After hearing all spring that the new Opeth album, Pale Communion, would be a departure for the band, moving in the direction of prog metal and away from death metal, I was pleasantly surprised at just how good and how hard this album is.
Like Heritage, their previous release, the keyboards are turned way up. Leader Mikael Akerfeldt does zero growling. In fact, there are vocal harmonies throughout. The album sounds like something Deep Purple (especially with that heavy fuzzed Hammond Organ sound on the opening track) or Uriah Heep would do. And, of course both Akerfeldt and lead guitarist Fredrik Akerson said they did a lot of listening to bands like that from the 70’s before writing and recording this album.
There are beautiful flashes of Opeth doing what it does best, making your ears bleed, while never straying too far from the goal of producing a beautifully updated version of early prog-metal. The second track, “Cusp of Eternity”, achieves this well, especially with the opening verse, that moves to a wordless harmonized vocalizing.
Listening to some recent interviews with Akerfeldt, I believe this experiment in a direction, flowing through Ghost Reveries, Watershed, and Heritage, has about played itself out. Which doesn’t mean, I believe, they dislike the record. At some point, however, every band that experiments wants to get back to its roots. While Akerfeldt has also said he’s done with the growly vocals – he finds it played out, and while he doesn’t believe he’s a good singer, I think fans around the world disagree – he has also been clear that the next Opeth album will be straight death metal. For those who might find this foray away from the genre unsettling and disappointing, that should cheer them. In the meantime, I believe the band has released an excellent, beautiful album that showcases their songwriting and arranging abilities, Mikael’s voice dubbed to harmonies, and given fans something to look forward to on their current tour in support of the record.
One of my favorite tracks, “River”, features real acoustic guitar, beautifully layered harmony vocals, the kind of song that no one writes and records any more. I hope they play it on the tour, as I’ll be seeing them at the Riviera in Chicago on December 3, supported by Red Fang and In Flames.