Opeth‘s 2011 album Heritage was, no doubt, a shock to many. The complete lack of death growls, to say nothing of the relative dearth of heavy distorted riffs, seemed to fly in the face of the notion that Opeth was at the top of the progressive metal heap.
But the question of Opeth has never been, “Prog?”; rather, it has been “How much prog?” Over the course of the band’s now almost 20 year existence, its roots in death metal slowly began to dissolve in favor of a dynamic, suite-oriented song structure reminiscent of classic progressive rock, a genre favored by magnetic frontman Mikael Åkerfeldt. Still Life (1999) and Blackwater Park (2001) were the major signposts of this transition, but they were only the beginning. By the time 2005’s labyrinthine masterpiece Ghost Reveries came around, Opeth’s brand was perfectly crystallized: suite-like, epic songs that balance the death metal of the band’s early days with both progressive rock and acoustic folk. For Heritage to largely forgo the metal end of that sonic (save for the rollicking Ronnie James Dio tribute “Slither”) was easily construed by many as the group abandoning all of the success it had made in forging one of modern metal’s most distinctive sounds.
There were, however, signs leading up to this transformation, aside from the pretty obvious indicators that Åkerfeldt was leading Opeth in this direction. With 2008’s Watershed, Åkerfeldt aimed at creating what he called “the heavy metal version of Scott Walker‘s The Drift,” a feat he did not fully aim for only because, according to the album notes for Watershed, “His [Scott’s] head is sicker than mine and I also love melodies and dynamics.” Opeth still has yet to make the prog metal Drift, but Åkerfeldt’s insatiable tastes for both prog and progression are as palpable as ever. Pale Communion, the band’s 11th studio outing, continues the progression that Heritage so divisively did—and goes the necessary step further.
The Anglo-American poet T.S. Eliot once said, “Every great work of art retroactively changes its entire past.” His words are helpful in understanding the success of Pale Communion, although his words here require some modification. In this case, Pale Communion casts a new light on Opeth’s recent history, Heritage particularly. The latter is a fine album indeed, but compared to Opeth’s other work, it is compositionally less savvy than the group’s “metal” years. Records like Blackwater Park and Ghost Reveries have a flow to them; though being broke up into individual songs, each feels like a definite whole, which is but one of the reasons why each remain Opeth’s best LPs. Heritage, by contrast, feels more piecemeal, with the songs being individuated in overt ways. Tracks like “The Devil’s Orchard” and “I Feel the Dark” display the chameleonic structures of classic Opeth, but less substantially than classics like “The Drapery Falls” and “The Ghost of Perdition”.
Pale Communion, however, is the sound of a band slipping comfortably into the rhythms that we’ve come to expect of it. It’s an album that has the ebb and flow of Blackwater Park and the Comus-indebted prog of Heritage. Listening to Pale Communion, it’s much easier to see the shortcomings of Heritage. Eliot’s words here ring true; Pale Communion clarifies just how far Opeth has come, and casts new light on the (mis)steps the group has taken in embracing vintage prog. (A helpful comparative that gets at the sense of history being jumbled by this LP comes from Greg Kennelty of Metal Injection, who said after his early listen of the album, “I’d say this record is either the missing link between Damnation  and Ghost Reveries or if Heritage was written directly after Ghost Reveries without Watershed having ever existed.”)
Opener “Eternal Rains Will Come” kicks things off with a sweeping gesture of unsubtlety, with pumping electric organs building anticipation for the introduction of Åkerfeldt’s guitar. Not long after, Åkerfeldt and guitarist Fredrik Åkesson dive in to the acoustic/electric guitar interplay that is an integral part of Ghost Reveries. “Eternal Rains” rises and falls in a dramatic fashion, setting a potent stage for what’s to come over the remaining seven tracks. Though retro prog is the unifying thread that brings these songs together, there is plenty of diversity in terms of song structure. The ten-minute epic “Moon Above, Sun Below” is the most identifiably Opethian tune here. “Elysian Woes” hearkens back to the subtly jazzy, melancholy Damnation, which, like this album, finds Åkerfeldt saving his vocal cords from the rips and tears that come with death growling. Closing number “Faith in Others” is gracefully bookended with sweeping strings, which brings Pale Communion to its satisfying close. “Goblin” is as prog as prog gets, a rhythmically complex instrumental that could either be a tribute to the classic prog band of the same name or about goblins—because, well, prog.
But it’s “River” that stands as the truest representation of Opeth’s progression into further prog. The cut is a seven-minute whirlwind that begins as a primarily acoustic pop number, with what has to be the catchiest chorus the group has ever written. The second half then kicks things up into another prog overdrive, with guitars and organs bouncing off each other energetically, in a way not unlike the great releases by Yes did. “River” is impressive as a complete package, but it’s that first half that’s jaw-dropping; fans of ‘80’s radio rock would feel right at home in the chorus’ gorgeous vocal harmonies and exuberant guitar chords. It’s so strong that it might even get those averse to prog to find the mellotron-backed passages following “River’s” chorus to admit the tape instrument is kinda cool.
A common denominator between Pale Communion and Opeth essentials like Blackwater Park is Steven Wilson, who returns here as the record’s mixer. Wilson was a big part of the reason why Heritage sounds the way it does; he and Åkerfeldt, self-described “best buddies”, wrote Storm Corrosion, their off-kilter collaboration LP, at the same time as Heritage (and Wilson’s Grace for Drowning), and the sonic continuity between the three is obvious. Blackwater Park hugely benefited from Wilson’s songwriting contributions, but here he wisely exercises control only over the mixing board, leaving Åkerfeldt and his merry band of prodigious musicians to crank out some of the most impressive tunes of their career.
This isn’t to say, however, that Opeth’s choice to leave behind the heavy riffs and growled vocals isn’t one that leaves many rightly in want for the old days. Losing those elements does necessitate that one shade of the band’s multifaceted style is now gone. No longer can Åkerfeldt dazzlingly switch from gutteral roars to his clean vocals in the way that he does on “Ghost of Perdition”. The groovy metal riffs of cuts like “The Funeral Portrait” are certainly missed. But as Pale Communion attests, in leaving behind metal, Opeth isn’t limiting its chances for contrast in its songwriting; rather, it is making itself find new ways to make the sonic contrasts it is so well known for. It’s never easy to bid farewell to the style of a band one has come to love, but Pale Communion is not only a stellar set of tunes, but it also challenges audience expectations in an important way. Essentially, with this record, Opeth asks the question: would you rather be placated by a favorite band with the same (albeit excellent) material album after album, or would you rather have that band take you on a journey, even if it comes with a little risk?
Fans of progressive rock can (rather ironically) be averse to change. On their own, suite-like songs with lots of flashy instrumentation seem impressive, but as Dream Theater‘s last several records attest, even too much of that can get boring. Opeth is acutely aware of this, and Pale Communion is perhaps the defining document of this group’s ability to make progressive rock feel genuinely progressive.