Friday, August 22, 2014

Opeth - Pale Communion

In a few days, Opeth will release their 11th full-length studio album Pale Communion. Prior to release, the album was made available as a live stream, and given that Opeth are one of my absolute favorite bands I was quick to run over and listen for myself.

My opinion, if I'm honest, is a little more mixed than I'd like it to be. On the one hand, they still sound like Opeth. Nobody who knows the band is going to hear this and think "What!? THAT'S Opeth!?!" Additionally, since their last album Heritage  was purely built on the softer side of the band's sound and Mikael Åkerfeldt has been very upfront about moving away from harsh vocals, it's not like this was some horrible surprise that the band suddenly sprung on us. It's just the second album in Opeth's transition from a progressive metal band to a progressive rock band, and that is not in and of itself an entirely bad thing. After all, any group that has been touted for its creativity and vision for a couple decades is quite justifiably bound to change things up at some point and try a new direction. And they've made that shift without losing their integrity, maintaining the dark feeling and core musical identity that they've built over the years, though some critics may disagree with me on that.

. . . but . . .

The simple truth, as far as I'm concerned, is that Opeth's dynamic range has always been one of their greatest weapons. Many bands sound great doing heavy death metal stuff. Likewise, many bands sound great doing prog rock. Some bands have mastered the soft/hard dynamic, fusing the best of both worlds into something greater than the sum of its parts. Opeth were not just one of those masters, though, they were the king. There have been many martial arts film stars, but there's only one Bruce Lee. There have been many soft/hard metal bands, but there's only one Opeth. The level of excellence they attained extends beyond just one niche of metal, too. I think there's a legitimate argument to be made that from roughly 1998 to 2008, Opeth were the single best metal band in the world.

Now that time is gone. The band are a collection of prodigiously talented musicians who have crafted a strong piece of dark, jazz-inflected progressive rock. The album is definitely good. But Opeth are no longer the king of the mountain. They have removed their crown and set forth on a spiritual pilgrimage into the desert. Opeth are still a great band and I wish them well on their travels, but I long for the day when they return to retake their rightful place on the throne.

Grade: B+


  1. I don't disagree with you, although I would put their reign as the greatest metal band from 2001 through 2008, with some serious competition from Mastodon beginning circa 2006. Which for me poses the idea of an interesting exercise in deciding who the kings of metal are. Clearly, Black Sabbath from 1970 through 1975. Also clearly, Metallica from 1984 through at least 1988 (if not 1990). The Opeth argument I think is the next most convincing, along with my argument that it's been Mastodon from some time in 2006-2008 to the present. There's probably a good case to be made for Judas Priest from 1976 through 1984. I think the rest is up for debate. Perhaps Death from 1990 through 1998. I'm not sure who could take the crown from 1998-2001, but I'm not sure Opeth really laid claim to it until Blackwater Park.

  2. The main reason I put Opeth's reign starting in the late '90s is because to my mind Still Life is pretty much on par with Blackwater Park. The latter has more sentimental value for me, but I think the former is every bit as good. Also, as you've noted yourself, there's not really any other more compelling prospect that comes to mind.

    I'm really tempted to try wedging Bathory in there, but sadly their peak years came in from '87-'90, and there's just no way to bump Metallica off that perch.

    If they released material more often I'd argue that Evoken or Primordial are the best metal band in the world right now, but they have each only put out three records in the past 10 years and neither of them had an album last year or this year.

  3. Also, and this is certainly open for debate, but from 1992-1996 I think I'd put Burzum above Death. It's hard, though, because that's where you really start seeing big sub-genre splits.

    1. I was thinking it's a combination of greatness of output and popularity, thus Burzum did not enter my mind (and I would never put that band on any pedestal). That's also the reason I think Opeth's reign starts at 2001, when it appears they first rose to prominence.

    2. Admittedly, I have kind of a thing for early Burzum. Varg is a psycho, but I think he produced the best overall body of work from the Norwegian black metal scene. Since that was probably the most significant metal scene in the early to mid '90s in terms of overall notoriety and impact, I personally feel compelled to acknowledge it in this discussion.

      Still, it may be that at that time metal was pulling in enough different directions that there was no unified championship title, as it were.