When Elton John so judiciously opined that an aged Keith Richards possessed about as much stage presence as an arthritic monkey, he was effectively giving voice to a dynamic that has long been present in popular music: the tendency to look upon icons with increasing suspicion and decreasing interest as they age. This convention is, of course, not entirely arbitrary. One would be hard pressed to argue that Kiss, Metallica and the Rolling Stones are presently anything more than a pale reflection of the original ascendants to fame. However, like all conventions, this one sometimes fails to accord with reality; it is belied by the numerous artists who sharpened their craft (The Flaming Lips), refined their technique (Bill Steer), or successfully reinvented themselves (Scott Walker) after their early rise to fame.
For a metal band like Opeth, with an intense but picky fanbase, reinvention is really the riskiest response to aging. There were already grumblings about them losing vitriol – becoming a little “jangly” — in the wake of 2008’s Watershed, even though its severe lean towards progressive rock was successful overall. When they took the next step and abandoned metal on the follower, Heritage, they ceased pushing boundaries and instead became imitative of past styles – a grievous wrong turn for their career. With this year’s Pale Communion, instead of recovering, Opeth has cemented their direction.
Whereas Heritage was heavily indebted to Pink Floyd, Pale Communion clearly shows its engagement with the more radical, jazz-inflected strains of progressive rock (Soft Machine, King Crimson, Emerson, Lake & Palmer). This is actually an improvement on its predecessor, because Akerfeldt & co. show the technical ability to back up their complex, indulgent compositions. Impressive technique is thus the most attractive aspect of Pale Communion, beginning with the surprising reinterpretation of a riff from “The Grand Conjuration” in the opener, “Eternal Rains Will Come,” and running through a very worthy homage to Goblin in “Goblin.” With its intricate arrangements, replete with swaths of Mellotron and organ, the album functions as a testament to the considerable grandiloquence that Opeth is capable of at this point in their career.
I wonder why, then, that none of the songs hit home. For all the emphasis on melody and euphoniousness here (and there is a lot), none of the melodies (especially those on the first two tracks) really carry or evoke the intensity of emotion that Akerfeldt’s lyrics intimate. For all its compositional intricacy, the multi-part, 11-minute centerpiece, “Moon Above, Sun Below” comes off as utterly devoid of passion. In fact, there is no suggestion anywhere on Pale Communion that the rousing dynamics and fervid tension which were once Opeth’s forte are going to return. Instead, the band is doubling down on their old-man prog, proudly retreading the old successes and failures of their predecessors.