Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Opeth: Pale Communion (2014)

A Darker Shade of Pale

For about a decade, Opeth was the most important band in metal, to paraphrase an occasional contributor to this site. You are no doubt fully aware of their sound, and have probably heard most if not all of their music. And I don’t feel that anyone has a misunderstanding of the band, either; metalheads understand Opeth, whether they enjoy it or not. You are no doubt also fully aware of their well-publicized abandonment of metal. So I will avoid any kind of detailed discussion of the band’s history and legacy, which I am always tempted to do when I know a band's catalog as well as I know Opeth's. I’m going to simply step into the music.

Pale Communion is a continuation of the band’s progressive rock fetish. Not completely but in part, it sounds like it could have come from the late 60’s or early 70’s. You already could have guessed that. As with the last record, the vocals are wonderful and the production has a deliciously broad dynamic range. They still display a mastery of dynamism, and they sadly are still handicapping themselves by refusing to go into death metal mode for a minute or two. But there are some differences between this record and Heritage which preceded it.

Their extended world tour must have put just a little bit of metal back into their veins. There are riffs here that sound like metal riffs, especially at the beginning of the album. One on “Moon Above, Sun Below” is even played in a metal style, but on balance even that can’t be considered a metal song. The rest of the LP is filled with organ-infatuated, folk-inflected prog rock as promised. Cases in point: “Elysian Woes” is one of their folksy, soft songs that they’ve been doing since forever, and “Goblin” is a silly instrumental of the kind you expect to hear on an old-school prog rock release.

My assessment is that this is a slight step backward for the band. It’s less adventurous—no batshit crazy flute solo here. The one curveball they throw at us is “River,” which channels Lynyrd Skynyrd for the first half. I could do without that, although the song’s crescendo redeems it to a large degree.

On the plus side, it’s still Opeth, and they still set a very high bar. On the minus side, it’s still post-Watershed Opeth, and they’ve dropped even that bar by an inch or two. Not that it matters, because we were all going to buy it anyway.

The Verdict: 4 out of 5 stars

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