Sucker For Punishment: Eleventh Observation

Last week I mentioned how writers like yours truly like to cart out the phrase “fully realized” upon hearing an album we deem to be a creative zenith, as if to immediately negate anything the artist might have in store in the future. Nope, sorry, this is as good as it will ever get. If anything, it’s best to use the term in retrospect. Daydream Nation, Ege Bamyasi, Rocket to Russia, those are examples of a band’s potential being fully realized. It’s irresponsible to say the same about a band that’s still going, still pushing forward. Besides, with a songwriter like Mikael Åkerfeldt, the man is so perpetually several steps ahead of what anyone expects from him, that we critics are hoodwinked every time. As soon as we get it into out pompous heads that a certain Opeth album feels like something Åkerfeldt has been building towards all these years, he follows it up with something that expands on that idea even more.
What’s especially cute was how 2008’s album Watershed felt like such a bold step forward for Åkerfeldt and Opeth. “The title could not be more appropriate,” I wrote then. Sheesh. If I only knew. In actuality, his true watershed moment was ditching the extreme metal element from his songwriting once and for all. It’s amazing that the solution to his personal creative stasis was so stupidly simple, but it was a mental block that took him years to get over: instead of making the kind of music you feel obligated to make for your longtime fans, why not make the kind of music you personally want to listen to, and try to still keep it within the overall Opeth aesthetic? If you don’t like to listen to death metal anymore, don’t play death metal anymore. It’s as simple as that. And incredibly, Åkerfeldt made it work on 2011’s inspired Heritage, which was both a reinvention of his band and the most natural possible progression.

In the end, that’s what it’s all about for progressive rock and metal bands: progression. It’s a career-long journey, and part of the fun of the best progressive music is that when it’s happening before your eyes it feels so daring, even baffling, but in the grand scheme of things, when you take a look at that discography after 20 or 30 years, it all somehow makes sense. There have been some significant leaps for Opeth, from Orchid, to Blackwater Park, to Damnation, to Ghost Reveries, to Heritage, but grouped all together, it’s a remarkable career arc the man has created over the past couple decades. And when you crack open the latest new Opeth album and finish listening to the last track, the question that always remains is, Well, where could it possibly go from here?

In the case of Pale Communion (Roadrunner), what listeners get this time around is a lot more consistent that Heritage, which for all its great moments is in retrospect a rather charming mishmash of styles, the sound of Åkerfeldt finding himself all over again, starting essentially from scratch. In fact, the guitarist and singer has never sounded more comfortable with where he is creatively as he does on the new album, exploring numerous facets of vintage progressive rock. Touches of Deep Purple, Goblin, Jethro Tull, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, King Crimson, and more can be heard throughout this album, but it’s far from a quaint “retro” exercise, as Åkerfeldt uses those decades-old sounds as a launching pad for something that feels neither old-fashioned nor modern, but timeless, something completely his own.

For all the bellyaching about how Opeth isn’t “metal” anymore – please, can we let that whole thing die already? – there are still plenty of moments of darkness and striking power on Pale Communion. Only unlike Opeth’s early work, the musical palette Åkerfeldt draws from is so much richer, to the point where it’s not merely the black-and-white “light and shade” that was his forte for so long. Instead, it consists of splashes of color everywhere, those deep black brushstrokes offset by hues and tones that bring warmth, mystery, and soul.

In fact, structurally this is the most complex Opeth album since 2002’s Deliverance. The bulk of the album consist of tracks ranging from seven minutes to 11, each winding their way through Åkerfeldt’s trademark labyrinthine paths. Typically, Pale Communion doesn’t require the listener to study, but it does need time to settle in. It’s a trip that has to be taken four or five times before being able to get a handle on it, akin to sitting at a window on a train and taking in as much that rolls by as you can. A little jazz fusion here, a little playful funk there. Eastern melodies. Mellotron. Rich vocal harmonies that conjure comparisons to Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. Touches of string synths that add cinematic flair. Classical guitar appearing, and gone in a flash.

It all sounds so arbitrary, but that’s where the man’s skill as a songwriter works to this record’s great advantage. There are diversions, tangents, but songs never lose sight of their goal, but that resolution is often a lot more understated than, say, songs like “Deliverance” and “Blackwater Park”. And in the end, after several listens, you’re struck by your own impressions of these eight tracks. The taut “Cusp of Eternity” evokes heavy metal better than most extreme-minded bands this year. “River” is so pastoral sounding that it’s striking. “Goblin” is so damn Goblin-esque it’s practically a love letter to Claudio Simonetti. The beautiful “Faith in Others” is the best mellow track he has ever written, genuine feeling surpassing mere craftsmanship. And “Moon Above, Sun Below” is a classic Opeth epic, in which the entire band – whose supporting work on the entire album cannot be overlooked – coalesces in typically exhilarating fashion.

And of course, you’re left wondering where Åkerfeldt and Opeth will go next. But it’s also a feeling of contentment, of knowing that the master of modern progressive rock/heavy metal has never sounded more confident as a songwriter, guitarist, and singer. Again, it’s tempting to call this “peak Akerfeldt”, but it seems I say this every single time, and if you ask the guy, like any supreme talent he’ll never tell you he’s content. That perpetual lack of complacency is what makes this band so special. At this point, his audience will gladly take whatever he offers next, but in the meantime there’s Pale Communion, Opeth’s most rewarding album in many years, to take in again and again.

Also out this week:

Bastard Sapling, Instinct Is Forever (Gilead): When I first heard Bastard Sapling’s song “Lantern at the End of Time”, I practically leaped out of my seat, I was that excited to hear such a spellbinding combination of classic Hammerheart-era Bathory and vocal incantations reminiscent of Coven. It’s a glorious 11 minutes, as impeccable a black metal tune I’ve heard all year, and needless to say I was greatly looking forward to hearing the rest of the band’s new album. Typical of any other overhyped American album, sadly, Instinct is Forever is mostly bluster with very little payoff, in this case reverting to rote black metal arrangements with not enough imagination shown. It does have its moments, as “Elder”, “The Killer in Us All”, and “Forbidden Sorrow” show great promise, but nothing on this record comes remotely close to the perfection of that one highlight. Sample it via Bandcamp.

Chainbreaker, Constant Graving (self-released): This came out back in January, but this week is deadsville, and better late than never. This Toronto band features current and former members of Cauldron, Rammer, and Burn to Black, and can easily be seen as a combination of Midnight and Toxic Holocaust. In other words, filthy, no-frills thrash derived from Venom and Sodom, equal parts maniacal and catchy, with plenty of bad taste on display, right down to the cassette cover, which is crude but definitely, erm, memorable.  Hells Headbangers might want to sign these fellas ASAP. It’s available as a name-your-price download via Bandcamp. Go get it.

Circle II Circle, Live at Wacken (Armoury): I’ve never minded Zak Stevens’ affable Savatage knock-off, the prog/power tunes always decently executed and sung well by Stevens. But in this album’s case, it’s being billed as some sort of triumphant live album at the world’s biggest metal festival. That’s what they always say, when in reality it’s just another one of more than 100 bands playing over four exhausting days. And you can feel it on this recording. The silence from the crowd is deafening. There are some fans present, but mostly it’s the sound of people patiently taking in a band on a quaint side stage before moving on to the next. A god live album has a palpable energy conjured by both the band and its audience, and that’s just not happening here.

English Dogs, The Thing With Two Heads (Candlelight): I vaguely remember English Dogs from back in the day. And by “the day”, I mean a quarter century ago. This band didn’t impress me at all then, and this current incarnation does absolutely nothing either, an awkward combination of hardcore punk and thrash-derived metal that never gels.

Force of Darkness, Absolute Verb of Chaos and Darkness (Hells Headbangers): Nothing but no-frills, thrashy black metal fun on this lively little EP by the Chilean band. Tailor made for those interested in the filthier side of thrash, namely very early Sodom and Sarcofago.

Machinae Supremacy, Phantom Shadow (Spinefarm): If you think your power metal just isn’t right without corny Commodore 64 music, then this Swedish band has you covered. Frankly, I find it unbearable, but if it floats your boat, be my guest.

Sea of Bones, The Earth Wants Us Dead (Gilead): If the kind of doom you’re after is the sludgy sort, the kind that delves, deep, deep into the sludgier side of the genre to uncover something darker and uglier than the more melodic, blues-derived aspect of the sound, then you can’t go wrong with this Connecticut band. Typically it’s powerful to the point of mortifying when they slow things down to a droning, funereal pace, but it’s moments like the Neurosis-like “Black Arm” and the multifaceted “Failure of Light” where this album becomes truly exhilarating. Even the 39-minute drone piece that concludes the album is remarkable in its discipline and moodiness. You know what you’re going to get with Sea of Bones, and that still doesn’t prepare you for the wickedness they have in store. If you missed out on this fine album last year like I did, a new triple LP vinyl reissue is out now. Listen via Bandcamp.

X-Drive, Get Your Rock On (Frontiers): In which journeyman musicians – including James Lomenzo, formerly of Megadeth and White Lion – revisit the watered down cock rock of 1989 with a more, erm, “modern” sensibility. Which means it sounds exactly like Nickelback, with almost as much smarm, and zero charm. Go listen to the new Kix album instead.

Not metal, but worth hearing:

The New Pornographers, Brill Bruisers (Matador): For 15 years – wow, how time flies – The New Pornographers have served as a very welcome, sunny respite from a declining increasingly boring indie rock scene, a reminder that a simple, beautiful hook will lift your spirits more than sounding precious and looking fashionable. These old Vancouver friends have always had remarkable chemistry on record, and this sixth album ranks as one of their best. Again, it’s led by A.C. Newman, whose Jeff Lynne-via-Bacharach pop sensibility meshes so well with his enigmatic lyrics, accentuated so well by the great Neko Case, who serves as the perfect vocal foil on “Champions of Red Wine” and “Fantasy Fools”. Inimitable Destroyer impresario Dan Bejar, who always does his best work with this band, hits a high note with the playful “War on the East Coast” and the more incessant “Born With a Sound”. Initially intended as a one-off project, this band has become one of the most enduring, endearing indie bands of our time, and this album fires on all cylinders.

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