Album Reviews

Issue 2014-051

Opeth - Pale Communion - Round Table Review

Opeth - Pale Communion
Country of Origin: Sweden
Format: CD, download
Record Label: Roadrunner Records
Catalogue #: 2175732
Year of Release: 2014
Time: 56:41
Info: Opeth
Track List:
Eternal Rains Will Come (6:43), Cusp of Eternity (5:35), Moon Above, Sun Below (10:52), Elysian Woes (4:47), Goblin (4:32), River (7:30), Voice of Treason (8:00), Faith in Others (7:39)
Roger Trenwith's Review
This review is a tad rushed given deadline restrictions, made worse for me due to an impending holiday...woohoo! I shall do my best to convey the impression Pale Communion has made on me in the short space of time I have had to get to grips with it.

Say what you like about Opeth, and everyone does, but the redoubtable Swedes are a band who have progressed in the true sense of the world. Since beginning to cast off the shackles of death metal with the surprisingly proggy Damnation way back in 2003, and the appropriately titled Watershed seeming to act as full-stop on the growls, Mikael Åkerfeldt's troupe are now well and truly free of that inward looking and restrictive b(l)ackwater.

Having said that, given the band's high levels of artistic integrity there is every chance that their next release may well see Mikael or A N Other taking death growls to new levels of unintelligibility should the material require it, particularly given Mikael's hints in a recent Metal Hammer interview. For now however, Mr Åkerfeldt sees the sense in preserving his voice for the benefit of those of us who like to hear what is being sung, as well as for his own tonsorial health.

The album opens with the Hammond-tastic intro to Eternal Rains Will Come, which carries on where the heavier parts of Heritage left off, before sneaking in a guitar line during a slower section reminiscent in tone and melody to one of Guthrie Govan's from that curate's egg of an album The Raven.... The similarity of Pale Communion in places to Wilson's epic will be touched on later. What I like about this band is the harmonies, which as far as I can tell are created here between Mikael and Steven Wilson, so quite how they replicate it live is anyone's guess.

An echo of Opeth riffs past informs the chugging guitar of Cusp of Eternity, a fairly straightforward head-shaker with dramatic but clean vocals, and a nice guitar break. I can imagine a younger crowd getting off on this, but this kind of thing does little for me now.

The longest song at nearly eleven minutes is Moon Above, Sun Below, introduced with an odd time signature on the bass, followed by alternate spookiness and syncopation, with vocal sections where Mikael would have growled in the past but now treats his slightly straining but not screaming vocals with reverb. Segments of introspection are contrasted with full-on guitar workouts from Fredrik Åkesson (presumably), and more of those winning harmonies. I need to listen to this track quite a few more times before I draw any conclusions, but there are more marked similarities in places to the work of Mikael's good buddy Mr Wilson.

Produced by Åkerfeldt and mixed by Wilson the sound is clean. So clean in fact it comes over as a little uninvolving to these ears, especially so at lower listening levels. Åkerfeldt has said he went for a focus on melody on the record and this is certainly the case as the middle section of the album drops the riffage entirely and concentrates on playing and singing.

Opeth's music remains at the heavier end of the prog spectrum as one would expect, but tempered with slower reflective songs, Elysian Woes being one of those. I had to smile on first listen to this number, as yet more musical references to you-know-who crop up in this song.

The spotlight on melody is apparent on the instrumental Goblin, shining down on the keyboards of Joakim Svalberg, who gets well funky in the manner of John Paul Jones at one point. At this still early point of listening, Goblin is my current favourite of the album, along with the album closer. The focus on the tunesmithery continues on into River, which highlights Fredrik's fine way with an acoustic guitar, while Åkerfeldt and Wilson conjure up a reverential multi-tracked vocal harmony. I'm not kidding, this could be Crosby, Stills & Nash. The tune develops into a sun-kissed guitar solo from Fredrik, who as we know, is no slouch on the fretboard. As this song is over seven minutes long you just know something will change and it does. Around the four minute mark Fredrik sets up a guitar call and response with Mikael, and we have entered full-on electric prog territory, again of a familiar kind.

Less a melange of influences, or let's be kind, "in the mode of homage" than most of The Raven..., this last section of the song could so easily have been slotted into that album and no-one would have noticed. Perhaps therein lies a problem? While the audience for Steven Wilson's current brand of magpie prog-reverence is comparatively large given the relatively small pond in which it swims, and snaring that same audience should not present Opeth with any problems in the wallet filling department, is it not just a touch artistically stifling? I consider that the problem I have with this currently fashionable version of prog-homage is that it is often difficult to transmit real human emotion within it. Steven Wilson reminds us how it's done on Drive Home, a song in the proper sense rather than a collection of references, and one that would have graced any later-period Porcupine Tree album. Opeth manage it occasionally on Pale Communion, but mostly the music on this album simply serves to make me feel disconnected. I almost wish Åkerfeldt had snuck in a ferocious growl bang in the middle of the record just to jolt me out of my ennui.

I cannot argue that this album is not well played and produced, in fact that small adjective does it a disservice in both those departments, but like The Raven..., Pale Communion is not really saying anything new. I like it well enough, but as I'm one of those odd fellows always looking for the edge, I don't think I'll find it anywhere around here.

Back to the album; when Åkerfeldt sings his song and stops the clinical prog moves for a minute or two he shows he is adept at framing the required emotion, without doing the Cookie Monster, of course! There are sections in closer Faith in Others that hit the poignant button with ease. In addition the instrumental sections keep it relatively simple and the tune benefits from that no end.

Although now free of death metal stylings I consider that Opeth have painted themselves into a corner just as restrictive with this second strange album of homage. However, there are signs, particularly in the slower, more reflective middle section of this album that the band can leave the currently popular "spot the 70s reference" game behind and create their own distinctive sound with this new direction, but that hoped for individuality is some way off yet.

Pale Communion works better than Heritage, which at times seemed like a random raid on the protagonist's 1970s record collection. Conversely I enjoyed Heritage more on first listen, perhaps because it was easy (and fun) to "spot that riff adaptation". In conclusion I no longer consider that the kind of prog now being made by Steven Wilson and here by Opeth is really for me, but most of you will take that as a recommendation I'm sure. This is a good album, but not one I shall be returning to with any regularity.

There is little here that conveys real heart and soul, and it sounds like an assemblage of prog and rock influences that is no more or less than the sum of its parts. The best adjective I can come up with to describe Pale Communion is "efficient". Having said that, ask me in three months, and I may well have had the time to get under its skin by then, but I somehow doubt it. I was initially hoodwinked by the glittering prizes offered up by The Raven..., but I am not of a mind to be lured by fool's gold a second time.
Niels Hazeborg's Review
So, the first thing we have to agree on is that Opeth aren't really a metal band anymore. That's the easy part of this review. The hard part is: what are they, then?

2011 came and went, and Heritage, the fist Opeth album since 2003's Damnation from which death metal was absent, failed to give a satisfactory answer to that question. Those of us, like me, who appreciate Opeth's overwhelming labyrinthine compositions but find the harder rocking bits and – particularly – the death growls hard to swallow, initially welcomed the transition to mostly laid-back 70's inflicted prog. But Heritage was, there is no other way to put this, simply dull. It seemed Opeth had thrown out the baby with the bathwater; the off-putting death metal sensibilities were gone, but so was all the excitement! Opeth has been heading steadily in the direction of pure prog for a while now, but Heritage raised an important question: are they able to pull it off?

(Spoiler: the answer is yes!)

Fortunately, Pale Communion not only casts away all doubts, but makes you wonder why you had them in the first place. It is an utterly delightful progressive rock album that proves Opeth still has what it takes to make overwhelming music, regardless of genre. If the previous two albums were disjointed, unbalanced efforts that seemed to take form over substance, Pale Communion takes it all back to the essence: melody, melody, melody.

There's so much variety and creativity going on, yet it all feels fundamentally of a piece. More importantly, even with the genre shift now being complete, even with the classic prog influences more apparent than ever, it still sounds like Opeth and Opeth only.

Eternal Rains Will Come kicks off, rather abruptly, and immediately impresses. After a heavy prog intro, the harmony vocals (a big feature on this album) come in and the song soars to the heavens. Debuting keyboardist Joakim Svalberg deserves special mention, as his virtuoso organ work really adds a new dimension to the Opeth sound.

Cusp of Eternity, which the band reluctantly released as a single, is perhaps the song closest to metal. It's not really comparable to the complex epics of yore, but a rather straightforward track whose kickass riffing and Eastern melodies make it anything but throwaway.

The longest track is called Moon Above, Sun Below. It isn't quite epic-length but there's more than enough twists and turns to satisfy the demanding progger, all culminating in a big climax that once again makes heavy use of vocal harmonies. Mikael Åkerfeldt's dark, intriguing singing voice sounds better than ever. A slight bit of criticism though: there are one or two rhythm and key changes that don't really flow very well.

After the long one, of course, a ballad. Elysian Woes sounds like a missing track from Damnation. I love that album, so you can take that as a compliment.

Goblin is a groovy, almost funky instrumental. Really cool. It's a fairly subtle homage to (you guessed it) Goblin without being an outright pastiche.

But all this – even all this – is still merely leading up to the triple-whammy of the three last songs, which are simply jaw-dropping. River begins downright cheerful, sounding like a rootsy bit of Americana with the now-familiar vocal harmonies floating over acoustic guitars, before darkness takes over once more and the piece resolves into a glorious Yes-style prog workout.

Voice of Treason is a dark, complex rocker, drenched in Opeth's trademark melancholy. The Eastern influence is present again in the Kashmir strings and the vocal lines. It beautifully works towards another great melodic climax.

Faith in Others begins as a very quiet, subdued piece that, as it crescendoes into musical bliss, quickly reveals itself as one of the most touching ballads Åkerfeldt has ever written.

All this comes down to a triumph of the highest order. Pale Communion succeeds in so may ways Heritage didn't. If the past few albums showed an evolving Opeth looking for their sound, surely they have found it now. It isn't all down to Steven Wilson either; his influence on this album is actually rather small this time around. It's really Mikael Åkerfeldt who deserves all the praise, as well as his excellent bandmates. Opeth finally made that full-blown, top of the bill prog album I've been waiting for them to make for a very long time.

Some metal purists will probably hear this album and angrily quote one of its many memorable lyrics: "This is treason!" On the other hand, I've heard from some metal lovers that they didn't miss the loud parts at all. Opinion will be divided as always, but my mind has been made up. Pale Communion is an instant classic. I'm sorry, metalheads, but Opeth is ours now!
Eric Perry's Review
The term progressive rock, as vague and broad in scope as it seems very much of the time should indicate at very least a band or a piece of music that is progressive in its very nature, i.e.: moving forward steadily or in increments.

Holding to that simple definition of the term, Opeth have produced a true progressive rock album in their latest release Pale Communion. The Swedish group lead by the unyielding and determined Mikael Akerfeldt have continued on a more melodic and gentler path since the 2011 release of Heritage and Pale Communion does show the listener that the last three years have been spent refining their direction which has taken them away from the metallic, doomy past and significantly the death growls from Akerfeldt.

The move was a challenge to the diehard fan of the last decade and remains as divisive as ever around the forums and discussions that take place online. Yet here they are again with another album that explores a past interest in a more traditional prog rock sound, something only partially hinted at over their earlier work. Without doubt the band have progressed and are challenging their core base to keep abreast of their now evolving personality, and this appears to be paying off.

Fans old and new are treated here to a highly refined and imaginative album which for the most part does encapsulate the essence of what the band are and where they have come from and holds true to their roots. However in some respects this also shows a band that are moving forward in increments rather than bigger steps, and really they have played it safe for a record that has taken so long to develop. Calmer and more acoustic than Heritage, this new material still bares the same hallmarks in their frenetic, rhythmic style, their complex time changes and overall doomy tone.

In fairness there are some more obvious moments throughout that show an exciting development in the band's evolution. Akerfeldt's vocals continue to be a revelation, sparkling with both delicate almost folky gentleness but still able to deliver a real hard rock 70's classic sound. At times there is a similarity towards the voice of Ian Anderson of old, perhaps most clearly on Elysian Woes and the folkier moments of the rather lackluster Moon Above, Sun Below.

There is a great deal of exception writing quality throughout the album and without doubt River with its upbeat key and Eagles-like country feel adds a richness and variety to the album that ultimately lifts it above anything the band have released so far. The spirit of adventure in the new Opeth sound also carries into the quieter, more minimal and deeply moving Faith in Others, which is a superb example of the possible future for the band.

These are perhaps two of the most significant elements of an album that mostly hits the mark. Moments where there are less satisfying results can be felt in the unresolved Eternal Rains Will Come and the aforementioned Elysian Woes. Neither of these slow burners seem to deliver a satisfying journey and feel over before they have moved past second gear. There is no criticism of the mood and pace they present, except that the feeling is one of anticlimax as the last few moments of the song arrive all too soon. They are like beautifully wrapped presents that turn out to be less than their wrappings would indicate.

Regardless of the issues with some elements, this is an album that can easily be regarded as a success with moments of genius that make this a worthwhile purchase. The collaborative work and production with Steven Wilson is noticeable on this effort and has ensured that the band are seeking out ways of pushing their development. In addition, Wilson's efforts in the mix are sublime as always and this adds a quality to the results which elevates towards a higher level of sophistication. It may not be a perfect album but there is enough here to hold you and excite over repeated listens. Besides, are there really that many perfect albums to be honest?
Nathan Waitman's Review
The transformation to full-blown prog band is complete in the newest Opeth album, Pale Communion. Originally, Opeth were known for their intricate, heavy metal and their use of growling vocals. I was never a big fan of growling vocals in music, and I usually tend to stay away from the bands that utilize that vocal style. But, Opeth were always the one exception. I'm not sure if it is because they performed the style better, or if the music behind it was so good I could forgive the brutal vocals. Whatever the case, I fell in love with this band. Watershed was a big moment in their career, because it used the growling vocals sparingly, and had a more overtly prog feel to it. For that reason, Watershed is my favorite Opeth album. After that, the band released Heritage which was an even further departure with all of the growling completely gone and a big seventies prog vibe throughout the whole record. I was oddly disappointed with this album because I felt that there weren't enough dynamics throughout the record. The brilliance of Opeth are the way they seamlessly travel between dark and light, brooding and uplifting, electric and acoustic. The hope going into this new album was that it would have a better balance of these elements, while still maintaining its seventies prog vibe.

I feel that Opeth have largely succeeded in this endeavor. Pale Communion is the album that I wished Heritage was. It is heavy when it needs to be, quiet and beautiful in other sections, and overall a very captivating listen. Even though the growling vocals are gone, the band still infuses the music with their trademark heaviness and intensity that balances well with the more acoustic, lighter moments. This is apparent right from the start with the opener Eternal Rains Will Come which starts with intensity from the first note with pounding drums and heavy doses of Mellotron before everything slows down with some tinkling piano and sweet melodic guitar. This is a perfect start to the album and a good indication of what is to come. The sound is drenched in a seventies style- it is clear that Mikael Akerfeldt is a fan of that decade. His voice, I must add, is beautiful throughout the record. He has really come a long way with his clean vocals since their early albums. I'm glad it is being utilized more.

Cusp Of Eternity is one of the heavier tracks, and subsequently probably my least favorite on the album. There isn't much variety here, and that makes the song somewhat repetitive to me. But, it has a catchy melody and a great guitar solo in the middle. Moon Above, Sun Below is a highlight of the album. It happens to be the longest track at just a bit over ten minutes. There is a lot of variety throughout as the band goes through several different sections. The opening part sounds like it could come from an earlier album like Ghost Reveries or Watershed. Then, acoustic guitar enters for a softer section sung beautifully by Akerfeldt, before the music gets heavy again. Halfway through the song, there is even an atmospheric section with only select sound effects before the mellotron comes in for the final section of the song. Although this makes the song a little disjointed, I love all the different sections and how the band expertly weaves through heaviness and light.

The album continues with the ballad Elysian Woes. If Cusp of Eternity was too repetitive because it was all metal, Elysian Woes could perhaps be given the same critique, but with the more lighter, acoustic side of the band. But, the song succeeds on its emotional depth communicated through the intricate guitar playing and beautiful vocals. Goblin switches gears quite a bit for a traditional progressive rock instrumental in the style of Italian band Goblin. The seventies style is very apparent here, but there is still a hint of the trademark Opeth sound in the background. The music is very funky with a great beat, and some fantastic keyboard playing from Joakim Svalberg. It is an entertaining listen, and refreshing to hear something different from Opeth. River is another highlight, opening with fabulous harmony vocals over acoustic guitar in an almost folk style like Crosby, Stills and Nash. It is more uplifting and bright than Opeth typically are. I love the proggy section at the end with soaring guitars over a quirky drum beat held down expertly by Martin Axenrot. Once again Opeth manage to do something completely different than anything they've done before, but still include their trademark sound.

The album ends with the one-two punch of Voice Of Treason and Faith In Others. The first starts with an almost hypnotic beat with strings. Things get heavier towards the end with some soloing by keyboards and guitars as the song builds and builds in intensity. Then, everything slows with some beautiful strings that go right into Faith in Others almost making the two tracks feel like one big conclusion to the album. This track is more mournful and contemplative as Akerfeldt sings with the accompaniment of beautiful piano playing. Then the whole band comes in for a section that feels epic in its scope and builds in intensity with the beautiful strings. It is all extremely beautiful and a perfect ending to this album.

Opeth have managed an incredible feat with this album. They have shed off the growling vocals and have firmly planted their feet in a very traditional seventies prog feel. But, they haven't completely gotten rid of everything that made the band special on their earlier albums. They still have their trademark sound that I can recognize throughout the album. It may not be as heavy musically, but there is a familiar mood and emotion present that is clearly Opeth. Also, they still are experts at balancing between darkness and light, blending sections of pounding drums, heavy mellotron and distorted guitars with sections containing tinkling piano, light acoustic guitar and beautiful clean vocals- a balance that I felt was missing on their previous album, Heritage. Opeth are an ever evolving band that continue to grow in maturity both lyrically and musically. This album is a triumph and will clearly be one of my favorites from the year.
Roger Trenwith: 6 out of 10
Niels Hazeborg: 9.5 out of 10
Eric Perry: 7 out of 10
Nathan Waitman: 9 out of 10
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