With Pale Communion, Swedish progressive metal outfit Opeth once again crafts an album that distances itself from the more extreme sound that made the band famous. Much like the group’s previous album, 2011’s Heritage, Pale Communion forgoes death metal growls and heavy guitars in favour of an approach that bears more sonic similarities to classic progressive rock acts such as King Crimson and Yes. Whether or not such a decision to smooth over the edgier parts of Opeth’s sound works for the band or against it remains to be seen.
Opening track Eternal Rains Will Come certainly surprises with a three-minute instrumental introduction dominated by an extremely retro-sounding keyboard part. It is only once Mikael Åkerfeldt’s distinctive clean vocals (complemented perfectly by background harmonising) fade in after the song’s halfway point that the song becomes recognisable as an Opeth song. Åkerfeldt’s guitar solo towards the end only serves as further confirmation and makes for a remarkable way to open the album.
Lead single Cusp of Eternity continues in the same vein as the previous track, building around a distinctive Opeth song around a recognisably Phrygian melody. Åkerfeldt is once again in fine form in terms of both singing and guitar, putting out another technically proficient guitar solo on this track. Moon Above Sun Below clocks in at just under eleven minutes and starts with some sinister-sounding bass bubbling into existence before continuing the established musical formula combining guitars, organs and sometimes strings. It gets moodier towards the middle but picks back up towards the end and manages to justify its length.
Elysian Woes changes the formula by being centred around a simple acoustic guitar part. Some backing instruments – a woodwind section here, some strings and organ there – make appearances throughout the song, but the song itself manages to stay focused and subdued without needed any strong sounds to maintain a listener’s interest. Instrumental track Goblin starts with a fast-picked acoustic guitar intro that gradually fades in multiple instruments before becoming a bombastic freak-out that indicates a jazz influence not unlike certain classic progressive rock bands.
River is another song that starts pleasantly with gentle acoustic guitar and harmonising vocals before once again embracing a jazzy progressive-rock style in the second half. Despite the similarity to previous tracks, it is still handled competently and doesn’t come across as boring. Voice of Reason does something completely different by building off an ominous strings part, constantly shifting its dynamics and introducing different instruments throughout its running time. Such a grandiose anthem would make for a good closing track, but the album continues into Faith in Others. Faith in Others is less the explosive climax and more the subtle denouement, once again using strings but keeping things quiet and allowing the album to fade back into the ether.
Opeth’s recent transition from progressive death metal to progressive rock has been met with detractors saying the band has watered down their sound. Comparisons to the classic era of progressive rock may be interpreted as unfavourable, but Opeth puts enough of their own variation onto their influences to make it work. Despite that, I found Pale Communion to be a strong effort on their part. Åkerfeldt and company prove their versatility time and time again in what is definitely a worthwhile album for any fan of either rock or metal.