Pain of Salvation – Scarsick
Reviewed by Tom Hirschboeck
“This brave new world is not as new anymore…”
If a picture speaks a thousand words, does a singer even have to? Does a reviewer? I could just stop writing and let you ponder that cover artwork, but somehow that strikes me as a bad idea, not to mention a little bit cruel. I wouldn’t be surprised if the cover has already scared away some potential listeners, and my hope is to establish at least a little understanding between the readership and this album.
So, where to start? Well, actually the ugly cover already says a lot of what I’m going to say. Scarsick is quite probably Pain of Salvation’s weakest album, and it is certainly their most disliked. Representing the second major departure from the band’s progressive metal roots and featuring a wildly-mixed bag of experimental tracks ranging from exceptional to awful, it caused much of the despairing fanbase to jump ship and paddle feverishly back to the familiar waters of Remedy Lane and the like (certainly not safe waters; we’ll get to that later…).
Scarsick, conceptually, forms the second half of the saga begun on The Perfect Element I three albums earlier. I’ll keep things brief: Perfect Element details the troubled past of two main characters, and Scarsick details the angry, dysfunctional present of one. Essentially, it’s an album about disgust; having known cruelty and suffering, the character lashes out at everything he sees – rap music, religious conservatism, materialism – as purveyors of misguided value systems that facilitate and perpetuate these problems.
Musically, Scarsick is much more song-oriented than any previous Pain of Salvation outing. Partly because of the wide variety of styles employed and partly because of the structures of the songs themselves, they lend the album very little continuity; a rather sharp double-edged sword for the band to be playing with. The problem is that Pain of Salvation is simply not very consistent at writing good stand-alone songs. They have some on each album of course, but much of their genius lies in their ability to string what would be frustrating songs on their own into captivating, deep, and satisfying albums. A harsh song like “Mrs. Modern Mother Mary” might have jelled had the band worked the main riff into a larger piece, but by itself it does little but drag the album down.
That said, Scarsick does yield its share of fantastic songs. “Spitfall,” a scathing criticism of contemporary rap culture, is ironically written as a rap song, and… it’s really good! “America,” a cynical and disparaging take on the West Side Story song of the same name (I’m not kidding!) ends with a rousing call to recover the same spirit that sought to establish democracy in a new land. “Flame To The Moth” alternates flawlessly between outright rage and tender appeals to innocence, all underlaid by a frantic rhythm – classic Pain of Salvation.
Still, Scarsick tends to fall short of what other Pain of Salvation albums have achieved. For one, the lack of continuity forces every song idea to stand alone, while many need a greater level of musical context (or just to be thrown out altogether). Equally critical are the lyrics. On some level, the lyrics are extremely satisfying; Pain of Salvation tends to take a few shots at mindless consumerism with each album, and it is interesting to see the lyrics take a more direct and concerted approach at the issue. However, much of the subtlety seems to have deserted this album. Every Pain of Salvation album contains audacious, often shocking lyrics, but the appeal usually lies in the subtleties, where a little digging unveils a profound sympathy and compassion for the human condition. This comes out a bit later in the album, but for the greater part of the work we are left with little more than an angry character’s scattered ranting – about equal parts eloquence and yelling – and music that’s every bit as scattered. Recommended to Pain of Salvation completists and those looking for something alternately fun and horribly depressing or something firmly anti-consumerist. The rest of you, just check out a couple of the songs I cited above.
2.75 // 5