This is a very good album and will undoubtedly be ranked amongst the best progressive metal albums of the year.
There is a fantastic soaring guitar solo that enters around the eight-minute mark on the closing track of this album, giving us a minute or so of pure Gilmouresque magic. But, remarkably, that is the first guitar solo on the album, and only a further short closing burst prevents it from being the only one. In some ways that fact hints at the structure of Pain Of Salvations’ latest opus, PANTHER (no, my keyboard is not broken; the album title and all tracks are spelt in uppercase, but we will dispense with that particular convention for the purposes of this review!). It is a dense, dark and sometimes downright angry album, and apart from a small handful of those stunning trademark Daniel Gildenlöw melodic phrases, it is heavy listening, full of the syncopated rhythms that the band is well known for. It’s a work that’s focused on creating the tension and the atmosphere needed to match the album’s concept and that might well explain the lack of guitar solos.
So, what is all the angst about you might be wondering. After all, the band’s last album, In The Passing Light Of Day, was a platform for band leader Gildenlöw to recount his own near-death experience. One might have expected something a little more positive to follow. Instead, we have another cheerless concept album of sorts. I say ‘of sorts’ because there is more of a common theme than a single concept to the album as explained by Gildenlöw himself as follows: ‘Because we live in a time where we’re more aware of people not fitting the norm and we’re doing everything we can as a society to acknowledge all of these individuals, but at the same time, they’re more disowned than ever, more medicated than ever. The album is painting pictures of a world, I guess. If this was a movie it would be scenes from a city. It’s set in one city, and it’s populated by dogs and the panthers, the so-called normal people and the spectrum people. That’s the setting for the entire album.’ It’s good to be aware of this description because the lyrics are fairly obtuse and more explicit references to the concept such as ‘I feel like a panther, trapped in a dog’s world’ (from the chorus of the title track) would be somewhat confusing without that explanation. While the lyrics having some ambiguity can be seen in a positive light – opening them up to different interpretations – I do wonder whether a clearer story line might help the band reach a wider audience. Looking at a similar animal-based analogy, Pink Floyd’s Animals also had dogs, plus pigs and sheep instead of panthers, but the concept was conveyed through easily comprehensible lyrics.
The band have a reputation for varying their musical style from album to album and Panther is exception. The most obvious change here is the increased use of keyboards and electronics. Album opener Accelerator is a fine example of this new direction with synths prominent throughout and being used in the sort of aggressive way that characterised Rush around the period of Grace Under Pressure. Other notable electronic contributions are the experimental Restless Boy and the bubbling synths that run through the curious Keen To A Fault as if it were a version of Floyd’s On The Run with vocals added. The title track took me aback with its Linkin Park style metal rapping verses, although fans of the band will be less surprised since it’s a style they’ve used previously on the Scarsick album. I’m not a rap fan myself but the song worked really well for me all the same and added some good variety to the album.
With the lack of guitar solos that I mentioned, it might not be immediately obvious that there has been a change of personnel on guitars, with prodigal son Johan Hallgren now back in the fold replacing Ragnar Zolberg. The band’s more traditional heavier guitar-based elements are not totally missing here. Unfuture, for example, is characterised by crunching guitar chords and aggressive vocals that in the chorus have a touch of Nirvana. The song also has powerful drumming that is high in the mix (as it is in most of the album) which left me with the feeling of having been pummelled by a boxer. in comparison, the song Wait is certainly the most attractive track on the album and is surely destined to become a fan favourite. The beginning with soft vocals over falling piano phases gives a totally different feel to this song – ah, that must be beauty and harmony which has been conspicuously absent from the first 15 minutes of the album! Different textures are added by some nice Spanish guitar work leading to a melodically stunning chorus. The track builds up nicely, although sadly the band have to go and spoil it by concluding with a minute of menacing percussion and electronics. It’s as if the band were scared that a genuinely uplifting song might jar with the rest of the album!
At around 53 minutes, the duration is a tad on the short side but many of the songs do benefit from being concise. I love the idea of a long song to end of an album but I’m not totally convinced that the 13 minute long Icon works here. The material is good but I suspect it would have benefited from the same conciseness shown elsewhere. This is a very good album and will undoubtedly be ranked amongst the best progressive metal albums of the year. Somehow though I was left feeling a little frustrated by the band. With such enormous talent, I’m convinced that Gildenlöw has the ability to write a landmark genre-defining opus but he seems to always fall just slightly short of that.