its past few releases. In the words, bandleader Mikael Åkerfeldt seemed to hit a restart button every time he entered the studio, as if each new record was another chance to revise the Opeth brand. Nowhere was this more apparent than on the last entry, 2012’s Heritage. With an emphasis on exploring the colorful timbres and freeform jazz arrangements of pioneering influences like King Crimson and Gong (and a deliberate departure from prior brutality, including a total lack of growls), the LP oozed vibrant vintage mystique, making it one of their most distinctive offerings yet.

However, some fans [justly] felt that these changes resulted in an abandonment of what made Opeth, well, Opeth (To his credit, Åkerfeldt has always dismissed such naysayers with an equally respectable “take it or leave it” attitude). In a way, its experimentation and boldness were arguably more noteworthy than its songwriting and arrangements, so while it represented a commendable venture, it was still a bit disappointing overall. Naturally, this led to plenty of doubt and dismissal when Åkerfeldt announced its follow-up, Pale Communion, in early 2014. Frankly, I can’t overstate how wrong we were; this record is absolutely incredible.

If Heritage saw Opeth cautiously taking its first steps into a pool of ‘70s prog rock exuberance, Pale Communion finds it completely submerged, confident, and triumphant in the same scheme, fully embracing and honoring techniques that have only been hinted at before. An immense improvement over both Watershed and Heritage in many ways, Pale Communion bursts with luscious layers of classic instrumentation, gripping melodies, emotional lyricism, and stunning cohesion. It’s probably the group’s most rhythmically complex and sonically varied affair as well, which is truly saying something. Rest assured, Pale Communion is an instant classic in a catalogue full of gems.

Opeth

This emphatic retro allusion is apparent right from the start, as opener “Eternal Rains Will Come” begins in medias res, with a robust jazz fusion concoction that suggests what Camel may’ve sounded like had they been more sinister. The frenzy eventually subsides into a calmer passage before evolving into the track’s central hypnotic structure. This first half demonstrates a level of complexity rarely seen before, and when Åkerfeldt introduces his verses and chorus halfway through, it becomes a masterpiece. His tone is warm yet foreboding; his melodies are gorgeous; and his lyrics (which profess the hopelessness and finality of a Biblical flood) are philosophical and haunting. Debatably, the group hasn’t featured songwriting this beautiful and poetic since “Still Day Beneath the Sun” and “Patterns in the Ivy II.” Beyond being a perfect start to Pale Communion (in that it introduces listeners to the LP’s penchant for majestic harmonies and keyboard flair), “Eternal Rains Will Come” stands as one of the best Opeth tracks ever. In fact, I have to listen to it at least twice before moving on.

Cusp of Eternity,” in contrast, is a more typical beast that evokes the biting energy and alluring guitar riffs of Ghost Reveries. Åkerfeldt’s foreboding laments and falsetto outcries work well with the instrumental alarm that surrounds them, creating a ghostly panic throughout. Elsewhere, “Elysian Woes” is a poignant ballad dominated by his trademark angelic voice and delicate, intricate acoustic guitar arpeggios. What separates this from similar selections like “Benighted” or the interlude in “Porcelain Heart” is the influence of subtle orchestration, as well as several melodic growths by the end. Also, his harmonies recall the heavenly bridge in the otherwise demonic “Master’s Apprentices.”

There’s also the marvelously multifaceted adventurousness of the album’s lengthiest suite, “Moon Above, Sun Below.” Broken into several distinct sections, it transitions between forceful decrees (including thick vocal layers) and tranquil interludes (including more stunning arpeggios and elegies) with powerful elegance. The entire journey is coated with ethereal effects, making it quintessentially Opeth while also eliciting comparisons to revered genre innovators. Although the quintet is quite experienced in offering change-ups during a song, they haven’t been this ambitious and epic with it since “Black Rose Immortal” nearly twenty years ago.

Sequentially, “Goblin” serves as the start of the second side of Pale Communion, as it, like “Eternal Rains Will Come,” contains a wonderful slice of instrumental indulgence. Åkerfeldt has stated that the entire record was heavily influenced by ‘70s Italian prog rock masterminds Goblin, so it comes as no surprise that this piece was named after them. Interestingly, it begins with staccato guitar plucking, just as “Cusp of Eternity” does, so “Goblin” rightly connects stylistically with two previous tracks, which adds a great sense of continuity to the entire record. Afterward, “River” is a surprisingly folksy and summery ballad led by more wonderful acoustic guitar patterns and the densest harmonies on the disc. It stays this way for most of its duration, until the rest of the band chimes in with joyously disjointed aggression (drawing a connection to Storm Corrosion along the way).

Voice of Treason” enters the fray with focused percussion and ominous strings, providing a foundation on which the rest of the hectic elements blend finely. Honestly, though, this is the weakest inclusion on Pale Communion, as its significantly straightforward path feels both too familiar and uninspired when compared to the brilliance that surrounds it. Nevertheless, it’s still a good composition, and the way it transitions into the LP’s finale, “Faith in Others,” with sorrowful strings is ingeniously understated yet devastating. It once again features Åkerfeldt bellowing with emblematic tenderness, surrounded by heartbreaking orchestration. Each melody is more tragic than the last. “Faith in Others” concludes as it began, and thus Pale Communion leaves listeners in complete awe.

Almost every one of Opeth’s former “observations” (as they call them), including Still Life, Blackwater Park, Deliverance, and Ghost Reveries, is considered an essential entry in the genre, and while it features a significantly different approach than the rest, Pale Communion belongs right alongside them. This is the record they’ve been leading up to since Ghost ReveriesWatershed and Heritage, as solid as they are, were just stepping stones in the process. Åkerfeldt and company haven’t sounded this fresh, lively, imaginative, graceful, varied, and complex in nearly a decade, which is a testament to how prolific and vital they are as musicians and songwriters. Had Pale Communion come out in the early ‘70s, it would now be considered one of the best records of its era; as it stands, it’s the best record I’ve heard in 2014.

1 Comment

  1. Gianmario

    July 24, 2015 at 3:39 pm

    This album is fantastic . Whenever they know surprise with new sounds . Great band, Great progressive sound!

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