2017’s In the Passing Light of Day—a.k.a. Remedy Lane Pt. II—was sort of a return to form for Pain of Salvation. Sure, they’ve always been one of the most idiosyncratic and audacious (yet dependable) progressive metal acts, but the two Road Salt albums found them leaning a bit too much toward simplified hard rock. Likewise, 2004’s BE and 2007’s Scarsick, however bold and eclectic, have always been quite divisive. (You could count 2014’s Falling Home as a studio album, too, but it was really just a series of reinterpretations.) Thus, the group needed an album that upheld the specialties of their initial releases, presented fresh ideas, and pleased most fans; In the Passing Light of Day did all of that, so the anticipation for its follow-up was immensely high.
Luckily, Panther satisfies—if not exceeds—those expectations. In our recent chat, Daniel Gildenlöw specified that the album’s concept revolves around sorting “society into binary groups of method-rationalists and goal-rationalists. Or, administrative people vs. passion people. Dogs vs. panthers. Normal vs. spectrum.” In other words, it challenges common views of normality and abnormality in terms of human behavior, mental capabilities, and the like. As longtime fans know, such intellectual/philosophical quandaries and metaphors are an inherent part of the group’s DNA; similarly, the music on Panther—perhaps best described as a continuation of its predecessor combined with the earthy coarseness of One Hour By the Concrete Lake and the staggering variety of Scarsick—is familiar but renewed. It’s not as unified or emotionally resonant as its predecessor, but it is riskier and more surprising, making it a very fulfilling next chapter.
Lead single “Accelerator” kicks things off spectacularly, conjuring the heavy/light changes of “On a Tuesday”—from Passing Light—as commandingly irregular rhythms, cosmic synths, and characteristic sonic manipulations coat Gildenlöw’s trademark dominant-then-delicate singing. He remains one of the most authentic and technically capable vocalists in the genre, offering lines such as “We give you the brilliant, the crazy, the fools / The gifted and the troubled / You normals will follow the ones you choose / Now, maybe that's the problem” to set-up the LP’s overarching message. Though easily recognizable by devotees, it’s nonetheless a haunting and powerful way to begin.
With its hypnotic piano and guitar counterpoints placed alongside charismatically heartbreaking melodies, “Wait” instantly becomes one of Pain of Salvation’s most beautiful and compelling ballads to date. It’s matched by a darker counterpart, “Keen to a Fault,” that houses a comparable structure instrumentally and vocally, yet also gets heavier and stranger (in good ways). There’s also closer “Icon,” which totally achieves Gildenlöw’s intention to be a sibling to the finale of the last album, “The Passing Light of Day.” It’s another purposefully elongated (just over thirteen minutes) and contemplative ode with comparable approaches to sparseness and self-reflection. If push comes to shove, the other track is moderately more impactful, but this one is still quite affective, and it’s probably at least a bit more elaborate and ambitious musically. Confessions such as “I couldn’t wait to be a man / Grown-ups seem to handle life just fine / But here I am, still terrified / See, growing up just teaches you how to smile” hit hard, and they’re made more evocative by the vocals and timbres that complement them.
As for the allusions to prior LPs, they’re most transparent on a few tracks. For instance, the bristly tones and sinister narration of “Unfuture” truly result in what could be a leftover from Concrete Lake; in contrast, “Restless Boy” starkly juxtaposes electronic serenity and impatient viciousness in ways that undoubtedly conjure Scarsick. The title track possesses similar dichotomies amidst hip-hop verses that’ll surely polarize some listeners (so it naturally recalls their sixth studio collection, too). Lastly, the penultimate “Species” is folky yet relatively direct and accessible, so it wouldn’t have been out of place on one of the Road Salt records. Rather than come off like unoriginal repeats, these links to past sequences (whether intentional or not) make Panther feel remarkably wide-ranging and all-encompassing.
If In the Passing Light of Day saw Gildenlöw reflecting on his mortality, marriage, and personal life in general, Panther sees him reflecting on the history of Pain of Salvation itself (at least musically). It manages to culminate virtually every style they’ve tried beforehand without ever coming across as repetitious or lazy; rather, it proves how cleverly and meaningfully they can retool previous winning formulas to yield something innovative and fascinating. That, plus the poetic but blunt social commentaries that run from start to finish, results in an album that’s not only great, but downright necessary. Over the past twenty-some years, Pain of Salvation have ebbed and flowed a bit in terms of quality and/or fan reception, but they’ve always stayed mostly one-of-a-kind. Panther is no exception, and it deserves to be revered not only as one of the band’s best efforts, but also as one of the best albums of 2020.