Some fine rock albums have been released this year: Pixies’ Indie Cindy; The Arcade Fire’s Reflektor; Elbow’s The Take Off And Landing Of Everything; Mex’s Dr Jekyll & Mrs Hyde; Bushman Bros. Condensation Fear (of which more later) and Mastodon’s Once More ‘Round The Sun. I’m tempted, on first impression to say that Opeth’s just-released Pale Communion has earned its place on the top of this distinguished pile… and then some.
Much of previous album Hertitage (2011) sounded like Opeth were trying to be a different band: out with the metal, in with acoustic, jazz-folk meanderings. If their previous ‘departure’ album, Damnation was merely Opeth without the loud bits, that album pointed the way down stranger paths, often veering miles away from anything resembling rock. If you’re not familiar, imagine Talk Talk‘s Spirit Of Eden meets Nick Drake. Even when metal did occasionally rear its head and holler – as on Slither – it sat uneasily amongst the other brooding, wandering compositions. Being an homage to metal of yore, and the – then – recently-departed Ronnie Dio in particular, it exposed a little of trad metal’s roots in the R’n’B scene which was a proving ground for Dio and his contemporaries. It’s perhaps noteworthy that this is something that Scandinavian ‘extreme’ metallers have, historically, eschewed doing; especially whilst labouring under the moniker ‘black’. But if the album had soul – and even the harshest of prog/metal critics must surely acknowledge that singer, Mikael Åkerfeldt possesses a spine-tinglingly soulful set of pipes, when resisting the temptation to growl like Cookie Monster – it was rather of the ‘tortured’ variety.
So it surely comes as a surprise to come across a track like Goblin, five tracks into PC: as if relocating a Dirty Harry car chase to ’70s Stockholm streets in winter, Opeth have never sounded so groovy. There’s an element of homage/pastiche (most writers have reached immediately for the song’s Italian namesake – I’d also venture Barrett Martin‘s Tuatara soundtrack collective, and also the instrumental breaks featured on the last Steven Wilson album) but not a whiff of ripe Gorgonzola. And PC is full of such statements of intent.
Opener, Eternal Rains Will Come has the feel of fellow Swedes, Katatonia when they dial back on the metal, replete with sweet melancholy, albeit pushing the ‘prog’ further than they’ve yet dared. It’s three minutes before we hear any vocals: a knotty, stuttering instrumental section giving way around the two minute mark to some characteristic Åkerfeldt clean guitar melodies. Heritage also began with a three-minute instrumental but they have little else in common: this song – and album – are a very different proposition, despite my initial impression formed from hearing trailer single, Cusp Of Eternity. The latter – and second track on PC – would have fitted fairly comfortably on their previous release. Most everything else, not so much.
If Steven Wilson once purloined a little of Opeth‘s metal grit when he first hooked up with the band back in 2000, then River suggests Åkerfeldt has called in the debt: the two writers evidently share a certain melodic sensibility, but Opeth have never so closely approximated the bittersweet tone and structural development of a Wilson/PT piece. The harmonies are beautiful.
Voice of Treason‘s stabbing strings and twinkling Rhodes piano recall Apollo 440‘s most Stealth Sonic exploits at the start, before taking off on a thrilling crescendo that finally gives way to a few bars of quiet, almost spiritual reflection. This fades into final track, Faith In Others: also a cinematic, string-drenched piece it’s surely Åkerfeldt‘s best ballad to date. It’s a fitting closer that reminds me, in its emotional maturity and expert mastery of tension and release rather than style, of Marillion‘s latterday balladic excursions; such as Sounds That Can’t Be Made.
And yet, all musical reference points aside, the tone, melodies and arrangements are unmistakably Opeth. If Heritage represented Åkerfeldt‘s time in the wilderness, ruminating and expanding his musical mind in all directions; PC sees him digging deep, consolidating all that he has loved and absorbed over 3-plus decades as a music fan and bringing it to bear in the evolution of his own style.
Where Heritage was sparse, this is lush; and whilst the former’s twinkling, intriguing subtleties are still there, they here serve to augment rather than carry the songs. Åkerfeldt told it true: this album is very much about melody, but it also resurrects and reimagines what was great, dynamically about the band’s latter metal recordings; keyboards, strings and drums lending much of the weight once provided by guitar parts. Yoakim Svarlberg (keys) and Martin ‘Axe’ Axenrot (drums/percussion) really excel thruout; and on reflection I realise – as I suspect many fans will – that it was that dynamic range and richness, as opposed to the metal per se that was missed on Heritage. I’ve grown to appreciate and enjoy, if not really love the latter; but this… this is something else. If you’re an Opeth fan of old who lost the faith over the last couple releases I urge you reconsider. PC is stunning from start to finish – or as near as damn. To date, Blackwater Park has been my gold-standard Opeth release (honorable mentions for Ghost Reveries and Deliverance: silver and bronze) but with this album the band have crested a new peak of creativity.