Opeth’s transition from a progressive death metal juggernaut into a metal-free progressive rock group (rife with vintage keyboards and nods to King Crimson and Genesis) should have come to the surprise of no one, with the possible exception of infants or people who only heard Orchid in the mid ‘90s then promptly forgot about the band until 2011 when Heritage was released.
Perhaps not even that. Even Orchid displayed plenty of progressive rock leanings and a generous amount of acoustic guitar passages that would lead anyone to believe that Mikael Ǻkerfeldt and his crew were clearly listening to more than their Swedish contemporaries Entombed and Dismember in their spare time. Anyone following the band after Orchid should also be aware of 2003’s Damnation, an album of much lighter material devoid of death growls that was very far from anything “metal” eight years before Heritage saw the light of day. Yet, some people still cried out in shock upon first listening to Heritage. Regardless, anyone hoping that it was just another brief foray into lighter territories would be disappointed yet again by their latest offering, Pale Communion, another disc of prog rock that is cut from the same cloth as their previous one, but while Heritage sounded like the band trying really hard to be vintage prog, Pale Communion sounds like the band literally came from that era, minus some modern flourishes.
Heritage was by no means a bad album, but it gave off a feeling of the band still trying to find its place in a style that they were so intent on succeeding in. With Pale Communion, the band sounds fully confident in their songwriting abilities, and have even brought back lengthy, multi-faceted song structures reminiscent of classic albums like Still Life and Ghost Reveries and applied them to their new musical direction, like on the ten minute “Moon Above, Sun Below” witch features all the drama, darkness, and unpredictability of their best material that extends past the ten minute mark from their past. In all, Opeth sounds absolutely deft in its approach to recreate classic progressive rock, but with modern production and instrumental technique. The “awe” factor that wasn’t quite there with Heritage is on full display here, like on the thrilling instrumental “Goblin” or the symphonic rock dirge “Voice of Treason”. Both of these tracks show Opeth fully distancing themselves from their musical past while doing their very best to craft a sound that suits them in the present, and it builds upon the foundation of Heritage in an impressive way. The closing track “Faith in Others” in particular perfectly sums up the album’s intent of revisiting the glory days of progressive rock, and the way this track begins with its gorgeous strings and flute is almost overwhelming. In fact, it sounds an awful lot like the beginning of “Starless” by King Crimson…
Which leads to the biggest criticism to be had against this record: it technically isn’t progressive. It does an A+ job of recreating the past in a very convincing way, but one must realize that that’s actually the opposite of what progressive is supposed to be. “Retro-prog” is a humorous oxymoron, and that is precisely where this album sits in the grand scheme of rock music, and you either love it as a fan of the ‘70s prog rock sound or hate it as a shameless rip-off. Opeth do an admirable job playing tribute to the past triumphs of their selected style, but some points are certainly going to be knocked off if their next effort treads the same water.