Opeth - Pale Communion

by Bryn Dawson

Opeth is really all about Michael Akerfeldt: the mainstay of a 20 year old death-metal band that has seen members shift and wilt around him. However, rather than fall into the category of ‘just another ultra-heavy, Scandinavian band that sounds like a pig with a chronic phlegm problem’, Pale Communion sheds the abrasive dressing and continues more in line with the progressive mood that of Damnation (2003). The result is clean vocals and, all together, something wholly more listenable.

This is not to say that Opeth have suddenly discovered their creativity; this has been evident throughout the band’s history. However, it is much more visible in new tracks like Eternal Rains Will Come, which omits the sound of Akerfeldt having an aneurysm over the mic. The instrumental lead in on this track along with the swirl of organs and acoustic guitars is impressive, yet the Church Choir-esque vocals detract from the song slightly.

Cusp Of Eternity is the leading single from the album and one of the few tracks on which guitar distortion is employed. This song is far from the dark traditional Opeth sound - rather, it’s uplifting and the heavy riff gives the song a measured energy. For those still worried about listening to an album from a typically death metal band, your worries are misplaced. There are parts of this album where there feels like virtually no metal influence whatsoever.

Some prog songs verge more on the side of esoteric than intriguing and so it is with Moon Above, Sun Below. It seems as if Akerfeldt had shreds of different musical thought and connected each half-finished idea into one song. This can result in a dynamic and expansive creation but with this, it feels simply unremarkable. At 10 minutes 52 seconds it is also difficult to endure.

Elysian Woes marks the album’s shift into folk-rock territory and again dawdles for several minutes, this time in folk ambience. This ‘dawdle’ builds up and subsides again with layers of acoustic guitars and organs and is reminiscent of a progressive Stairway To Heaven. Akerfeldt’s transcendent lyrics delivered in his style have the effect of some kind of Nordic God proclaiming his hurt over the land; it all seems a little contrived, but the lyrics do fit with the music and have an overall effect of reassurance:

There is a bond between us, Even if it is frayed, it is unbreakable.

Goblin is an impressive showcase of Opeth’s technical skill and moreover, Akerfeldt’s composing prowess. Midway through I was struck by the similarities between this track and a talk show introductory song, or some kind of jazzy elevator music. However, this initial judgement was immediately revoked upon hearing the sheer scope of the instrumentation. This track, more than any other, emphasises Opeth’s disdain for the traditional song structure. Somehow the rambling of the instruments is kept coherent and, even with novelty sounding key samples, this results in a behemoth of a prog rock track.

The sixth track, River, is an uplifting folk song, encapsulating the good spirit one might find upon entering a downtrodden country pub. Imagine the scene: Old Stan the Man sitting at the bar complaining about his bunions and the worst harvest since ‘76. On comes this folk-y number and suddenly Stan’s pint stops tasting like rat piss and a slight smile emerges. The celestial combinations of tranquil guitar are then rounded off with fuller electric guitar solos and punctuated with Akerfeldt’s soaring vocals. Yet as much as I appreciate prog rock, I do sometimes struggle with the duration of the songs and at a lengthy 7 minutes and 29 seconds this is no exception.

The Voice Of Treason feels like the theatrical accompaniment to River. Where River is unpronounced and subtle, The Voice Of Treason is more bold and foreboding with the main hook sounding like a soundtrack to a spy movie parody. However, Opeth should once again be applauded for they manage to create such variety with the multi-layering of guitars and electronic organs (even if the results do sometimes have to be bracketed under acquired taste). Towards the end of the album, the duration of the songs seems not to be for any specific goal, but rather to reach the benchmark that a prog album should be long.

The final track on the album is again a vast fusion of different directions and rhythmic changes. This attempt at dynamism succeeds and creates a gentle warmth, ending the album on a distinct fervour.

Opeth have delivered an album that, for the most part, is a pleasant and intriguing listen. Akerfeldt has noted the influence of 1970s progressive rock (notably German band, Can, and Pink Floyd). The album shares a similar duration to the work of these bands (55 minutes for 8 songs: an odyssey of tolerance that did tarnish its impression on me) - yet it also shares the characteristic that prog is something that you can warm to. There is no pop fever to the intricacy of prog rock, and the spacious mixes can initially be disconcerting.

Not being particularly familiar with Opeth’s back catalogue I did have the fear that, even if this album was branded light, it would be death metal light; I was afraid of the heavy. Yet apart from a little guitar distortion which gives the songs in question strength, this album’s sweeping acoustic guitar progressions and organs confirm this as a worthwhile and applaudable direction for the Swedish rockers.