Opeth - Pale Communion
Roadrunner Records
Progressive Rock/Metal
8 songs (55:42)
Release year: 2014
Opeth, Roadrunner Records
Reviewed by Goat
Album of the year

The easiest thing in the world would be to write some kind of lengthy variation on “Opeth rox ultimate genius 95/100 Album of the Year”. After all, I expect it, you expect it – Opeth have become critical darlings that can do no wrong, especially with the release of 2011's Heritage. While it wasn't especially popular with the band's fanbase, the critical reaction was a profound pouring out of love, even when in retrospect the album wasn't as perfect as acclaimed. Listening to it again in preparation for Pale Communion, I still think it's an excellent album, even though the compositions aren't as stellar as we might have expected. The faults lie as much with the album's circumstances and resulting reactions as the music itself. It's simply not true to call it a transitional album, a halfway house between traditional Opeth and a 70s prog tribute. When you place Watershed, Heritage, and Pale Communion in a row, Heritage is the album that feels out of place. Watershed was already changing, an album that dabbled in prog freely at times (the humming intro and jaunty keyboard solo in The Lotus Eaters, for example) but Heritage was the first Opeth album to really leave their signature style behind, beyond the heaviness. Pale Communion repairs this by reintroducing some of the signature Opeth style, yet still leaves the death metal growls out.

This results in an album that detractors of Heritage won't be enthusiastic to listen to immediately, but one they'd be well advised to give a chance, as this deserves the hype that Heritage received. From the clever 'pictures at an exhibition' artwork, to Steven Wilson's stellar mixing job (someone give that man a knighthood for services to other people's music alone) to the band members themselves and their beyond-expert playing, this is fantastic stuff. Let's start with Martin Axenrot on drums, and laugh heartily at the shit he got from fans when he replaced Martin Lopez in 2006 – his performance is staggeringly multi-faceted, from the jazzy drum beatdown that introduces album opener Eternal Rains Will Come to the soft tip-tapping through the verses, to a fiercer backing of the guitars. Martín Méndez's bass provides a solid and physical presence alongside it, and the guitars of both Mikael Åkerfeldt and the rarely-praised Fredrik Åkesson are wonderful, a solid partnership that gets buried underneath hero-worship for one man. Not to denigrate Åkerfeldt at all, as mastermind (and producer) of this album he deserves central place, and from guitars to his vocals, he is perfect. The reintroduction of backing vocals means the first vocals on the album are comfortingly familiar, Opeth-like in their sound and style, and while the track is full of prog bells and whistles, that there is a solidly-written song beneath it gives weight. It feels like you're listening to Opeth, which you couldn't always say with Heritage.

This feeling continues through the surprisingly heavy opening to the following Cusp of Eternity, guitar riffs forming the base of the music even as keyboards and Åkerfeldt's vocals make it soar. The guitars bear the weight of the songwriting, even on the most progressive tracks like the ten-minute Moon Above, Sun Below, which features familiar passages of acoustic guitar that could even have come from Blackwater Park at moments. The fancy drum work and proggier song structure marks it out as different, of course, but not so different that it's off-putting. And the emotional weight put into the likes of Elysian Woes especially help to solidify them as songs rather than the prog-worship that Heritage was in danger of falling into. That reputation preceded Pale Communion, and made it sound that tracks such as, for example, horror-soundtrack tribute instrumental Goblin would be Åkerfeldt indulging his vinyl-collecting inner fanboy rather than the actually worthwhile composition that it is, the King Crimson influence put to good use rather than just repeated in star-struck reverence.

What ultimately sold me on Pale Communion was the realisation that, where Heritage felt like a dead end, a band experimenting before inevitably returning to what they should be playing, this feels like the first chapter of something new and exciting. That the proggy, out-there moments of the album are not as out-there as first expected but fit in and feel right is a very good thing, showing the band's confidence with writing this sort of material. That the more straightforward moments, like River with its utterly fantastic vocal performance and almost classic rock moments, are just as excellent and ear-pleasing, is even better. Heritage felt like you were constantly waiting for the band to get to the good part of the song – here, the songs have no bad parts. It's a relief to remember how good at songwriting Opeth are, after Heritage damaged that perception so much. You enjoy each moment of, say, Voice of Treason, from the surprisingly catchy verses to the near-orchestral backing; the Damnation vibe of the concluding Faith in Others is also wonderful and a stellar way to bring the album to an end.

I liked Pale Communion on the first listen, and many listens later, I'm in love. It's an album that entices and grows on you, marrying a stunning opening to some solid songwriting, proving that the band can do as much with other genres as they can with death metal. It's also an album that proves their decision to step away from death metal the correct one, even though Heritage made that questionable. In an ideal world, it's an Opeth album that would return them to their high spot in people's esteem, a habit of releasing stunning albums time after time now forgotten. I liked Heritage and still do, but it did the band a terrible damage and won't be remembered fondly for it in time. Hopefully, the damage isn't permanent; those put off by it will be missing a terrific album if they still stay away. Fans of Heritage, of course, will already know that Opeth rox ultimate genius...

Killing Songs :
All; my favourites are Eternal Rains Will Come, Cusp of Eternity, Elysian Woes, River, Voice of Treason
Goat quoted 95 / 100
Other albums by Opeth that we have reviewed:
Opeth - In Cauda Venenum reviewed by Goat and quoted 70 / 100
Opeth - Sorceress reviewed by Goat and quoted 65 / 100
Opeth - Heritage reviewed by Aleksie and quoted 95 / 100
Opeth - Orchid reviewed by James and quoted 79 / 100
Opeth - Watershed reviewed by Aleksie and quoted 94 / 100
To see all 15 reviews click here
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