Opeth – Pale Communion
Opeth – Pale Communion (2014)
Reviewed by Mark Nagy
Opeth has, for the majority of its career, occupied a somewhat awkward place just below “legendary” status in progressive metal circles. Revered by a small group of fans, but still dwelling in a rather awkward place in the bigger picture. Certainly Opeth has been one of the more musically controversial acts during the last decade, rising to fame on their ability to pivot between startling aggression and poignant introspection. This was never more clear than on 2002/2003’s pair of albums Deliverance and Damnation, which were dedicated to furious anger and soft contemplation, respectively. This and the fact that Opeth had always been primarily concerned with the emotion of their songs before anything else made their music very difficult to approach for some, and downright beloved by others.
3 years ago, Mikael decided to throw all of that to the wind, abandoning his death metal vocals entirely and pushing the band in a direction more reminiscent of jazz and 1970s progressive rock – essentially abandoning both of the band’s cardinal poles. While the resulting Heritage was ultimately underwhelming, the potential was still fascinating. Abandoning years of stylistic development was risky, but Opeth possessed the talent to turn some heads if the band could grasp a key element lacking on that album: direction.
I’m happy to report that Opeth has in fact found its direction. Throughout Pale Communion, there’s an undercurrent of menace. Mikael Akerfeldt has infused this album with a new sort of darkness to contrast the light, with a more sinister intonation to both his voice and overall ‘sound palette.’ While Opeth is certainly a known quantity, and Pale Communion makes some sort of sense in the overall artistic arc of the band, that arc has started to become so eclectic that it begs some explanation for listeners.
Pale Communion strikes me almost like impressionist art, where a painter would express themselves more through the use of color than the actual image portrayed. To my mind, Opeth does the same thing with the sounds presented. Pale Communion is painted with an equal mix of acoustic and clean electric guitars, both of which take a back seat to an absolutely massive presence of keyboard sounds. Organ, mellotron, piano, you name it, on most tracks, these operate as the primary melodic instrument. All of these operate in sonic tension with each other, and the often peculiar drum patterns further this sense of discord.
My personal favorite track is the album’s opener, “Eternal Rains Will Come”, in equal parts for its haunting but effective contrast of organ sounds and the spastic but wonderful drumming that’s left rather high in the mix. I also have a lot of love for “Voice of Treason”, a song that feels oddly like a dark tribute to Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir”, with the melody being delivered throughout the whole of the song on some awesome sounding orchestral strings. “River” sounds like a more involved B-side from the Storm Corrosion sessions. While the solo section of this song is largely occupied by a syncopated organ, the guitar solo itself is one of the few times on the record when listeners are reminded of how capable of a guitarist Fredrik Åkesson is.
While Opeth remains quite controversial within its own fanbase, the band’s versatility, uniqueness, and fearlessness should be a delight for typical prog fans. Pale Communion is a worthwhile record that has serious artistic credibility, solid performances, and doesn’t sound quite like anything else I’ve heard this year. While it’s not the most ‘important’ album of Opeth’s career, I think it’s the band’s most unique to date (at least in light of the inundation of newer bands replicating Blackwater Park), and holds something of a special place in my heart just for that.
4.0 // 5