Album of the Month: Opeth – ‘Pale Communion’

It’ll be no surprise to anyone who’s been reading this blog for a while to see Opeth mentioned here again. They’ve been one of my favourite bands ever since I discovered them, well over a decade ago, and their music has seen me through thick and thin. Although a metal band in their early days, Opeth’s music has very much drifted into the progressive spectrum with recent albums, a shift that has divided old fans but brought them legions of new ones. Am I sometimes a little nostalgic for the old, death metal Opeth? Yes. However, I’ve long been a prog fan too, and ‘Pale Communion’ proves just how perfectly Opeth have been able to embrace the genre.

Although their previous album also had strong progressive leanings, ‘Pale Communion’ is a very different beast. Whereas ‘Heritage’ never quite seemed to find its rhythm, sometimes sounding a bit too laboured, ‘Pale Communion’ is entirely cohesive, working best – as many prog albums do – when listened to from start to finish. And what a start that is! There’s simply no mistaking the opening song, ‘Eternal Rains Will Come’, for anything other than prog rock (in case you missed what has to be a reference to ELP’s ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’ with the cover), and the rest of the album follows suit. There are guitar solos, synths aplenty, and the whole is overlaid with Mikael Åkerfeldt’s soft, ever-mesmerising vocals.

This isn’t just a pastiche of 70s prog rock, though. The whole album certainly leans in that direction (and there are moments that are pure Argent or Camel), but there are so many complex, intriguing hints here at something greater. There are riffs that could easily have come from one of the band’s earlier albums (the start of ‘Elysian Woes’ strongly hints at ‘Damnation’, for example), yet the two styles mesh perfectly together, forming a coherent sound that’s as compelling as it is intricate.

It’s fair to say that I really love this album. It grows on me every time I listen to it, revealing new subtleties and new layers. If you’ve previously been an Opeth fan, I’d say give it a try: it’s different from their earlier work, certainly, but so much of the complexity I’ve always loved in their music is still here. At its core though, ‘Pale Communion’ is both a tribute to 70s progressive rock and a perfect example of how much life there still is in the genre – and how looking to the past for inspiration isn’t always a step backwards.

Album of the Month: ‘Shelter’ by Alcest

It’s fair to say that ‘Album of the Month’ hasn’t actually been monthly for a long time now, but I haven’t lost my desire to occasionally blog about my favourite bands and albums. Today’s post: ‘Shelter’, the new album by French metal/shoegaze band Alcest.

Alcest have a bit of a strange reputation in metal circles. Ever since their first release, it seems, so-called ‘fans’ have been lambasting them for not being ‘metal enough’, particularly as each new album seems to take another step away from the genre. ‘Shelter’ is no exception, and really has shed every last black metal influence the band ever had, to produce a melodic, dreamy shoegaze sort of sound that’s both different and still unmistakeably Alcest.

And it’s fair to say that ‘Shelter’ really couldn’t have come from any other band, regardless of the change in direction. The vocals remain in singer Neige’s soft, muted style, almost buried beneath the rest of the music – which becomes even more apparent when contrasted with the different sound provided on track ‘Away’, featuring the guest vocals of Slowdive’s Neil Halstead. The general feel of the guitars, drums and melodies is also similar to that found on Alcest’s other albums; despite the lack of metal elements, I could easily imagine several of the songs on ‘Shelter’ sitting alongside their more melodic tracks on earlier albums.

Having said that, it’s fair to say that Alcest are likely to find a bigger audience with ‘Shelter’ than they have previously. Although the band have always had something of a warm sound, ‘Shelter’ is altogether softer than their earlier work, with no harsher metal interludes to intrude on the dreamy soundscape. That could be seen as a negative – as I said before, ‘Shelter’ won’t appeal to a lot of Alcest’s previous fans, and it also risks being too bland without the metal elements – but the band do thoughtful, delicate songs very well, meaning this is an album with a lot to offer, particularly on repeat listens.

Album of the Month: Ne Obliviscaris – ‘Portal of I’

It’s been far, far too long since I’ve done an album of the month (which rather defeats the point of calling it ‘album of the month’, but never mind), so I thought it was time to remedy that. I’ve covered all sorts of genres in the past, but today I want to return to my first and most enduring love: metal.

Metal is, I have to admit, one of those genres that seems to be constantly circling itself. New bands emerge, even new sub-genres emerge, but nothing ever seems to change very much (not helped by the fact that individual bands can produce pretty much the same album every year for two decades, and still sell out their tours to legions of fans). As a result, although I’m constantly on the look-out for new bands, it’s not often a début album emerges that really impresses me. When it does, it’s time to take notice, which is why ‘Portal of I’ is my album for this month.

At its core, ‘Portal of I’ would probably be classed as progressive death metal, which is an unwieldy title but does fit. There are the blasting drums, chugging guitars and growled vocals of typical black metal, all usually at a pretty swift tempo – it’s the black metal aspect of the album that initially drew me in. However, there’s a lot more to discover here, and that’s where this album gets progressive, and interesting.

Metal bands incorporating other elements into their music is nothing new, but it’s been a while since I’ve heard a black metal band do it so skilfully. There are some beautifully mellow interludes in several of the songs, as well as haunting violins more reminiscent of a gothic doom band (which remind me strongly of the long defunct The Sins of Thy Beloved).

So, we’ve got violins, mellowness, occasional clean vocals – and we’ve also got black metal blast-beats. The true skill in ‘Portal of I’ is how well all these disparate elements are melded into a single album. They never feel forced, or contrived, but instead give the frequently 10+ minute songs interesting structures and some beautiful, unexpected touches.

On the strength of this single album – their début, remember – Ne Obliviscaris are definitely a band to watch. Their song titles might be a tad pretentious (‘Tapestry of the Starless Abstract’ and ‘Of Petrichor Weaves Black Noise’ anyone?), but they’ve got the musical skills and song-writing abilities to back them up, and give the feeling you’re listening to a much older and more accomplished band.

Album of the Month: Opeth – ‘Heritage’

I’m aware that I haven’t actually done an ‘album of the month’ post for a while, so this isn’t really a monthly thing. As September comes to an end though, I wanted to talk about an album that I’ve been waiting for for quite some time: Opeth’s ‘Heritage’.

I’ll make no secret of the fact that I’m a big Opeth fan. I have been for almost as long as I’ve been listening to metal (close to a decade now – wow, how can something make you feel so old when you haven’t even hit 25?!). ‘Heritage’ is their new album, and it’s both a departure from their usual sound and an Opeth album in every way.

Let’s start with the departure aspect. Opeth have always been, primarily, a death metal band with progressive leanings. ‘Heritage’ is very much not a death metal album, but instead something much closer to 60s/70s prog rock. There are echoes of King Crimson, ELP, Camel, Jethro Tull, even the Beatles. There are no death metal vocals, and lots of keyboards/acoustic guitars. In this respect, ‘Heritage’ and it’s accompanying live tours have made a lot of long-term Opeth fans very unhappy. They wanted metal. They got 70’s-style prog rock.

There’s another side to this album though, and one which strikes me as very much Opeth’s traditional sound. There is a strong resemblance in many of the acoustic guitar riffs to those on the band’s only other non-death metal album, ‘Damnation’ (and in fact to acoustic guitar riffs on many of their other albums). The prog elements on ‘Heritage’ may be stronger than before, but they’d already made an appearance on the last two albums, ‘Ghost Reveries’ and ‘Watershed’. ‘Heritage’ is, in many ways, a continuation and expansion of those two albums, but it’s lost the metal elements to achieve that. Whether that’s appealing has more to do with the listener’s attachment to metal, rather than whether or not Opeth have changed their ‘sound’.

It’s not a perfect album, admittedly. Some of the songs, particularly those in the middle of the album, are so complex that they never really have a chance to get going – just when your ear has attuned itself to one melody, that melody is gone and doesn’t reappear in the rest of the song. It could also be argued that ‘Heritage’ is something of a pastiche of 70s prog, although I think there’s enough of Opeth’s signature sound in there to avoid that.

Overall, it’s a very impressive album. ‘The Devil’s Orchard’ and ‘Folklore’ in particular are excellent songs, but it’s listening to the album as a whole, start to finish, that provides the most rewarding experience. Recommended for lovers of prog rock, or for metalheads who are looking for something a bit different.

Album of the Month: Emily Barker & The Red Clay Halo – ‘Almanac’

After the power metal album I recommended last month, I thought I’d go for something completely different this time. My choice: ‘Almanac’ by Emily Barker & The Red Clay Halo.

I first discovered this album after looking up the song ‘Pause’, which appears in an altered version on the recent BBC drama ‘The Shadow Line’ (and it’s absolutely perfect for that programme, I have to say). After first listening to that title song, ‘Almanac’ feels a lot more upbeat, but it’s still a decidedly thoughtful album. It is, I suppose, a folk album, but a very modern one, with Barker’s vocals floating over a soundtrack of strings and accordion. The lyrics are simple but poetic – in fact, many of the songs are quite simple, but beautifully put together, and with some wonderfully stirring sections, as in ‘Ropes’ and ‘Openings’.

I don’t really have anything to compare ‘Almanac’ to. This isn’t usually my genre, and whilst I’ve listened to a number of modern folk albums, nothing has grabbed me as memorably as this one. I would call it charming, but that sounds patronising and twee. In fact, disarming might be more appropriate – this is a beautiful album that sucks you in and demands you listen to each and every song. And I highly recommend that you do.

(I want to add a final note of appreciation for the beautiful cover art, here, which is striking and distinctive, without being in-your-face. It’s particularly attractive when you’re usually exposed to metal covers, which aren’t exactly reknowned for their prettiness.)

Album of the Month: Sons of Seasons – ‘Magnisphyricon’

My working weeks seem to be increasingly busy at the moment, so I thought I’d take this opportunity to introduce a new series of posts. Music is a huge part of my life and I’ve decided it’s time I talked about it a bit more here on the blog. To kick off, I’m going to be posting details of a new musical discovery every month. I’ll keep these posts short and sweet (I’m aware that metal, and the corners of it that I particularly enjoy, are something of a niche interest), but I hope they’ll enourage people to go out and listen to new bands and new genres that they wouldn’t otherwise have come across.

So, first up for my Album of the Month is Sons of Seasons’s ‘Magnisphyricon’. Sons of Seasons occupy that corner of the power/prog/symphonic metal genre in which you’d also find bands like Kamelot, Epica and perhaps Symphony X’s earlier albums. It’s fair to say that, from ‘Magnisphyricon’s’ short, atmospheric opening, there’s a great deal of Kamelot in particular in their sound. The vocals, the drumming, the twiddly keyboard bits. Indeed, the two bands recently toured together, with Sons of Seasons’s main songwriter also being the current keyboardist for Kamelot.

At this point, it would be fairly easy to pass off the band as just a Kamelot clone. To do so would completely ignore how brilliant an album ‘Magnisphyricon’ is. To start with, it’s incredibly accomplished – it’s only the band’s second album, but is just as slick and compelling as the best work of similar bands who’ve written a dozen. There’s also a harder edge to ‘Magnisphyricon’ that recalls not only Symphony X – as I mentioned above – but even bands like Nevermore (admittedly, that might be a bit of a stretch, but I can hear it at times). Put the two together, and you’ve got a far more interesting listen. Whilst ‘Bubonic Waltz’ could have come straight off Kamelot’s ‘Black Halo’ album, ‘Guilt’s Mirror’ has a much heavier sound. There are also a number of instrumental passages on the album that are more complex than you’d typically find on a power metal album, but they only serve to make ‘Magnisphyricon’ more interesting.

If you like either Kamelot or Epica, it’s safe to say that you’ll enjoy Sons of Seasons. Even if you’re unfamiliar with the genre though, ‘Magnisphyricon’ wouldn’t be a bad place to start. It’s varied, it’s catchy and it’s enjoyable from start to finish. Even if ‘Magnisphyricon’ is a pain in the arse to spell half a dozen times…