Opeth - Pale Communion
An odyssey in which you find yourself lost within its whirling rhythms and captivating meanders
Pale Communion, despite being a far cry from the visceral death metal foundations on which the Swedish band were built, always maintains that signature, irresistible Opeth aesthetic. Referencing a colourful array of 70s prog rock greats along the way, from King Crimson to Pink Floyd, Focus and more obscure acts, Pale Communion is a record of breath-taking beauty.
Of course, the immediate talking point on Pale Communion is the lack of death metal vigour and aggression, but those tonalities have been fading with every release for a long time. Opeth are, fittingly, progressing as musicians and songwriters, expressing themselves in a guise more linear to the aforementioned 70s prog rock than the Swedish death metal scene from which they emerged. Since those humble beginnings, jazz, folk, prog and classical influences have been consistently interspersed in the band’s sound. But the prog rock tag is an easy get-out-clause for fans and journalists alike. The truth is that the breadth of their music, their vastly diverse musical culture is so hard to define and truly grasp, that a ‘prog’ tag provides an easy answer.
The distinct absence of any real earth shattering heaviness on the record is however beyond the point. Opeth are a thinking man’s band. Those ignorant enough to dismiss the record for its lack of heaviness are missing the bigger picture, where the heaviness is released through more subtle and arguably more impactful means. If you can’t see the forest through the trees, then you have no hope on seeing the butterflies, flowers and wondrous other beings that rest calmly on the rain pattered leaves.
They’ve always been an explorative band and Pale Communion is a new chapter in their gradual metamorphosis which has birthed tangible differences with every new studio release. They have blossomed from full throttle death metal cult icons to the accomplished romanticists they are today.
Wistful but always poignant, there is a sharp edge to these songs lurking beneath the soothing tranquility that floats airily on the surface of the mix. Produced by Mikael Åkerfeldt and mixed by Steven Wilson, one of few modern musicians as impactful and quintessential in prog rocks resurgence over the last 10 years or so, every little nuance is lusciously and intricately placed in the mix. It is thanks, in part to Åkerfeldt and Wilson that prog is no longer a dirty word; a genre once looked at by rock fans in the same way that the general public looks at players of role playing game Dungeons and Dragons, the genre seems to be finally garnishing the accolades it has deserved for decades. Thus, the prospect of further collaboration between the duo is one that seriously whetted the appetite prior to the record’s release. The result doesn’t disappoint.
Lead Single Cusp of Eternity is proof of this bands ingenuity. Åkerfeldt builds riffs in ways most guitarists could never think of. The chorus is elegantly clever and superbly executed, with simplistic, choral vocals adding an addictive melodicism.
Joakim Svalberg's cinematic vignette, boogie Hammond organ intertwines exquisitely with discordant guitars on opener Eternal Rains Will Come. It is an odyssey in which you find yourself lost within its whirling rhythms and captivating meanders. Its clean guitar tones caress your ears like the sun does your face on a bright summers day; warming and glorious to feel. Repeating phrases are almost extinct here, yet the ebb and flow couldn’t feel more natural.
Mind boggling guitar runs and jolting, often incomprehensible time signatures are found in abundance across the album. For fans of progressive music, this is a treasure chest, or perhaps rather a treasure trial, full of glorious intricacies and fascinating musicianship.
Moon Above, Sun Below is the longest track at just under 11 minutes. From growling doom riffs buried beneath celestial keyboards and Martin Axenrot's ever-astounding jazz drumming to its heartfelt, acoustic led interludes, it will surely be a definitive composition for years to come, whatever form their evolution will next see them take.
More cinematic atmospherics are utilized with Voice Of Treason’s driving string section. Underneath those strings and Åkerfeldt’s soliloquising is a rhythm section deeply rooted in the forays of jazz. They give the band, considering it’s distinctly rocky finish, an entirely other dimension and character. Add to that ingeniously placed crescendos and dynamic pitfalls and alluring acoustic guitars and you have a grandiose conclusion impossible to pass off as ‘simply not rock.’ That would be too easy.
Opeth are one of the most soulful, stirringly powerful bands around and with that Pale Communion is an open wound - tormented vocals crying out from Åkerfeldt’s mused but pained throat. There is something so relatable and so powerful about it. It’s a joy to behold. Faith In Others, the albums gorgeous finale proves just that, melodies cutting through you like a knife.
Much like Heritage, this could very well be a long lost prog rock gem from 1972, yet all the while it remains fresh and relevant. The songs here are highly detailed, meticulously composed and played with complete and utter composure. For what they do, there is not a band in the world who could come close to touching Opeth. Pale Communion is a masterpiece.
Words: Phil Weller