Choosing to ditch the death metal influences for 70s prog nostalgia, Opeth took a leap of faith with 2011’s Heritage, which divided their fan base like an Ozzy vs. Dio argument amongst Black Sabbath fans. Many were left aching for Mikael Akerfeldt’s Cookie Monster vocals and blamed the lack of metal influences for the often mixed reviews. However, as discussed in a previous post () it was the lack of focus and cohesiveness that took away from what was ultimately a brave, admirable and correct change of musical direction from the Swedish group.
Since their magnum opus, Blackwater Park, was released in 2001, Opeth have been taking a steady route towards the fields of prog. The double album Deliverance/Damnation was a deep excavation into the soul of Opeth’s songwriting, where mellotrons and rich musical textures were unearthed. Ghost Reveries and Watershed continued this trend, with monstrous riffs being combined with beautiful melodies and progressive detours that channeled groups such as Yes and Genesis. Therefore Heritage was an obvious step to make, by finally letting the progressive ideas overpower the need to blast harmonic minor riffs through oceans of distortion; it was just a shame its execution didn’t match the ambition.
However, with their eleventh studio album (or “observation” as Opeth say), Pale Communion, Opeth have finally stumbled across the right balance between haunting metal and exquisite prog. Opener, Eternal Rains Will Come, showcases the combination perfectly within its first two minutes, allowing a jarring metal riff and a haunting keyboard progression (reminding of The Grand Conjuration) to flow into sparse keys and a delightfully soulful guitar lead. The track then grows back into life with rich vocals and several musical detours.
Part of Opeth’s transition into a progressive rock band is their full embrace of orchestral elements. Voice of Treason and Faith In Others are both notable for their string use, but use them for completely different results. The moody epic Voice of Treason uses the lower register of string instruments; cellos and bases, as well as some well-executed latin influences, to drive the verses forward with increasing intensity, which is molded by a gritty and menacing rhythm that will keep desk-drummers happy for weeks. As the track reaches its climax, the musical layers are suddenly pulled out from beneath the track, leaving just a Rhodes piano and Akerfeldt’s sorrowful lyrics to see the song to its conclusion. Faith In Others, however, has melancholy violins providing a backdrop to what is perhaps the darkest and most moving Opeth song to date and a near perfect way to close the record.
Fredrik Akesson’s lead playing is once again a delight to listen to and is sounding even more diverse than his first appearance on Watershed. Cusp of Eternity, a relatively straight-forward hard rock track, has a killer guitar solo that powers above a driving riff that will keep you nodding throughout the track’s five-and-a-half minute playtime. He’s performance on Moon Above, Sun Below is equally as impressive, as the album’s star song switches between contrasting styles almost as frequently as progressive compatriots Dream Theater do.
Elysian Woes, like Faith In Others, manages to create the bleak atmosphere Opeth are praised for, without the need of loud guitars, or much else for that matter. A simple acoustic chord progression drenched in Akerfeldt’s mellow voice and cleverly arranged keys, are enough to rival even the darkest moments found within the musically pitch-black album Deliverance, especially when he wails “I don’t want to bare my scars for you”.
The two biggest surprises of the record are the middle pairing of Goblin and River, which give listeners further insight into the songwriting influences Akerfeldt calls upon. Goblin is a grooving instrumental, that allows Joakim Svalberg’s keyboards to bounce between Martin Axenrot’s precession drumming and is a massive musical nod to the Italian prog band of the same name. River starts as a whimsical A.O.R. affair, featuring lyrics such as “when the bodies float on the river” that manage to sound almost poppy in nature. It is surprising then that this track evolves into another haunting piece that grows in intensity as its length increases.
Pale Communion is a record packed with progressive influences, but unlike its predecessor, it is packaged up in an eloquent way that allows each idea to fully blossom before others are introduced. This record also manages to be simultaneously heavy and beautiful, and is definitely Opeth’s darkest effort, which is probably due to the personal nature of the lyrics, a concept that is new to Akerfeldt’s writing. Any doubters of Opeth’s change in direction will surely be assured by this spellbinding effort; the Blackwater Park of their progressive rock era.
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