“Pale Communion” revives Swedish metal group Opeth

It’s probably safe to say that most music fans are skeptical when their favorite bands begin to change. Sure, many will profess that so long as an artist stays true to his or her vision, any number of stylistic shifts will be accepted, but there’s a fine line that so often exists with shifting tides. When that line is crossed, relationships are often left in ruins and listeners are left coping with imaginary betrayals.

That’s certainly the scenario playing out for Swedish metal titans, Opeth, who strayed completely from their metallic roots and swore to the path of throwback seventies rock with 2011’s disastrous “Heritage.” Sure enough, there’s been a feverish swell of negativity surrounding Opeth’s expanded progressive sensibilities and frankly, most of the storm has been warranted.

“Pale Communion,” Opeth’s follow-up to that horrendous effort, makes an admirable attempt to repair the sinking ship, sporting numerous improvements in songwriting and execution, even if it won’t be remembered as a newly minted classic in the band’s monumental catalog.

Comprised mainly of standard rock instrumentation, “Pale Communion” never dares to venture beyond the borders of ’70s progressive sounds.

Guitars, bass, drums, synthesizer and even strings make appearances throughout the record for an hour’s worth of extended jams. For the most part, this throwback style works to the band’s advantage, as it certainly seems as if Opeth has learned from its past mistakes.

Songs such as the album’s opener “Eternal Rains Will Come” go a long way toward restoring faith in the band’s ability to craft intelligent, competent music. Unlike much of Opeth’s previous outing, the song weaves through a number of various sections with a natural ease, flowing less like molasses and more like a river from one musical passage to the next.

The intense instrumental jam opening the track eventually subsides, giving way to the somber lamentation of plaintive keys. Moments later, the full band kicks back into play for a series of acoustic-driven verses sung in harmony. It’s a truly beautiful moment and one of the album’s highlights but also a statement of renewed energy for a group who only three years ago seemed teetering on the edge of no return.

Similarly, “Voice of Treason” is such a successful song because it sticks to only a handful of ideas without over-extending itself. Whereas the band’s previous record wandered from one idea to the next without any concern for cohesive songwriting, this eight-minute piece sticks largely to Eastern scales, bombastic drumming and soaring strings. The end result is nothing short of epic, truly one of the band’s best songs in recent years.

Unfortunately, Opeth’s eleventh studio outing isn’t without fault, some of which threaten to permanently derail the album. The main offender here is the ponderous, tepid “Moon Above, Sun Below,” which more than successfully apes the patchwork songcraft that plagued the band’s previous album.

The rest of the album, while not bad by any means, doesn’t do much more than serve as an acceptable tribute to days of rock long since passed. Sure, each song is competently performed by all musicians involved, but the listener can’t help but feel as if this once forward-thinking band’s talent is wasted on such a needless retrospective.

Verdict: Opeth conjures a serviceable slab of retro rock, but “Pale Communion” never reaches the colossal heights of past works.

Score: B-