Opeth have long demonstrated a flair for classic prog rock from day one, but 2011's Heritage found the band jettisoning all pretense of metal in favor of Mikael Åkerfeldt's punchy, often upbeat derivation of UK bands like Genesis and Caravan. In spite of a long, logical progression toward a distilled all-prog sound, Heritage failed to benefit from the nearly unanimous acclaim Opeth had enjoyed since the mid-90's (Brandon Stosuy, writing for Pitchfork, found that it "too often feels like a passive, backward glance"). The following year's Storm Corrosion side project similarly failed to catch on, which leaves Åkerfeldt entering 2014 in an unfamiliar position: uncertainty.
While Åkerfeldt is widely considered both centerpiece and mastermind of the band – reasonably so, considering he writes all the songs and has been the sole recurring member – it cannot be overstated how much sway Steven Wilson has held sway over Åkerfeldt ever since 2001's landmark Blackwater Park. Wilson's band, Porcupine Tree, has been at the prog game since the late 80's, plying similar acid rock-infused material with little-to-no crossover appeal to metal heads. While he can't realistically be said to have redirected Åkerfeldt along lines that the latter wasn't already keen on following, Wilson's work on production, mixing and sometimes session musician has certainly had a noticeable impact in honing in on and speeding up Åkerfeldt's death-to-prog transition.
Storm Corrosion saw the two working together as equals, the project doing little better than Heritage at winning over the headbanging crowd. This year's new Opeth effort, Pale Communion, features artwork that has a couple of quotes you can't help but feel are directed at the punters:
"Don't you know, my son, with how little wisdom the world is governed?" (An nesci, mi fili, quantilla prudentia mundus regatur?) — Axel Oxenstierna
"In these days friends are won through flattery, the truth gives birth to hate." (Hoc tempore obsequium amicos, veritas odium parit) — Terence
Touché, I guess. I found Heritage, while perhaps a bit too slavish to its influences, otherwise too well written and executed to be slighted (ditto Storm Corrosion), so I guess that makes me one of the "good ones". It doesn't necessarily make me any more or less likely than others to be either thrilled or non-plussed at Pale Communion. For you see, Åkerfeldt is once again at his curve balls.
No, there is no more hint of metal here than there was on Heritage – a return to Opeth's death metal roots seems as far away as ever – but from the Keith Emerson-like organ riff that opens "Eternal Rains Will Come", it's clear that Åkerfeldt plans on reacquainting himself with the old instrumental wizardry that was jettisoned almost entirely for Heritage. While never really aspiring to full on shred, the musicianship does give the album a less confined air than the comparatively flat, boxed in exotica of Heritage.
Speaking of flat, Åkerfeldt's fairly monotonous clean singing voice starts to show marked signs of improvement on cuts like "Cusp of Eternity"; he's not entirely there yet, but at least he's modulating for a change. It makes a huge difference, as his clean voice has always been merely capable at best, and remains the most ordinary quotient in an otherwise extraordinary formula. There are also a lot more two- and three-part harmonies here; it's unclear from the credits whether the other band members are now singing back up or if Åkerfeldt just layered his own vocals in the mix, but it takes a bit of the weight off as far as having to carry a pretty lyric-heavy album (still, on stuff like "Elysian Woes" it's patently obvious that the man has been studying his James LaBrie).
Also making a huge impact here is Martin Axenrot, who goes positively apeshit on tracks such as "Moon Above, Sun Below" after being kept largely caged for Heritage. He and the other Martin (Mendez, bass) anchor a rhythm section whose purpose isn't just there to stay out of the guitarist's way. Replacing the departed Per Wilberg on keys is Joakim Svalberg, who joined Opeth shortly after the recording of the previous record, so with three years of playing with the other members under his belt he sounds like an old hand here; Åkerfeldt gives him almost Jon Lord-like freedom to jam throughout the album (the organ/guitar duel toward the end of "River" is vintage fucking Deep Purple).
Aside from a bit of sitar on "Voice of Treason", Pale Communion feels less period-piece and much more like a modern prog album than Heritage did. The production is far more expansive, recalling the spacious mixes on old Pink Floyd and newer Dream Theater albums, and just in general Åkerfeldt seems to feel more his own man here, unafraid to embrace a metal-less prog rock on his own terms the way he was with the tribute band songwriting on Heritage. Pale Communion is not a perfect album – the acoustic moments like "Elysian Woes" and "Faith in Others" don't quite shine with inspiration the way the uptempo numbers do – but it's very nearly a masterpiece, and even the relatively dull moments are inevitably redeemed by a fresh turn of phrase. Åkerfeldt may not have fully silenced the naysayers he's picked up over the past few years, but he's done us one better: prove that he's a man of his own muse.