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Opeth - Pale Communion CD (album) cover




Tech/Extreme Prog Metal

4.15 | 1092 ratings

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5 stars I think I'm going to have to retract some of the statements I have made about classic prog revival in the past. Sure, 95% of it is crap, and aims for a sound that can never sound good and fresh in the 21st century - namely the Yes/Genesis style of symphonic prog, which always sounds corny and cheese-ridden, with floaty synths and floaty Jon Anderson vocals all bubbling up like some soup of glittery nonsense, with absolutely no punch or impact, and none of the insane compositional and structural ability of those classic bands. But if one thing has been proven to me by Motorpsycho and Jess and the Ancient Ones and Hail Spirit Noir and even Steven Wilson, while Yes revival prog may sound terrible, King Crimson revival prog can truly be awesome.

Many have said this is the record that Heritage should have been, but I'd still be hesitant to say that. Heritage not only had the hard time of being the first album after a big stylistic change, but the fact that it was also their weakest album compositionally since My Arms, Your Hearse made it the focal point of a lot of harsh statements towards Opeth. And although their compositional skill is back with a vengeance on Pale Communion, I can't help but feel if this was released where Heritage was, it would still get a fair bit of shit flung at it. But yes, this is pretty much Heritage, Part II: Actually Good Version. The stellar riffs and melodies are back, Akerfeldt's vocals are sounding as great as ever, and there are even some new parts that sound like Opeth being truly fresh, as opposed to taking their old sound and painting it 1970's like they did on Heritage.

But despite my comments on this sounding like King Crimson, what this really sounds like is actually Steven Wilson's The Raven That Refused to Sing (And Other Stories). Yes, of course, that album sounds like King Crimson and therefore this does too, but the best description of this album is "literally Raven with Akerfeldt singing". The nods to Wilson in both composition and style are everywhere on this record, and not just because his incredibly distinctive backing harmonies are also everywhere on this record. Opener "Eternal Rains Will Come" is possibly the biggest tribute Mikael could make to his boyfriend's latest album, complete with flute setting on the organ, huge ramped up refrains (think "The Holy Drinker"), and the aforementioned vocal harmonies coming in at full volume. But it's not just that - "Cusp of Eternity" is this album's version of "The Pin Drop", "Faith in Others" is Raven's title track, and the proggy instrumental section of "River" and "Goblin" are the equivalents of "Luminol". And although this is certainly a tad uninspired in that regard, I'm sure as hell not complaining. If Raven was proof that prog revival albums could actually be good if done by the right people, then Pale Communion is the consolidation. Although this does slip a bit in comparison to Raven from a compositional and inspirational perspective, the thing that makes this album so great is in fact the point of difference - Akerfeldt's voice.

When Opeth dropped the growls, many people were complaining their new material would lack the awesome light/dark, soft/loud, yin-yang sort of songwriting style that Opeth had become known for, and the albums would start to become one-dimensional and unchanging. And sure, although I am still not a fan of harsh vocals, I loved the power that Mikael's brilliant roar put into the heavy sections, in contrast with his beautiful melancholic cleans. But I think, on this record, he's found a way to give that same contrast with only clean vocals, ever increasing the number of strong melodies in this album. The choruses here are immense - Mikael's voice is smothered in reverb and delay and he's belting it at the top of his lungs, and it's majestically good. It's the sort of thing that Steven Wilson wishes he could do with his songs, but he obviously doesn't have the lungs for it. Vocally, this is potentially Akerfeldt's strongest, his voice is right in the centre of the album, creating powerful, epic melodies in the heavy sections and moody, melancholic ones for the quiet sections. The ending of "Moon Above, Sun Below" is probably the best example of the former, even if the rest of the song leaves much to be desired. The vocal effects give a quite dark, haunting vibe to his voice, and in addition to the slightly psychedelic guitar tones and trembling, atmospheric organs, it does bring that kind of evil and twisted vibe that many early 70's psych rock and early metal albums went for.

Outside of the vocals here, we have a bit of a mixed bag instrumentally. Ever since Martin Axenrot took over the drumkit for 2008's Watershed, he has been slowly crawling up my list of favourite drummers, and while this isn't the impressive technical onslaught that Watershed was, he still gets some fairly good runs, bringing his awesome as hell hi-hat work into a couple of moments, and working with the flattest snare since In the Court of the Crimson King, gets to play some fills that take influence from nearly every great drummer from the early 70's. And in combination with Mendez' much more prominent bass guitar, they get some insanely good grooves going. "Cusp of Eternity" is probably my favourite track here for the combination of the insanely catchy guitar/bass groove and Akerfeldt's epic chorus vocals. As for the guitars, Akerfeldt's playing here is still proficient and good, although it is nowhere near the focal point that it was in their older albums. He can still clearly come up with some nice fiddly acoustic parts (although one here is directly ripped from Blackwater Park), and his heavy guitar has shifted from slide riffs upon slide riffs to a development of the twisted psychedelic riffing he started venturing into on Heritage.

But as with any prog revival album, we're going to have some negative effects, and the negatives here are quite a bit more notable than they were on Raven. For starters, the organ on this record does slip into some rather corny and embarrassing cheesed out parts. The very start of this album, in fact, opens with the organ playing a pretty gross tone, and while it hides away and plays Steven Wilson-esque flutes for a while, it does rear its head again during "Goblin" and the second half of "River". "River" in particular, is a weird one, considering that the first half is honestly the happiest I have ever heard Opeth be. It's quite delightful and pretty actually, with awesome harmonies and serene atmospheres, but then for some reason the warbling noisebox comes in and shits all over any atmosphere or mood, before breaking into a rather wanky and unrefined jam section. "Goblin", despite being an instrumental track, isn't quite as bad, but it isn't really good either. Some decent grooves come into play, but some terrible organ parts and wanky guitar solos cancel them out, making it overall pretty forgettable and unnecessary.

But the organ isn't all too bad, and in fact it is a deciding factor in one of my favourite songs on this album - closer "Faith in Others". Taking another page out of In the Court of the Crimson King, the organ isn't here to fart corny melodies all over the place, it's there in the deep background being atmospheric and casting a mournful haze all over the track, even reminding me a bit of the way Dire Straits used organ in their mid-career. Some beautiful strings add to the organ ambience here, as well as on "Voice of Treason", which is my other big favourite from this album. The melodies on the closer are some of the best, and despite running a few minutes overtime, is honestly one of the best slow moody tracks that Opeth have ever done.

Honestly, I feel this is not only Opeth's best record since Ghost Reveries, but it's their best overall behind the holy trinity of progressive death metal (Still Life, Blackwater Park, Ghost Reveries). Aside from "Goblin", I enjoy a great deal of every song here, with Akerfeldt's melody-finding ability being truly back on song. It has problems - the 70's worship does pull a bit of corny stuff in with it, and some of the tracks have the classic Opeth patchwork songwriting problem ("Moon Above, Sun Below" just sounds like a stack of (admittedly good) segments with no coherence between them whatsoever), but overall this is a really impressive return to form. I don't expect Opeth to return to the status they were on in the early 2000's - this is too derivative stylistically to gain the status of pioneers, but it's good to see that they can still put out a compositionally strong record, and now that they're out of the spotlight as the biggest prog metal band in the world, they can quietly put out great records of whatever they want in the corner without anyone really caring.


Originally written for my Facebook page/blog:

Gallifrey | 5/5 |


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