Music Review: Opeth – Pale Communion

I’m a huge fan of Opeth. And I’m a huge fan of 70’s prog rock. So when this Prog Death Metal band decided to switch rails and basically become a 70’s prog nostalgia band, I thought maybe something decent would come out of it. Lord knows I thought “Watershed”, their last album to feature their old sound, was all sorts of bland and boring and indeed the only album of that era I actively dislike. “Heritage” managed to be half-decent. About half the album is pretty damn good, but the other half is, unfortunately, entirely forgettable. I hoped that this stylistic change would result in a momentary diversion, but no, Opeth are determined to continue with this silly idea for at least another album. I remember being skeptical when the first songs hit the web, but even after I actually picked up “Pale Communion”, I was immediately disappointed and only listened to it a few times in order to conclude that I didn’t like it. But since I’ll be seeing them live in a couple of weeks at a festival, I thought, maybe it’s time to go back and revisit this album and see if I can find something that appeals to me.

Almost immediately upon starting this album, I was reminded why I disliked it so much. It takes over three minutes for the vocals to kick in and everything up to then is entirely forgettable and sounds like it should be part of an entirely different song. There’s an art to making long songs that sound coherent, and Opeth used to know how to do it. Compare that to the opening of “Ghost Reveries”, my favorite album of theirs. You have a couple of seconds of somber guitar chords and then all hell breaks loose. A godlike riff kicks in while Mikael screams out his fucking lungs. That’s how you open up an album! And it’s not the fact that the vocals take so long to enter the song that bothers me really, I don’t mind instrumental music at all. But it’s just so bland, uninteresting. Elevator music has more dramatic depth than the intro to this album.

A lot of the album suffers from what I like to call “Progressive Masturbation”, a condition in which a band tends to put lots of pointlessly proggy shit into their albums that doesn’t enhance the experience. Now, I reiterate, I love 70’s prog rock, and there’s an art to doing it the right way. Yes proved that with “Close To The Edge” and “Relayer”, but so many bands fail to grasp that the only way to make “Progressive Masturbation” good is by being so face-meltingly good at your instruments that you manage to overshadow the fact that what you’re playing doesn’t actually mean much in the context of the song. Opeth are not that good.

Another aspect of theirs that used to be great but now suffers greatly is the amount of riff repetition they engage in. Opeth’s claim to being a “progressive” band stems from the fact that they rarely repeat sections in their songs, they literally progress through a bunch of musical ideas. But what they lack in repetition of material through the song they make up through repetition of riffs within each section. Most sections are literally just 16 to 32 bars of the same riff getting repeated over and over again. Now this can work, if you write good riffs, like Opeth used to do. But as we’ve already established that I don’t like this album, you can guess that the riffs on this album are not good at all.

My overall biggest problem with this album though is that it lacks punch. It just sounds so restrained. The drums obviously have a different production on them than on previous albums. Back in the day, they had the typical death metal clicky noise to them, where the bass drum had both very low and very high frequencies in the mix that gives that particular genre so much punch. On this album, they’re obviously more toned down, but still manage to punch quite a lot through the mix. The problem is that there is absolutely nothing going on musically that would benefit from this. The guitars scream for more distortion instead of the weak shit they got smeared all over them that turns them into an indecipherable mush, devoid of almost all treble. The bass and guitars literally do nothing to help the drums with the rhythm. There are double-bass passages in there that sound absolutely horrible because all the other instruments get completely overshadowed. But the worst offender on this album is Mikael himself. Now don’t get me wrong, I like his clear vocals on previous albums, but here, over this homogenous mass that represents the music, his voice just lies like a load of mayonnaise left out in the sun, underlined by the constant mellotron-like sounding synths that further turn the sound into a swamp of notes and chords. Throw some passion in there dude, and maybe just once or twice use that magnificent growling voice you chose to abandon for your infinitely weaker singing voice! Seriously guys, when this dude growls, it sounds like a fucking demon ascends from hell itself to consume you, just listen to the aforementioned intro to “Ghost Reveries”, the song “Ghost of Perdition”. This shit can scare insolent children into behaving nicely. You’re sitting on a gold mine and you choose to instead sell worthless rocks.

So in closing, no, my opinion of this album hasn’t changed. It’s not terrible, per se, just mostly forgettable and uninteresting. There are songs that are genuinely good, like the eruptive “River”, but they are in a clear minority. There are little to no climaxes in here among tons of boring acoustic guitar wankery and a bunch of atonal passages that refuse to sound good in the context of the rather simplistic chord progressions they employ for the rest of their songs. I seriously hope they’ll play some older songs live, otherwise I won’t be listening to their beige avalanche of boredom for 90 minutes.

 

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