The Best Albums of 2014, #8

band018. Opeth, Pale Communion (Roadrunner)

Opeth is one of those very few bands where I don’t ever expect to be disappointed by whatever new music they put out. Singer/songwriter/guitarist Mikael Åkerfeldt is so continually on top of his game, in command of his art, that no matter what drastic change he makes to his band’s sound, it always feels like a first-class piece of music. Better yet, though, the music, as amorphous as it is, always sounds like Opeth. I can’t get over just how impressive that is, to be able to create a signature sound, do a near 180-degree change in musical direction, and still retain all characteristics of that sound. That takes mastery of the form to pull it off as gracefully as Opeth has done over the last 14 years. When Åkerfeldt decided to do a complete stylistic turnaround on 2011’s Heritage, it felt like a complete transformation into something he’d been slowly progressing towards but never fully committed to: abandoning all traces of “extreme” metal and embracing the classic heavy metal and progressive rock of his youth. The idea that he could make music that sounded like the music he listens to recreationally and still have it fit comfortably under the Opeth brand was a revelation, and ever since he sounds liberated as a singer-songwriter. Pale Communion is a continuation of that creative rebirth, and never has Åkerfeldt been so brimming with ideas in his music. There’s so much more richness than ever before, so much more variety he and the band can bring in other than metal, and they are having so much fun with it all that it’s made for the most gleefully complex album of Opeth’s career. It’s progressive rock of the highest order, challenging to listen to – and it does require time to settle in – but the songwriting never veers into self-indulgence. Instead the complexity serves the song, and no matter how meandering it can get on the longer tracks, it always comes full circle. Plus the hooks on this album are genuine, sly little melodies that sneak up on you months later when you return to the album. That’s the perfect test of an Opeth album: immerse yourself in it for a while, then don’t listen to it for several months. When you go back to it after some time away, see how much of it clicks, how much of it resonates in your mind, feels comfortable and risky at the same time. Opeth has been pulling this off time and again, but I wouldn’t be surprised as the years go by Pale Communion will wind up being my personal favourite album. This band just keeps getting better and better.