Album of the Week 31-2016: Opeth – Pale Communion


Quite a bit of commotion has surrounded the fact that Opeth shed all of its Death Metal roots. Personally, I didn’t mind that much, as I was attracted to the band’s calmer side long before the Death Metal side made any sense for me; ‘Damnation’ was the first Opeth album I got into. The bigger problem I had with 2011’s ‘Heritage’ was its songwriting. The album’s dynamic was limited to soft and even softer and while that could work, there were hardly any memorable passages on the record. By contrast, ‘Pale Communion’ is actually a very fine progressive Rock record.

Although ‘Pale Communion’ shows the Swedes further down the progressive Rock road, improved dynamics significantly increase the replay value of the record. In fact, there are moments on the record – ‘Moon Above, Sun Below’ most prominently – that almost sound like the Opeth that recorded ‘Ghost Reveries’, save for the complete lack of Mikael Åkerfeldt’s death grunts. And while the heavier moments on the record are nowhere near as brutal as those on ‘Blackwater Park’ or ‘Watershed’, the contrasts really work wonders here, making tracks like ‘Cusp Of Eternity’ sound almost like a return to their Metal days without even being all that heavy.

Something I have always liked about Opeth’s calmer endeavors is the fact that it allows Martín Méndez to show what an amazing bass player he is. Sure, he’s not the fastest player of the bunch, but he has a creative, almost Jazzy approach to his bass parts that adds to the songs in a melodic fashion. And despite the fact that ‘Heritage’ and ‘Damnation’ are both calmer than ‘Pale Communion’, this is the highlight of his playing thus far. Another musician who finally gets the space he deserves is Fredrik Åkesson. Although I miss the brash Les Paul sound of his Talisman days, Åkerfeldt must have realized that Åkesson’s bluesy, emotional tone complements his more folky style perfectly.

What makes ‘Pale Communion’ easier to review than ‘Heritage’ is the larger amount of memorable moments. The album’s absolute highlight is the instrumental ‘Goblin’, that almost finds the quintet in Fusion waters. I really like the two string-laden songs that close the record – ‘Voice Of Treason’ and the particularly baroque ‘Faith In Others’ – as well, while opener ‘Eternal Rains Will Come’ has a nice dramatic build-up, as well as some beautiful vocal harmonies. In the end, the only song I don’t like is ‘River’, because I think its acoustic first section is much too upbeat, which contrasts too sharply with the rest of the record.

Of course, ‘Pale Communion’ isn’t the second coming of ‘Blackwater Park’ or even their latter-day masterpiece ‘Watershed’, but it’s a surprisingly good progressive Rock album. I feared the worst when I heard ‘Heritage’, but this record proves the Swedes only needed a slight change in dynamics to make the full transition to progressive Rock and still end up with something memorable. It’s not an easy record by any means, but no Opeth album ever was. Even when its predecessor put you off, give this record a chance.

Recommended tracks: ‘Goblin’, ‘Faith In Others’, ‘Voice Of Treason’

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