The world seems to be smitten with a new strain of madness with each passing month. While some of us would rather eagerly settle for waiting for the heat death of the universe, others jump at the opportunity to look at our darkest emotions and channel it through music. Beautiful melodies can tell terrible things to a cathartic effect, a psychological release that money can’t buy. Swedish prog poets PAIN OF SALVATION have had the phenomenal skill of tapping into the vein at the core of the human experience ever since their early classic albums such as “The Perfect Element” (2000) and “Remedy Lane” (2002). Now, the band returns with a new studio album, “Panther,” due for release on August 28th, 2020, worldwide via InsideOut Music, 3 years after the band’s previous critically-acclaimed “In the Passing Light of Day.”
PAIN OF SALVATION has never been a stranger to pushing boundaries, but the new album approaches the band’s signature sound from even more versatile angles than before. Halfway through, it becomes apparent that these 3 years were time well spent. “Panther” is not just an album – it’s a roadmap to the collective heart and soul of humanity, to the zeitgeist of these strange and tumultuous times. In accordance with the holy prog doctrine, it is a concept album, zooming the lens on the conflicts and contradictions between the so-called ”normal” people and those who are wired differently. The lyrics echo the sentiment of Aldous Huxley’s famous take on the so-called ”normal” in society from his non-fiction work Brave New World Revisited, which suggested that perfect adjustment to an abnormal society should be considered as a measure of mental sickness rather than the norm. It’s a theme that bears an uncanny relevance today, maybe more than ever.
Individuals who thrive on not conforming to the norms of an ill society smell like the normies’ worst fear or the spokesmen of the restless and untamed, as the first video single off the album, ”Accelerator,” muses. The song journals the thoughts of vocalist Daniel Gildenlöw on the topic with brain-twisting syncopations and chilly synths that resonate with the dark air of SOURCE DIRECT‘s vintage drum & bass track, ”Call & Response,” which appeared briefly in the classic Wesley Snipes-starred vampire film, Blade, in the late 1990s. PAIN OF SALVATION did it again! My hyperfixation on the nothing-short-of-haunting track, ”Meaningless,” on the previous album has barely run its course. I was only half a foot into the limbo of trying to figure out what obscure prog anthem could be my reason for living for the next couple of months when PAIN OF SALVATION announced the release of their new album and popped out this video single. Bang – I was hooked! The odd rhythm throughout the song is such a brain-twister that the listener is liable to break a few pencils if they dare to attempt to tap out the rhythm. Furthermore, PAIN OF SALVATION‘s ”Accelerator,” along with a few songs by LONG DISTANCE CALLING, have renewed my faith in the ability of the notoriously robotic vocal textures of a vocoder to be put into clever musical use. Quite a few mumble rappers have tried their best to put my faith in this human voice encoder to the ultimate test.
On the second album track, ”Unfuture,” PAIN OF SALVATION maneuvers into a bit of LED ZEPPELIN with a modern twist. The slide guitar weaves gritty delta blues riffs seamlessly into a Bonham-like drum groove as if Keb’ Mo’ was jamming to “When the Levee Breaks.” The defining characteristic in this re-working was the drumming by John Bonham – and on ”Unfuture,” PAIN OF SALVATION‘s drummer, Léo Margarit, pays beautiful homage to this particular Bonham performance. Occasionally, the electric guitar makes remarks with a strong Jimmy Page feel too. The song captures the soul of the 1970s prog-tinged hard rock quite brilliantly without being a mere pastiche, creating a huge contrast to the electronic soundscapes of the following track, ”Restless Boy.” Without the interruption of the drums syncopating in unison with Gildenlöw‘s vocal phrasing, the song could be mistaken for a typical piece of minimalistic electro with its glacial synths, vocoder vocals, and the drum machine dropping cool breakbeat rhythms. Even at its most electronic, the song still has that distinct PAIN OF SALVATION-vibe, so the old-school fans need not panic. Lyrically, the song paints a slightly disturbing picture of a world where ”restless boys” who are born in a ”world too slow” are treated as lab rats. The concept of the album seems to suggest that we humans are inherently different in certain overlooked but relevant aspects, thus divided into two – the normies and the restless ”panthers.”
The band’s primus motor, Gildenlöw, has meticulously pieced these new songs together like a giant puzzle. In addition to producing “Panther,” he also mixed the album together with Daniel Bergstrand, whose golden touch has finessed the albums of bands such as MESHUGGAH, IN FLAMES, and Devin Townsend. Undoubtedly, the writing process has been a very intense and personal labor of love for the bandleader. In the press release, he states, ”it’s been somewhat of a lonely process, but I was finding sounds that I felt were communicating something.” Indeed, Gildenlöw‘s passion and commitment shine through. One of the pinnacle tracks charged with raw emotion on the album is the song, ”Wait,” which is driven by an arpeggiating piano and guitar. It mimics the rhythms of gypsy-jazz, while also sparking a strong ANATHEMA flashback in the most beautiful way possible. Consider yourselves warned: you’d better brace yourselves for a tidal wave of sheer beauty laced with a measure of darkness.
”Keen to a Fault” is shaped around a frantic Moog-sequence arpeggiating forward with an oddball syncopation. It builds up tension like a hypnotic voodoo rhythm with genuine brain-teasing properties. The motif does not only grab the listener, it hijacks the attention like an invasion of hostile space aliens. The chorus sections serve as a few brief moments of relief where the tension is released. The way the main motif is played in unison is slightly reminiscent of the riff-monster, ”Vermilioncore,” by Steven Wilson. The proggy rhythm is simply addictive – to such extent that it needs to be followed up by a short breather-type of an instrumental interlude, ”Fur,” which echoes the dueling banjos from the soundtrack of the 1972 thriller, Deliverance.
With the band’s track record, fans should probably know to expect something different with each album. Before the new album is wrapped up, the title track side-steps into the realms of modern EDM music with Middle Eastern overtones. ”Species” showcases what progressive outlaw country would sound like if there was such a genre and the album closes with ”Icon,” which introduces PAIN OF SALVATION at its most PINK FLOYD moment, going comfortably numb with a song that burns with emotion. Still, it maintains a firm hold of its signature sound at all times. Maybe it has something to do with the band’s musical philosophy being more about the raw human emotion rather than merely the cool, proggy polyrhythms, fractal riffs, and enigmatic synth textures. At the deep core of the band’s prog expression lies Gildenlöw‘s darkly poetic lyrics about the pains of being human.
“Panther” is an album that showcases musical genius. It hits a target nobody could even see. Surely, it takes some time to absorb in full, to let it sink under the skin properly, but it is quite a treat. ”I don’t think that an album can change the world in any way, but I think that every small drop in the ocean can make a difference,” Gildenlöw concludes. “Panther” is an album that makes all the difference.
Written by Jani Lehtinen
- Restless Boy
- Keen to a Fault
- Daniel Gildenlöw – lead vocals, guitars, lute, mandolin, bass, keyboards, piano, sampling, drums, percussion
- Johan Hallgren – guitar, vocals, mandolin
- Léo Margarit – drums, vocals, percussion, mandolin
- Daniel “D2” Karlsson – keyboard, percussion, bass, backing vocals