Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Opeth - Pale Communion (2014) / 95%

Another masterpiece signed Travis Smith, a triptych of darkness and beauty.

Opeth Above, Everyone Else Below

I think it's a normal endeavor for any bands with long careers to change or to evolve to use a pretentious expression that can irk some people calling themselves purists. Sure, I can appreciate the persistence to craft your formula during decades of hard work like Motorhead as been doing. They won't stop till Lemmy is dead and buried (yes, this will happen one day, Dio save my soul). I guess you know where I'm going with this, it's a no brainer, really. Opeth, since their magical first album in 1995, has been progressing, has been building an impressive (and without any weak albums) discography. The band turning into a full fledged progressive rock unit was only the logical step they had to take. A step Opeth aficionados were expecting since Åkerfeldt is a big time prog fan.

Here's Pale Communion released three years after the divisive Heritage, an album which (to my complete disarray) managed to confuse a lot of metal fans even though it was clearly announced that it was putting aside the harsh vocals the death metal guitars beforehand. Watershed was a transition album but I'd also say that Heritage is also one of these releases, so I guess that growth took two albums! While I liked their 2011 album, I reckon it has its fair share of weaknesses. It really took me a while to get into it before I reach the conclusion that it was essentially enjoyable only with headphones, it had a lot of buried subtleties like flute solos and ethnic percussions. While it was basically a progressive rock album, it was certainly an Opeth album, this was as loud and clear as when they released Damnation already more than a decade ago. There's no constraints of any sorts that would undermine their identity, it can only reinforce it. This new album flows in the same direction as Heritage but improves the method and form that were explored previously.

Pale Communion is perhaps heavier since the guitars regained some of their distortion but it's not as instrumentally inclined and atmospheric as Heritage. This was the main wrongdoing of this album. It tried too hard to be intricate by incorporating jazz and folk influences (see both bonus tracks, especially "Face in the Snow") but everything is forgiven with this new album since they managed to include said elements in a better way. Even though there's an instrumental track ("Goblin"ン named after the Italian prog legends), it's not padding, it's an emotional song with great drumming and some Tangerine Dream-esque keyboards. Throughout the eight songs, we see Opeth being at ease with their progressive rock and the songwriting simply rocks. If you were expecting a metal album, you've been living underneath a shitload of rocks, fellow. The fellow Swedish band Beardfish (highly recommended) are probably heavier than Opeth nowadays, they should tour with them instead of fucking In Flames. Damn you Swedish nepotism!!!

One of the great strengths of this record is its excellent cohesion, everything fits together and it's apparent that Mikael Åkerfeldt (the team's captain) as a Scandinavian played with Lego when he was a child since the sound blocks are so well connected. There's no out of place tracks like "Slither" on their previous album, it's stylistically strong and it has no useless filler interludes like Heritage had. I think building a varied album that feels so cohesive is the true challenge but this time, it was a success. From the folk (almost Neil Young-esque) intro of "River" to the heavy organ instrumental half of "Eternal Rains Will Come"), there's a definitive diversity to be found here but it's all wrapped under a huge blanket of talented editing and coherence. I think the folky side of Opeth should be investigated, a totally acoustic album (like Kimi Karki of Lord Vicar did) would be a dream come true for the fan boy that I am.

The metal remnants are mostly in the typical Opeth guitar leads that have been the bread and butter of the band since Still Life. The ten minutes track "Moon Above, Sun Below" is a pretty good embodiment of the whole album, it features the occasional acoustic guitars and an immense keyboard presence (the debut of Joakim Svalberg replacing Per Wiberg.) The vocals are probably the strongest clean ones Opeth ever had, there's loads of back vocals supporting the delivery of Mike (including his potential English male lover Steven Wilson.) These vocal harmonies (listen to "Cusp of Eternity") are one of the clear highlights of this album, it's catchy, surprising and really enjoyable. There's even some more gritty hard rock vocals here and there. The Swedish musician always had a genius flair for vocal melodies and we clearly see him expanding his clean vocals abilities to the maximum of his capability on this record. He's confident and it's obvious.

The organ tone does wonders alongside the (always excellent) guitars. Martin Mendez's place in Opeth has been more subdued in the past, he's quite excellent in the closer "Faith in Others". I like his contribution, he's more engaged and has more place to grow than before. Axenrot's drumming is perhaps the best of his career, he had to endure some criticism since he replaced the beloved Martin Lopez (who was rumored to play on two songs on this album, but there's no credits confirming that) but I think he proved that he can really play softer and that he's not only good as a death metal drummer (see Bloodbath). Akin to the songwriting, his playing is intricate, subtle and interesting. 

While I'll admit I'd like them to go back to a death metal sound with growls, I like this a lot anyway. I don't want to release Ghost Reveries part 2 anyway! Mikael said he had composed ten minutes metal songs for Heritage (on the album's making of on the bonus DVD) but deleted them because he didn't feel like it. There's no point in lying to yourself and record metal because that's what your fan base wants. Even though it's not metal, it still has a fairly dark thematic that I can admit could create some sort of dichotomy with the harmonious & melodic musical elements. I mean, there seems to be no reasons to write for Mikael these sad, depressive lyrics, he's one of the most acclaimed and successful musicians of his generation! Be happier, Mike! (who the fuck am I to tell him what to do?) These two extracts are still as dark as their metal albums:

"There comes a time when the river runs dry
Winter comes and we sacrifice
Our lives"

"Out through the doors of starvation
And into the rains of damnation
Where the bitter winds are singing"

In a recent interview, Mikael said: "when you have children you start to worry about things. So I ended up being a worrier." and I can definitely see a difference in approach compared to his early lyrics when he was in his twenties. I can understand this sort of personal yet universal darkness that could plague anyone. Opeth will remain a dark band, no matter what and that's fine. Frank Zappa's silly but funny lyrics won't fit the instrumentation and the personality the band has been creating for more than two decades.

There's still certainly a lot of melancholy like the closer "Faith in Others" with its beautiful piano parts. There's a lot of seventies rock influences but it's earnestly well integrated within what is without an ounce of doubt a progression of the band's identity. There's almost no bands who achieved to sound as unique as these Swedes. Another thing I liked is the somewhat restrained compositions. Opeth is well known for their stretched out river songs but Pale Communion has short songs based on their former standards and there's absolutely no time wasted anywhere and the calm moments are much better than on Heritage or even Watershed ("Coil" included). 

Surely not the album you need to hear to get into Opeth and not an album for die hard metal fans (well, all their discography is hardly for them anyway, they're not bullet belts and sunglasses war metal), Pale Communion succeeds at the task of continuing a comfortable evolution. It revitalized the faith I had somewhat lost in them but deep down, I always knew they were gonna release an essential prog rock album and they just did. I'm just sad I'll have to wait another three or four years to get another album! I've missed their tours for the latest album but I won't miss the upcoming one as it will be a marvelous Christmas offering for my senses.

A great album by a band with nothing but everything to prove. They proved their worth as a prog rock band before but with Pale Communion, they cemented that fact in my eyes. 

tl:dr: Mikael Åkerfeldt is Jesus.

P.S. oh, the two bonus tracks on the Blu Ray disc are quite good, both live covers including a pretty nice rendition of Black Sabbath's classic ballad "Solitude".

A nice interview with Jesus.

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