Friday, September 26, 2014

album review: 'pale communion' by opeth

There are certain metal and rock bands that are tricky to talk about - and you wouldn't think, upon first glimpse, that Opeth would fall under that banner. Beginning with some well-received records in the 90s, they eventually would explode with a blend of progressive death and black metal in the late 90s and early 2000s with some of the most critically well-received metal records of the time. Hell, I'd probably go on record as saying their 1999 release Still Life is their most full-formed, cohesive, memorable, and well-written release, even more than the critically beloved Blackwater Park or the twin releases of Damnation and Deliverance, and in my opinion an all-time favourite and one of the best albums of the 90s, hands down.

But it was around that time, and especially across their following albums, that another figure comes to the spotlight: producer, singer-songwriter, and frontman of progressive rock act Porcupine Tree Steven Wilson. Now I've gone on record calling Steven Wilson the 'prog metal Kanye West', and with Opeth he found his Jay-Z - because like it or not, Opeth's work became distinctly coloured by tones that are instantly recognizable as Wilson's, which shows an impressive distinctive sound and incredible skill as a producer. Even on the albums he did not produce for the band, his influence was definitely apparent, and as the 2000s wore on, Opeth began slowly moving away from the death and black metal of their roots and towards the more progressive side. Which wasn't a problem for me - I love prog rock and metal, both on the aggressively visceral side of Mastodon and the methodical brilliance of Dream Theater - but at the same time, Opeth was one of the bands that maintained a stellar, textured balance between textured death and black metal and their more folk-inspired progressive side, to the point where I'd actually recommend Opeth as a good gateway from progressive metal into more extreme genres. And as much as I like prog rock, I'd admit to being a little disappointed to seeing that balance drop away.

In any case, after the excellent Ghost Reveries and the shakier but still good Watershed, Opeth ditched death and black metal altogether for 2011's Heritage... and it was pretty good, but not exactly great. Missing the loud-soft contrast between the heavier metal segments and the progressive rock left the album feeling a little lightweight and strangely empty, the latter being an issue with the mixing courtesy of Steven Wilson - and while I appreciate his commitment to dynamics, it probably wasn't the smartest decision to say the album was the first part of a trilogy encompassing his solo album Grace For Drowning and the self-titled Storm Corrosion debut album - I know you've collaborated with Opeth for years, but presumptuous much? The larger issue was that many of the songs felt spacious but lacking instrumentally and lyrically outside of the killer track 'Folklore'.

In other words, I wasn't exactly sure what to expect with Opeth's newest album Pale Communion, but I steeled myself for the worst and gave it many listens. And now, a month late, how's the album?

Man, I'm conflicted about this record. Because let me stress that Pale Communion by Opeth is a very good, possibly even great progressive rock album, full of instrumental elements and lyrical themes that are well-executed and nuanced - but there are little moments interspersed throughout this album that frustrate me and take away from the overall experience of the record. It's definitely a record that requires more than a few listens to fully sink in and process - Opeth have made the statement that they make difficult albums, and with this album, they weren't kidding. Yet at the same time, I'd argue it's more immediately accessible and arguably a stronger record than Heritage, heavier, more aggressive, and ultimately more cohesive, even if it does wear its influences on its sleeves more prominently.

That's where some of the more negative criticisms of this album have cropped up, that in comparison to the genre bending musicianship that has defined some of Opeth's mid-period work, the influences of this album are much more apparent: symphonic touches in the strings, the bluesy sound of early Deep Purple especially in the organ which I really appreciated, and particularly the odder tendencies and sonic palettes of progressive rock acts like Goblin or some Yes albums. In particular, there are moments of rougher, almost southern rock tendencies that crop up in some of the more groove heavy-tracks like 'Cusp Of Eternity' and 'River' and the acoustic 'Elysian Woes'. And like on all Opeth albums, there are some phenomenal moments where all of the elements come together spectacularly: I loved the quiet guitar interlude on 'Eternal Rains Will Come' that bursts into an interwoven textured riff with catchy as hell keyboard leads, an impressively intricate drum progression, and a rich backing chorus. I also dug the borderline-quirky guitar and bass leads on 'Goblin', the choral vocals against the well-picked guitar line and one of better solos on the album with 'River', and the fantastically thrilling strings arrangement on 'Voice Of Treason' and to a lesser extent on the more melancholy 'Faith In Others'. And it definitely helps that this album opts for a heavier, more dense mix that lends the tracks a lot of the gravitas that I felt Heritage lacked. 

Unfortunately, we still run into a few recurring issues from that album, namely in the production. And look, I like Steven Wilson as a producer - he's got a natural grasp on guitar texture, his backing vocals add great atmosphere, and his strings production is superb. But just like on Heritage, the percussion and cymbals on this album feel a little too prominent in the mix, and the vocals often feel a little too low, which can lead to some damn good songwriting getting lost in the shuffle. In fact, the vocal production all around is hit-and-miss, especially when Mikael's voice is placed with minimal accompaniment and it comes across as lacking a fair amount of impact. On the other hand, there are moments where he pushes his voice harder for a rougher sound and some of the cracks, especially on 'Moon Above, Sun Below', really don't sound flattering, especially when you know he could drop into a death metal growl and it might actually sound better, and he's choosing not to. This ties into a larger issue with the production and instrumentation on this album is that outside of some very solid melodic compositions, there are several moments that seem to directly reference progressive rock and metal acts of the past, be they Yes, Pink Floyd, or even Steven Wilson's main band Porcupine Tree - and with every callback, it leaves you wondering what Pale Communion is bringing to the table instead to stand out. It doesn't help matters that songs like 'Cusp of Eternity' and 'Voice Of Treason' are building some pretty solid grooves that don't really pay off their dramatic crescendos - which, again, you know Opeth can do from previous records.

Now fortunately, Opeth's songwriting definitely remains strong, which takes us to lyrics and themes, the latter of which are plainly stated in three Latin statements on the cover of the album. The statements are pretty typical of Opeth themes, the first being a condemnation of the senselessness of how the modern world is run, the second stating how friends are won by disingenuous flattery where the truth could do much more damage, and the last, arguably the most perplexing, stating, "He grieves truly who grieves without a witness". All of these statements tie into the larger narrative of the album, reflecting a calamity that befalls two people, the narrator and a friend, the disaster largely implied to be the death of a girl with which both men may have had a relationship. And the album proceeds to explore how these men deal with their grief and ultimately the dissolution of their friendship. The contrast between their situations comes most to light on 'Moon Above, Sun Below', where the friend seeks all sorts of people to hear his guilt and garner sympathy where the narrator chooses to isolate himself and deal with the death at his own pace - because for him, that's natural and he views the friend's method of coping as shallow and disingenuous.

Now from an outside perspective, the framing on a story like this is incredibly tricky - after all, it takes some real tact to question the legitimacy of someone else's grief without turning into a massive asshole. And I'll give Opeth credit, they get damn close to nailing that framing. 'Elysian Woes' probably does the most, as it shows the narrator isolating himself even despite the support of his friends because his introversion means he doesn't want to show vulnerability. And yet it's not enough - 'River' implies he could very easily not care, but that's not the same thing as closure. So he confronts his friend in 'Voice Of Treason' - and then in the follow-up track 'Faith In Others', it's revealed that the friend was trying to deal with his pain and that while it might not appear as genuine, it was real for that friend. And then the truth comes out about both, a real anger that reflects on both the narrator and his friend, and while the friend reaches out at the end to try and save things, like melting water there's nothing to which he can hold on. And then the narrator gains real closure - but he's turned his back on a friend. And while the obvious interpolation of Pink Floyd's 'Dogs' on that track does annoy me, it's a reference that makes complete narrative sense, especially with the lyric, 'Deaf, dumb and blind, you just keep on pretending / That everyone's expendable and no-one has a real friend'. By assuming the friend's grief and coping method was not genuine and instead choosing to isolate himself, he may have found peace, but at the cost of a friend?

And all of that would be great lyrical analysis... except I found an interview from Mikael Akerfeldt saying there was no lyrical theme to the album and the past bit of this review is just so much pretentious conjecture. Figures, and honestly a damn shame because without that thematic cohesion and narrative, this album feels a little weaker. And look, I'm not saying this album is bad - many of the songs do work as standalone pieces just fine, and there are enough great moments instrumentally and lyrically that work damn well for progressive rock and metal. But in the end, for as much as this album calls back to the past, both in terms of other prog rock bands and unintentionally its own history, I can't help but feel Pale Communion doesn't look as strong in comparison. So I'm thinking a 7/10 and a recommendation for prog and Opeth fans, but there is better in both the genre and from Opeth itself, and while I can appreciate Opeth calling back to the past, Pale Communion unfortunately pales in comparison.

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