Opeth are a band without horizons. Listening to their unrelenting 1995 debut Orchid and their freshly released 11th studio album, Pale Communion, back-to-back is an almost entirely fruitless exercise. They are separated by more than time and space: the former is near unrecognizable from the latter, if it weren’t for the fearsome technical qualities required to produce both records, it would beggar belief that they were created by the same outfit.
The Stockholm five-piece quickly outgrew metal in the modern sense and have been readily labelled prog, not as an insult, but as a catch all for expansive music that won’t sit still long enough to be codified. Strangely though, the prog label has never felt right. Opeth are not progressive in the literal sense; they are not on the cutting edge expanding outwards. Instead, they develop internally, broadening their palette, changing their remit, all the while finding new ways to unlock their rapacious talent. By way of reward they have been crudely slotted into a genre, not because they stand for something abstract, but because they remind us of something tangible.
The oddball stars of the 70s: deranged, brilliant, arguably misguided, but undeniably ambitious. Procol Harum, Eloy, King Crimson, artists who didn’t so much make albums, as oddities that earned feverish devotion and odd glances in equal measure. Opeth delve into those artists’ soundscapes (among others) and colonize them with grand gothic overtures: cramming all those high tech computers and Sci Fi visitations into their cobweb encrusted 14th century cathedral. There is something beautiful about the way Opeth make music’s preposterous extremes conform to their languorous vision.
However, for all the Swedes’ control and clarity of thought, there’s a nagging familiarity that leaves Pale Communion both disappointingly and exhilaratingly rooted in reality. “Elysian Woes” bravely wears its sincerity on its sleeve – at times it sounds like an off cut from Les Miserables, but at its best it’s a reminder that remit busting music can still confront the simplest and purest of sentiments without overawing or underwhelming. It’s a lesson Opeth’s peers would be wise to learn. Don’t hide your intentions beneath a layer of irony, it may well limit your exposure to ridicule, but it denigrates a piece’s potential.
“Goblin” is a pleasingly slight piece of jazz-fusion that achieves its carefree featheriness through tight control and immaculate precision. It is almost impossible to imagine the track booming out of the speakers at either Download or Sonisphere and therein lies another contradiction at the heart of Opeth. Their music is not universal; it sits outside of pop culture while simultaneously thriving within it. “River” is a gorgeous seven-and-a-half-minute odyssey of perfect pop harmonies and lyrical guitar work that should please even the most reluctant ears, and yet, it’s stark jazzy breaks, prog accelerations and that unmistakably nerdy air of the middle ages ensure it never escapes the fringes.
“Voice Of Treason” and “Faith In Others” provide a worthy crescendo to an album that takes the disparate strands of 2011’s Heritage and gives them both purpose and real impetus. The former is a magic carpet ride of despair that swells towards a glorious open-armed and heartily belted vocal climax; the latter allows the instrumental guns to blaze while ensuring the imploring (Muse-like) melody never loses its prominence.
Opeth have arrived at a fully formed sound - a natural end point that leaves room for enough micro-variations to fill another 11 albums – and yet there is still room for evolution. Despite Pale Communion’s considerable achievements, it never quite manages to blow minds in the way the records that inspired its creation did. The prog legends may have made less well rounded and (at times) frankly less good records than this - the 70s pioneers possessed something else entirely, something other.
Pale Communion isn’t a break from rock’s known reality; in fact, it reminds us of our collective past. Opeth have the skill and the ambition to go one better still: to create music only recognizable in its brilliance. Guitar music desperately needs a new horizon and Pale Communion is proof that Opeth are capable of discovering it, but not quite yet.
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