Ah, the dreaded comparison. Nothing misses the point and narrows the mind more than an argument about how a band used to be better, the “yeah, but compared to..” closing statement that invariably discredits the album at hand as well as faux-validates the opinion because of its loaded proposition. Here’s a good example: Pale Communion sucks compared to Still Life. The problem here does not lie in the analysis or even the sentiment, but it lies in making the comparison in the first place. It judges a record based only on its position on a linear timeline, and not on its considerable merits in a vacuum. To reach this thought-process, I asked myself if the majority of the criticism points levelled at Pale Communion would apply if it wasn’t an Opeth record, and my research has given me little evidence to suggest they would.
Now, I am no Opeth apologist — I thought Heritage was a sloppy collection of half-stolen ideas, and Watershed didn’t light my wick in the way I’d come to expect — but the reason for my disdain was not because I didn’t think they were good Opeth albums, it was because I didn’t think they were good albums period. I have no doubt that when a close bond is formed to a band, their every move is inextricably linked to your pain receptors, but such personal emotion breeds unfair accusations and uniform calls for familiarity: “I wish Åkerfeldt would scream again”, “Where are the riffs of Blackwater Park?”, “Opeth should stop trying to be Rush/Jethro Tull/Goblin/King Crimson/‘70s Prog Band Here” etc etc. Charting a band’s development and analysing changes in sonic processes is a valid one but it becomes distorted by human nature; “This is not the same band I grew to love, and I am not OK with that”. Criticism applies more to the direction of the music rather than its quality.
And, despite not being the glaring, snarling death metal opus that hopeful fans yearned for, Pale Communion is full of such quality. Maestro Mikael Åkerfeldt is once again conductor, guiding and willing his loyal cohorts through soft, neo-folk acoustics and dizzying passages of technicality alike, but the record truly shines when the band bubble into an ensemble of dark, fizzing interplay around his soaring falsetto. It manifests as early as opener ‘Eternal Rains Will Come’, with its angular time signatures and demanding pace expertly navigated by Martin Axenrot’s intricate percussion and Joakim Svalberg’s probing keyboards, but where much of Heritage routinely drifted into middling loops of confusion, ‘Eternal Rains’ binds together all the ingredients Opeth have come to be known, from the skeletal, picked Damnation-era acoustic mid-section to the harmonious guitar solo that dances over the frantic undergrowth before Åkerfeldt returns for the coup de grâce. It’s not quite ‘heavy’, but rather Opeth using their old techniques in a ‘70s prog framework.
Indeed, Pale Communion serves as a ceremonial coming together of the tenses, a mercurial set of soundtracks to by-gone eras and experimental acid trips. Take the peppy and not-so-accidentally named ‘Goblin’, a prog-funk escapade of looping guitar licks and punctuating percussion that could easily back the opening credits of a low-budget late-‘70s cop show, fourth wall smiles and all. It seems especially brisk when you consider the proximity of the ambitious and fog-kissed ‘Moon Above, Sun Below’, a ten-minute mini-odyssey of considerable darkness on which Åkerfeldt tackles the topic of despair within the confounds of his patented overcast ether. “In a river of grief I am drowning” he expels after a few minutes of winding acoustics, almost breaching the tipping point of a heartened growl but opting to stay within the bounds of melody set by his energetic backers. It swoops across the musical map with a real dexterity, linking together passages that have no right to juxtapose.
This variety is endemic throughout, with the towering ‘Voice Of Treason’ easily morphing from Martin Mendez’s ominous bass line to a satisfying apex that houses some of Åkerfeldt’s most poignant arrangements and thought-provoking musings. The early bellows of evil strings that mimic the groove — with its spindly counterparts slithering menacingly atop — add a tasty layer of complexity to an otherwise simplistic nucleus. It is Opeth building upon solid foundations of rhythm and harmony rather than noodling in aimless circles of masked expression. As it twists and turns to its peak, Åkerfeldt stretches his lungs to ask a question that seems so apt for a band under so much pressure to be something they don’t want to be anymore: — “Have you ever seen the aftermath of giving up?” — a proposition enlightened by the spontaneous and thrilling drum fills that spill and cascade like firecrackers in the midnight sky, eventually jolting to a stop to leave nothing but the gloomy contemplation of longing keys.
For the more blood-thirsty of Opeth fans still clinging onto their Orchid digital download codes, enjoying Pale Communion requires an element of leaving behind the weird abstracted world where the only other records are also Opeth records. If you’re not into deeply progressive music then that’s more than fine — I don’t like it most of it either — but that’s on you and not Opeth. At the second time of asking, they’ve created an extremely well-paced, technically astute exploration of dozens of metal sub-genres that borrows as much from established sources as it does from their own post-2003 discography. To me, the unrelenting desire to continue to tunnel unearthed aural territory — learning from mistakes along the way — is the ultimate sign of artistic evolution.
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