Opeth - Pale Communion

We might as well get this out of the way up front: if you were among those who were hoping against hope that Mikael Åkerfeldt would steer the band back towards death metal on Pale Communion, you’re going to be very disappointed, because Pale Communion completes the transformation begun on 2011’s Heritage. It’s time to accept it—Opeth is no longer a death metal band. And this is a very good thing.

Of course, for anyone who’s been paying attention Opeth’s career arc, the shift from progressive death metal to straight-up progressive metal shouldn’t be that much of a surprise. Starting with the mellow progginess of 2003’s excellent Damnation album, and then continuing with the increased usage of the proggiest of prog instruments, the mellotron, on Ghost Reveries and Watershed, Åkerfeldt has been moving away from the band’s death metal roots for a while now, and, to my ears at least, it’s a change that needed to happen. I think most fans of the band will agree that they peaked as a death metal band with 2001’s Blackwater Park, and while they still really haven’t put out a bad album, in many ways Ghost Reveries and Watershed felt like more of the same from a band who were really capable of better. They were good albums, but they weren’t great albums, which is what made Heritage feel like such a breath of fresh air when it came out. Yes, in hindsight Heritage is in many ways a transitional album and, as such, has its flaws, but Åkerfeldt sounded revitalized and the album was ambitious in a way that Opeth hadn’t been in close to a decade.

Which brings us (finally) to Pale Communion. If Heritage is the equivalent of the band’s awkward teenage years, Pale Communion is the glorious payoff on the other side. It takes the blueprint of Heritage and improves on it in every conceivable way, managing to both wear Åkerfeldt’s 70’s prog influences proudly on its sleeve while still sounding unmistakably like Opeth. If Blackwater Park was Opeth Mk. I’s masterpiece, then Pale Communion may very well be the masterpiece from Opeth Mk. II.

Upon first listening to Pale Communion, two things are immediately noticeable. From the first two minutes or so of album opener “Eternal Rains Will Come,” it’s obvious that new keyboardist Joakim Svalberg, who replaced Per Wiberg shortly after the completion of Heritage, has assumed a much larger role in the group’s sound than that of his predecessor. There are keyboards and organs all over Pale Communion, to the point where on certain songs, like “Eternal Rains Will Come,” they carry more of the melody than the guitars do. The second is that Åkerfeldt’s vocals are stronger and sound more confident than they ever have on an Opeth record. There are even vocal harmonies on several songs that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Crosby, Stills & Nash album.

In spite of these changes in the band’s sound, Pale Communion still sounds very much like Opeth. There are only a couple of songs on the album—the outstanding “River,” whose stomping, largely acoustic first half of wouldn’t have sounded out of place on Led Zeppelen III; and the appropriately titled, Gobin-esque instrumental “Goblin”—that depart considerably from what might be considered Opeth’s trademark sound. The guitar tones, certain chord phrasings, the overall lyricism of the lead breaks—they should all be familiar to any longtime Opeth fans.

In an album full of standout tracks, I want to especially highlight the two songs that close Pale Heritage, “Voice of Treason” and “Faith in Others.” “Voice” is a moody strings and keyboard track that’s notable for its use of an actual orchestra instead of a mellotron, which I’m almost certain is a first for the band. The orchestral coda of “Voice” segues directly into “Faith in Others,” which might be the loveliest song in the entire Opeth catalogue, especially the acoustic guitar and piano section near the end. It might also be the most lyrically uplifting song Åkerfeldt has ever written, especially the song’s closing section: “Asleep in the rain/A child once again/And the ghost in my head/Has forgiven me/Lifted his curse upon me.”

In closing, Pale Communion is easily the best album Opeth has done since Damnation, and deserves a listen even if you were among those who felt like Heritage was major letdown. If approached with an open mind, I think this album should win the band back at least some of the fans they lost for not being ‘metal’ anymore.

 Pale Communion is available now in several formats via Roadrunner Records.