Pale Communion Review
By: Grey Banner, Contributing Writer
Opeth return to action with their eagerly anticipated new album, Pale Communion. As of late, Opeth leader Mikael Akerfeldt and crew (guitarist Fredrik Akesson, bassist Martin Mendez, keyboardist Joakim Svalberg and drummer Martin Axenrot) have occupied a very interesting and sometimes divisive position in the metal world.
As fans of the band no doubt know, Opeth have always been known for their ability to switch seamlessly between death metal and quieter, acoustic sections. This is evident on every Opeth album leading up to 2011’s Heritage, where the band officially left behind all traces of their death metal roots. To that end, Heritage was a mixed bag. While it contained some good songs, it was a bit aimless and very mellow, which was a bit hard for some fans to swallow. This came to light on the following tour where some audience members were actively lobbying during shows for Akerfeldt to play some of the band’s heavier material. In interviews, Akerfeldt made mention of this divisiveness, so it is obvious he heard the fan’s reactions. Well, it looks like it didn’t really affect him too much, as Pale Communion is very much a continuation of the trail Opeth began blazing on Heritage. The primary difference is that Pale Communion is a much more cohesive and pleasurable listening experience.
Akerfeldt finally seems at peace with the duality he once faced down: does he give the fans what they want and go back to his death metal / prog hybrid style, or does he follow his heart and embrace his unabashed love for prog rock? Thankfully, he listened to his heart. If you’re looking for the heavy Opeth, you will not find them here. From the opening notes of ‘Eternal Rains Will Come,’ you get a sense of what is to come. Keyboards swirl around delicate guitars for an extended intro which leads to a mellow, mid tempo verse and chorus. Several other tracks on the album follow suit with this approach. ‘Moon Above, Sun Below’ is the album’s lengthiest track, clocking in at almost eleven minutes and is an exploration of Opeth’s softer side. ‘Elysian Woes’ is similar, but in a much sadder, more haunting manner.
But, the album is not all mellow, acoustic based dirges. ‘Cusp of Eternity’ is a more up tempo number that finds the band kicking it up a notch. This song could conceivably be on the radio with its infectious groove, sing-along chorus and relatively (for Opeth) short run time. My personal favorite track, ‘Goblin’ is a quick, four minutes and thirty five seconds of pure musical genius. Everyone in the band is cooking on this one, especially bassist Martin Mendez, whose work is often overlooked in light of Akerfledt’s unique vision. Mendez is, however central to the sound of Opeth and his playing is top notch. The next time you listen to an Opeth record Mendez has played on, take a closer listen to the bass playing, most notably here on Pale Communion. It really is a highlight.
Then you have a track like ‘River’ which segues from an almost country sounding beginning into a pretty rocking second half. This song is probably the most vintage sounding Opeth, in that it has such dramatic changes in feel and style. ‘Voice of Treason’ follows and if you hear a little nod to Led Zeppelin’s ‘Kashmir,’ you’re probably not alone. A staccato rhythm dominates throughout the tune, punctuated by stately keyboards and Middle Eastern sounding guitar lines. The album then ends with the dramatic melancholy of ‘Faith in Others,’ completing the cycle of Akerfeldt’s first true prog-rock record.
Pale Communion is not going to settle the debate about Opeth. Many fans are not going to be on board; still mourning the loss of the guttural vocals and blast beats they knew and loved. And yet, if you can embrace the more low key, softer aspect of Opeth, Pale Communion delivers in spades. It is an album full of excellent playing, well written and arranged songs and wonderful vocal performances from Akerfeldt. While I love what Opeth has done in the past, this is the Opeth I was always hoping for: one that is truly pushing their music to new places, even if those places are firmly rooted in times long past…