Once upon a time Opeth could do no wrong, releasing records that seemed to be universally adored by fans and critics alike, think Blackwater Park for instance. However over the last decade, the Swedish prog metal kings have seen their fanbase splinter into different sects, mostly divided by Mikael Akerfeldt’s embracing of ‘70s prog rock aesthetics at the expense of metal.
This all came to a head with 2011’s Heritage, an album that had Steven Wilson in the production chair again, a man that has become Akerfeldt’s musical partner in crime for many years and a man that has shared a similar vision and love of Camel records etc. etc. Heritage was a decidedly non-metal record, which showed Akerfeldt (who has always steered the band, make no mistake) lead the band in his new vision, one of Rainbow-esque riffs and an all-clean vocal delivery.
People will say frankly stupid things, like Opeth abandoned death metal and inane phrases such as this. First off, Opeth have never been a death metal band in any way, rather they were born out of a death metal scene but one thing about Heritage was for certain, Akerfeldt was done with metal as the guiding force behind Opeth. But sadly, the album failed to stand up on its own. Heritage was contrived and forced. While they had been leading themselves to this eventual destination for years, it still felt unnatural, let’s not forget that its predecessor Watershed was still a progressive metal record with Akerfeldt’s grunted vocals (and his beautiful croon too) and juddering blastbeats on songs like ‘The Lotus Eater’. It always felt like Watershed and Heritage were missing a ‘bridging album’ in between, something that made the transition natural. Alas, that was not the case.
Fast forward to 2014 and we have Pale Communion. Would the mixed responses to Heritage force Akerfeldt’s hand to revise an older tone that was, at the very least, in line with Watershed or Ghost Reveries? Those badgering for a new Morningrise are simply disillusioned.
Pale Communion is a much more focused record than Heritage and feels like the kind of effort that its predecessor should have been but it’s still not as fluid a record as Opeth are capable of. It’s once again wearing its influences on its sleeves and while there’s more character to this than Heritage, it can still feel a little bit like a tribute and homage.
‘Eternal Rains Will Come’, the opener, kicks in straight away with an electric organ that’s colourful and vibrant but completely derivative and the following ‘Cusp of Eternity’, released online some months ago, is rather pedestrian and forgettable. But despite this shaky start, Opeth begin to find a bit of more natural feeling with ‘Moon Above, Sun Below’, which makes a staggering improvement in the record with pulsing basslines and Akerfeldt sounding vocally impassioned for the first time on the album.
This is a strong example of Pale Communion’s course, being a constant ebb and flow of a strong song or two followed by a weak outing, like the gorgeous acoustic verses of ‘Elysian Woes’, where Akerfedlt reminds us that his vocals can be beautifully unrivalled, only to be countered by the relatively uninspired movie score-like ‘Goblin’.
Pale Communion feels fuzzy for the most part but when it’s motivated, the results can be sublime. It bears a lot in common with Heritage in that regard and for the most part it wears it influences on its sleeves, almost to a flaw. With that said, when Pale Communion truly hits its stride, it can be utterly exhilarating and this is heard mostly in the latter half of the record, specifically the closing trio.
‘River’ is a beautiful track driven by stunning vocal harmonies that are vaguely reminiscent of Yes at their catchiest all the while shimmering lead guitar complements the vocals to a tee and ‘Voice of Treason’ is an altogether more brooding tune with Opeth dipping their toes into more morose sounding tones along with a slightly bristlier tone in Akerfeldt’s singing. Album closer ‘Faith in Others’ carries a similar ghostly vibe and is possibly Pale Communion’s finest moment – better late than never.
Pale Communion is the second chapter in the current book of Opeth, one very different from the tales that brought them to the dance and it looks like this new one won’t be concluding any time soon.