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Review: Opeth’s Pale Communion is a Straight-Up Prog Rock Album

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Your other favorite Swedish band is back with a vengeance, but in a slightly different context than we are used to; Opeth’s new album Pale Communion is basically a straight-up progressive rock album with all clean vocals once again (just like the group’s previous offering, 2011’s Heritage), but even more melodic this time around.

Seriously though, is anyone really surprised?  The band has been heading in this direction for a while, and yet the songwriting sounds crisp and vibrant as ever.  So while the tr00est of the tr00 among us will undoubtedly continue to be butt-hurt by Opeth’s continual decline (or ascension, depending on your stance) towards becoming a mostly-mellower prog-rock band — and y’all can chill, maybe one day you’ll actually get what you want or even something you weren’t expecting — there are plenty of treats for the die-hards that still believe in Åkerfeldt & Co’s mighty mission.  Let’s examine song-by-song and get a bead on what we’re in for…

First track “Eternal Rains Will Come” displays great musical prowess and focus; after an extended instrumental progtastic intro (resplendent with plenty of carnival-friendly organ swirling), Åkerfeldt’s harmonizing layers of vocals come in more lushly than ever, sounding a bit like classic Crosby Stills & Nash on top of rich 70s prog.

Second song “Cusp of Eternity” contains a memorable layered vocal hook that repeats a bit too much for my taste but is hard to shake.  I personally find this one to be a little cheesy, but frankly no cheesier than Opeth can get from time to time.

Third track “Moon Above, Sun Below” is a deep, dark, deliberate heavy groove with traditional Opethian (!) riffage in the chorus.  Again, Åkerfeldt creates a catchy vocal part that may get stuck in your drug-addled dome, but this time it’s a little more subdued and background-esque.  Effective nonetheless.

This being the longest song on the album, of course it needs an extended acoustic section with soft singing, musing guitar licks, and atmospheric keyboards textures. But whereas th’Opeth of yesteryear would have weaved in delicate acoustic passages seamlessly, here the contrasting parts feel a bit disjointed.

This long song lacks the cohesive focus that previous Opeth long-formers used to; about halfway through, the song essentially ends, only to start again into another slow groove that could have probably been another track (or at least constructed in a more flowing manner).  Åkerfeldt communicates his lofty notions (a la “God is dead” from “The Devil’s Orchard” off of Heritage) by singing over and over again that “There is no hell”; thanks for enlightening us and hey, you can’t fault him for lack of opinions!

And yet this track is a great example of just how on top of their instruments the members are for this album: Åkerfeldt is top-notch Åkerfeldt as usual, guitarist Fredrik Åkesson rips through solos with a refueled fire that wasn’t as apparent on the last album quite as much, drummer Martin “Axe” Axenrot blasts through fills with a renewed purpose, fully earning his seat in the band after three albums, and bassist Martin Mendez holds it down as always with rich bottom end that feels supportive, purposeful, and individual.  This time around, Joakim Svalberg replaces Per Wiberg on keyboards and backing vocals (as well as synthesizer and percussion).

A few riffs in this track also remind me of previous Opeth moments, so much so that I fear where the originality of this project is headed; here’s hoping our lovable Swedes don’t devolve into full-on Lamb of God-style ripping-off-themselves terrain.

“Elysian Woes” would have fit right in on “Damnation” (at one time a novelty as the band’s only “clean” album).  I am not really a fan of this maudlin song; part of me wishes they had cut this one but it’s short enough to not mind too much.

Fifth track “Goblin”, an instrumental song, enters with funky resolve, from its delayed guitar line foundation to the pocket drumbeat to the luscious organ hits.  Including a song without vocals was actually a nice choice and breaks up the potential for monotony and overkill in the rampant melodrama some of Åkerfeldt’s vocal melodies can occasionally purvey.  Ironically this one might be difficult to pick out of a lineup with a handful of proggy American jamband songs (Schleigho, anyone?); is this where Opeth is headed?  I mean, they’ve rocked Bonneroo before and could perhaps find a hungry new audience in that realm.  I say go for it.

“River”, starts out as an acoustic-driven, major-key, almost Southern-y feeling anthemic ode to classic rock, and the first half is perhaps the most joyful song we’ve ever heard out of the Opeth canon.  Frankly, it feels great and fits perfectly outside of the band’s usually sadsack moody moments (which of course Åkerfeldt just has to bring back into this gem halfway through).  The last third of this song loses the happy and sad bits in lieu of a totally rocking, fully-fledged jam-out that again would make plenty of tripping hippies lose their vegan shit, although the engulfing dark ending might lure a few of them into freaky flashback territory.  Overall, this is definitely one of the most unexpected standout tracks here.

Opeth finishes extremely strong with final two tracks “Voice of Treason” and “Faith in Others” — these two are each so epic (culminating in a gorgeously delicate ending to the album) that I’d rather not just sum them up; much like the glory of this legendary band, you must experience their formidable prowess for yourself.

Despite a healthy dose of unevenness (which frankly has also become a staple of this band for ages now), Pale Communion offers a great deal of progressive mastery that manages to pay homage to the forefathers of the genre while retaining a sense of the band’s personal style throughout.

Opeth’s Pale Communion comes out August 26 on Roadrunner. You can stream the track “Cusp of Eternity” here and pre-order the album here.

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