Album Review: “Pale Communion” by Opeth

Album Review: “Pale Communion” by Opeth
For many years Opeth had been my favorite band, but since their last two studio releases, I can no longer say that. In fact, this new artistic path the band has been on removes them from my current favorite bands list. However, due to the strength of their catalog as a whole, I cannot be upset with the band. They have earned the right to do whatever they want. Prior to their last two releases, they probably had the strongest run of great albums by any band I have known of since the 1980s. So what has happened during these last two albums? Opeth’s creative output has gone from a unique brand of metal, with their own signature sound, to one of imitated prog rock from the late 1960s/early 70s. In fact, it would not even be accurate to call them progressive anymore, as they are no longer pushing the boundaries of creativity. They are simply a 60s/70s prog rock-styled band. Many years ago when they released the Damnation album, influence credit was given to the same style, but unlike Opeth’s last two albums, it used that style only as an influence, and they retained their signature sound and progressiveness. It was still fresh. The new direction they have taken may be a good copy of an old style, but it’s just a cheesy Hammond organ-drenched rock fest that I am not interested in listening to. Vocalist, guitarist, exclusive song-writer Mikael Akerfeldt has said that he plays the music that he wants to hear. That’s fine, Mike, but your fans have spoken, and for the first time in the band’s history, your album sales have taken a dip from the previous release -about a 30% drop in the first week of release.
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Pale Communion is not a bad album, and neither was the previous album Heritage. Neither just happen to be as compelling, interesting. or attractive as previous albums. Keeping that kind of creative output going at a high level is virtually impossible for any musician, and is not unexpected. I’m all for trying new things to keep the artistic happiness going on in a band -I just don’t think the recipe calls for going backwards in time. Where Pale Communion improves upon Heritage is in the sound department. Though they still do not have a metal sound, they have an altogether better guitar sound. The quality of the guitar sound on Heritage was so dumbed down to an early ’70s technology level that it cheapened and weakened the entire album. Pale Communion’s distorted guitar tone is heavier and has a more modern sound. The production is very good overall, with all the instruments coming through very clearly, and well balanced. This doesn’t work so well for Akerfeldt’s voice, as it has noticeably deteriorated -probably due to age and years of smoking- but it does for drummer Martin Axenrot. He displays a  true expert percussionist’s touch, utilizing his full kit to create intricate rhythms, dynamics, and variety. I can literally just listen to his drum tracks and be thoroughly satisfied. Song-writing direction aside, the musicianship of Opeth has always been strong, but even with a lesser rock template it’s still obvious how polished this band is on their instruments. Some have commented that Pale Communion is more cohesive than Heritage and easier to listen to. I think once you give any Opeth album a fair amount of listens, you will find moments worthy of praise. Pale Communion may not compare to the level of the band’s peak years, but it’s still worth listening to.
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Track By Track Breakdown
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If you can get past the over the top Hammond organ worship that the album opens up with, Eternal Rains Will Come, is a pretty catchy, well-written song. I would have preferred that the organ intro music had been played with guitar instead, but it’s good for that style. The mellow part after the intro is very cool, especially with the more serious sounding piano accompaniment. The rest of the song is good, but totally reminds me of early 70s rock.

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Cusp Of Eternity, which is probably the most metallic track on the album, is also a catchy tune, but Akerfeldt’s vocals aren’t as smooth as they used to be.

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Moon Above, Sun Below is one of the weaker tracks on the album. Though there are a few decent moments, the song is entirely too long, and the chorus is lame. I don’t really care for the song until the acoustic section about 2 minutes in. Things are all good until about the 6:30 mark when the dorky organ section kicks in. Don’t get me wrong, some of that old prog rock is really good, but sometimes Opeth picks the worst aspects of it to portray. It just sounds silly to me.

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Fortunately the album recovers quickly with my favorite song, Elysian Woes, which is an acoustic number that could very easily have been found on Damnation. Classic moody Opeth.

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Goblin is an instrumental track.  From what I’ve heard it’s an ode to ’70s music from a band of the same name. It’s decent, but probably more fun for the musicians than it is for me as a listener.

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River often reminds me of The Eagles song Seven Bridges Road. I think it’s a decent song, but probably the least Opeth-sounding song on the album. Very ‘70s sounding. Most of the last half of the song is a classic old-school rock jam with trading solos.

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Voice Of Treason is probably the weakest track on the album. Boring and just not very interesting. Unnecessary.

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The album ends on a good note, though in a very mellow fashion with Faith In Others. Good song.

Like much of the music inside, the cover artwork isn't exactly inspiring. The artwork for their classic albums were so perfect and original. I don't blame artists for wanting to shake things up a bit after so many years, but I would say Pale Communion has their worst cover art yet.

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I would have preferred Opeth’s last two albums to be an altogether different project band. I also think the band’s reluctance (or oppression?) to only have Akerfeldt write all the music is a disservice to their potential. After eleven albums, this one-man driven band most likely will only go down hill creatively. It’s a shame, but all good things must end. At least there have been some improvements (in a dumb, obvious kind of way) from the last album. The metal is gone, though, so if you can’t get past that, it’s time to move on.
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This back cover artwork would have made a much more entertaining front cover, similar to the goofy, yet entertaining artwork for Heritage.