Pale Communion is a richly appointed collection of progressive rock that continues the approach of 2011’s Heritage, while refining and expanding the style that characterized that troubling (to some) transitional album. Everything on Pale Communion—the production, the material, the performances—hangs together more logically than on Heritage. The songs travel through candlelit corridors, sidestep into a series of cobwebbed chambers and pull back curtains to reveal fascinating vistas. They’re as diverse, comfortable and confident as you’d expect from a band with a legacy as rich as Opeth’s.
Still, the band manages to spring some surprises amongst the familiar Opeth motifs, especially when it comes to vocals. There’s more emphasis on out-and-out singing than ever before, and Mikael Åkerfeldt’s choice to work “clean” doesn’t mean his delivery lacks variety. The multi-tracked vocals on “Eternal Rains Will Come” and “River” are striking and effective. He also lays his voice bare on “Faith in Others” during passages where there’s little music for support, and the entire song depends on an impeccable vocal performance. The rest of the band is in great form on Pale Communion, but it’s Åkerfeldt who probably stretches his talents the furthest.
“Cusp of Eternity” is a straight-ahead hard rock song in the Rainbow or Maiden mold, somewhat light in the loafers compared to how those older bands might have performed it, but still effective in how it rumbles along. “Moon Above, Sun Below” is a classic light-and-shade Opeth song, thoroughly satisfying in its extended linear construction. After that eerie trip, there are two more highlights in “Goblin” and “River.” “Goblin” maintains its Italian horror disco guise until it surrenders to an elaborate end section. Martin Axenrot’s funky drumming elevates the whole piece—he’s on fire through the whole album, in fact. “River” combines a number of elements—Nick Drake, early Genesis, Camel and whatever else might have been caroming around Åkerfeldt’s head—yet it coalesces beautifully to become the absolute high point of the album. This is one for the Opeth canon.
After “River,” the album halts its winning streak, ending with two linked tracks that are pleasant but allow the album to peter out rather than climb to an emphatic conclusion. “Voice of Treason” is a middle-eastern inflected song that reaches a bombastic rock climax and fades away with a delicate, barely there outro. “Faith in Others” goes into full-on Moody Blues mode, full of orchestral swells and guitar-free for half its length. The song’s melodrama will probably make it the most polarizing track on the album. It’s elegant and occasionally stirring, but I can imagine the song going over like a turd in a punchbowl with fans if the band tried to pull this off in concert.
How you regard Pale Communion will depend on how much you’ve enjoyed Opeth these last few years. It’s not as wilfully contrarian as Heritage and not as eccentric as Watershed, which is still, I think, their most progressive album. They’ve offered a lot of outstanding material and a few future-classic songs on Pale Communion, but those who haven’t forgiven Opeth their “transgressions” of the recent past should continue to steer clear.