Artist: Pain Of Salvation
Album Title: Panther
Label: InsideOut Music
Date of Release: 28 August 2020
I have been in the company of ‘Panther’, the eleventh release from the Swedish progressive metal juggernaut, Pain Of Salvation, for some time now, but even now, after it has been released, I am still no closer to deciding what I actually think of it. But, in many ways, this is nothing new for me, as I have had a chequered past with the band. I have loved much of their material; in essence everything from their debut up until ‘Remedy Lane’ I consider as near-genius, whilst I have struggled to warm to more recent albums. That was until ‘In The Passing Light Of Day’ struck in 2017, an album that ultimately blew me away, not least because it represented a return to heavier climes, the kind that I thought and feared were long dead. I also adored the raw honesty within the lyrics, especially the epic closing title track. However, whatever the record and whatever my thoughts towards them, the conclusion was always reached after plenty of effort and much deliberation.
But I must procrastinate no more and give you my opinion of album number 12 from Daniel Gildenlöw and friends.
Having thought long and hard, there are a couple of reasons why I am still undecided about ‘Panther’ as an album. The first is the production and the second is the direction that the band have taken. As always, it would be a foolish man to suggest that the music itself wasn’t of a high quality whatever its style or delivery because Pain Of Salvation have never released anything that is of a poor standard regardless of whether I personally liked it. The same is true here with ‘Panther’. Regardless of what my personal take might be, there’s no denying the ability of the musicians or the compositions.
Taking the direction of the material first, I will be completely honest and admit that I had hoped for a continuation of the style seen on ‘In The Passing Light Of Day’. ‘Panther’ is certainly not that, although given the fall-out and departure of Ragnar Solberg following its release, this is probably not surprising. That said, ‘Panther’ is a heavy record in part, with nods back to the band’s earlier days, but there’s a distinctly different feel to the music here. True to his word in interviews, Gildenlöw has searched for something different and new here. Many of the textures, sounds and tones used on this record are very new to Pain Of Salvation and I have wrestled with it frequently.
This dovetails nicely with the second point, namely the production. The way the album sounds is undoubtedly a reflection of the new tones, textures and ideas that Gildenlöw has experimented with throughout. However, whilst some of it really works, at other times it doesn’t. At least not for me anyway. It is hard to explain but even when the guitars come in, all heavy and aggressive, they don’t always sound like your typical distorted guitar. It’s like they are blended with something else to make you think about whether it’s the guitars making the sounds or not. I know it sounds strange, but trust me on this, have a listen and see what you think. I’m also not the greatest fan of the drum sound, in that I feel that they sound a little deadened, lacking punch and snap. Again, that might very well be personal taste and others may disagree vehemently.
Having been honest about my inner wranglings and difficulties with ‘Panther’, I must redress the balance and state that there is plenty to love about the album too. For a start, I am in awe of the individual performances on this record. Pain of Salvation 2020 is comprised of lead vocalist, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist Daniel Gildenlöw, alongside guitarist/vocalist Johan Hallgren, drummer/vocalist Léo Margarit, keyboardist/guitarist/vocalist Daniel Karlsson, and bassist/vocalist Gustaf Hielm, who has since departed on friendlier terms than others recently. Each of these musicians deserve all the plaudits because they are so incredibly talented and accomplished in their own right. When you listen to Pain Of Salvation, you’re listening to a collective rather than a group of individuals.
Then there’s the killer combination of Gildenlöw’s vocals and lyrics. On their own, either one or the other would have a big effect. But when they are combined, the results are devastating. Rapping, talking, singing aggressively, or with oceans of fragile and raw emotion, Gildenlöw manages to bring some difficult and honest subjects to life as if he is the living embodiment of everything he sings. And, in many ways he is on ‘Panther’, because the album is a concept piece exploring the contradictions between those who are considered to be ‘normal’ and those who are not. Daniel Gildenlöw explains in the press release that he has drawn upon feelings associated with not always fitting into society before stating:
“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.”
As I now seek to delve into the individual compositions on ‘Panther’, of which there are nine, I want to draw a line under any criticism I have and therefore touch on those tracks that don’t work as well for me. On that score, I have to call out ‘Restless Boy’, ‘Keen To A Fault’ and ‘Fur’.
‘Restless Boy’ as you’ve probably heard by now is a song that relies heavily on electronics and strange vocal effects, creating a synth-pop vibe. It is a dark track that could have really piqued my interest if the melodies within it were more pronounced, or if the rapping/fast talking elements were dialled down or not used at all. It isn’t a bad song, I just don’t connect with it unfortunately.
The same can be said for ‘Keen To A Fault’, which has been lauded as a favourite by many. I can see the appeal as it is a clever and intriguing blend of modern sounds and something more analogue, from the 70s. There’s a warmth to the track, but I just don’t connect with the chosen melodies aside from the opening acoustic guitar work. It threatens much but fails to meet the expectations that built within me based on the intro. And ‘Fur’ is an instrumental interlude led by what sounds like a banjo. It feels like a throw-away track that adds little other than respite for the listener.
Now on to the material I like and what better place to start than with the opener and lead single, ‘Accelerator’. It immediately sets the tone for the record by introducing some intriguing modern sounds in amongst the stark syncopated rhythms. It is a slow burner at the same time, as you can sense it is building up to something. And that something is a release of the pent-up frustration into a really arresting melody upon which the power of Gildenlöw’s voice is fully unleashed, like the howl of a wolf. The juxtaposition between his impassioned voice and the stark electronics works really well and I love this track very much after many, many spins.
Despite the country slide guitar intro to ‘Unfuture’, this is another winner as a ‘One Hour By The Conrete Lake’ riff blows it away with power. I’m still not sold on the production, but the song shines through. There is plenty of light and shade too, the quetter parts of the song allowing a sense of dark menace and experimentation with new sounds. But that riff, that lumbering, lurching riff is glorious, bringing me back time and again.
Arguably my favourite song on ‘Panther’ has to be ‘Wait’. It begins with a beautiful piano melody, so warm and inviting. On top, after a while, comes Gildenlöw with an electric vocal performance that makes my hairs stand on end. It may be over seven minutes long but it flashes past as I am wrapped in its warm embrace. The guitars are gorgeous, but so too is the way that the song builds in intensity with new instruments joining the composition at each turn, along with yet more intriguing textures. Actually, come to think of it, there’s no arguing necessary – this is definitely my favourite song on the album and deservedly so.
The title track is definitely not a song that I should like but I really do. I love the lyrical content and the positive messages contained within. However, the Linkin Park-like nu-metal rapping alongside ultra-modern synth electronics also burrow into my brain in spite of my best efforts to the contrary. The quiet, minimalist chorus is all the more powerful, as are the heavy guitars when they enter later in the piece before dying away. I challenge you not to bang your head – I bet you can’t not.
‘Species’ is another decent track, albeit one that I neither love nor hate. It has more of a ‘classic’ Pain of Salvation feel to it if such a thing even exists. The strong, heavy riffs return much to my pleasure, although they are used more sparingly than I might have liked, instead the band opt for a more organic, raw sound for the most part. I’d have liked a stronger chorus or melody line but perhaps I’m being churlish.
‘Panther’ concludes in a similar fashion to its direct predecessor, with a longer, more ‘epic’ composition in the form of ‘Icon’. And, whilst it could almost certainly never compare to the utterly beguiling ‘In The Passing Light Of Day’, it is a brilliant composition in its own right, second only to the aforementioned ‘Wait’. It begins so delicately with a tinkling piano and it takes its time in gently building. The contrast after a minute or so, however, is stark, with heavier intent entering, albeit entering at a sedate, deliberate pace. The dark menace builds but in the blink of an eye is replaced by silence and then another glorious melody, complete with Gildenlöw’s fragile honesty and palpable emotion. What I also love is the ebb and flow, the beautiful guitar solo around the eight-minute mark and the way that the song builds, yet ebbs and flows superbly, building and releasing the emotions in me like a puppet master controls his puppets, ultimately to unravel and die away into nothingness.
So, is ‘Panther’ their best? No, it isn’t. Instead, what it is, is daring, different, original and intriguing. Ultimately, and importantly, it is a success and another great addition to the Pain Of Salvation catalogue. It demonstrates that there is life left in a band that seems to have been around forever, continually reinventing themselves, continually pushing their own boundaries and experimenting in ways that they find exciting. What it also means is that should there be another album in the fullness of time, I’d suggest that all bets are off as to the direction these talented Swedes take. Isn’t that exciting?
The Score of Much Metal: 88%
Check out my reviews from 2020 right here:
Vanishing Point – Dead Elysium
Unleash The Archers – Abyss
Veonity – Sorrows
Nyktophobia – What Lasts Forever
Ages – Uncrown
Awake By Design – Awake By Design
Black Crown Initiate – Violent Portraits Of Doomed Escape
Gaerea – Limbo
Buried Realm – Embodiment Of The Divine
Navian – Reset
Selenseas – The Outer Limits
Quantum – The Next Breath Of Air
Ensiferum – Thalassic
Long Distance Calling – How Do We Want To Live?
Airbag – A Day At The Beach
Re-Armed – Ignis Aeternum
Atavist – III: Absolution
Frost* – Others EP
Darker Half – If You Only Knew
Atavistia – The Winter Way
Astralborne – Eternity’s End
Centinex – Death In Pieces
Haken – Virus
Pile Of Priests – Pile Of Priests
Sorcerer – Lamenting Of The Innocent
Lesoir – Mosaic
Temnein – Tales: Of Humanity And Greed
Caligula’s Horse – Rise Radiant
…And Oceans – Cosmic World Mother
Vader – Solitude In Madness
Shrapnel – Palace For The Insane
Sinisthra – The Broad And Beaten Way
Paradise Lost – Obsidian
Naglfar – Cerecloth
Forgotten Tomb – Nihilistic Estrangement
Winterfylleth – The Reckoning Dawn
Firewind – Firewind
An Autumn For Crippled Children – All Fell Silent, Everything Went Quiet
Havok – V
Helfró – Helfró
Victoria K – Essentia
Cryptex – Once Upon A Time
Thy Despair – The Song Of Desolation
Cirith Ungol – Forever Black
Igorrr – Spirituality and Distortion
Nightwish – Human. II: Nature.
Katatonia – City Burials
Wolfheart – Wolves Of Karelia
Asenblut – Die Wilde Jagd
Nicumo – Inertia
The Black Dahlia Murder – Verminous
Omega Infinity – Solar Spectre
Symbolik – Emergence
Pure Reason Revolution – Eupnea
Irist – Order Of The Mind
Testament – Titans Of Creation
Ilium – Carcinogeist
Dawn Of Ouroboros – The Art Of Morphology
Torchia – The Coven
Novena – Eleventh Hour
Ashes Of Life – Seasons Within
Dynazty – The Dark Delight
Sutrah – Aletheia EP
Welicoruss – Siberian Heathen Horde
Myth Of I – Myth Of I
My Dying Bride – The Ghost Of Orion
Infirmum – Walls Of Sorrow
Inno – The Rain Under
Kvaen – The Funeral Pyre
Mindtech – Omnipresence
Dark Fortress – Spectres From The Old World
The Oneira – Injection
Night Crowned – Impius Viam
Dead Serenity – Beginnings EP
The Night Flight Orchestra – Aeromantic
Deadrisen – Deadrisen
Blaze Of Perdition – The Harrowing Of Hearts
Godsticks – Inescapable
Isle Of The Cross – Excelsis
Demons & Wizards – III
Vredehammer – Viperous
H.E.A.T – H.E.A.T II
Psychotic Waltz – The God-Shaped Void
Into The Open – Destination Eternity
Lunarsea – Earthling/Terrestre
Pure Wrath – The Forlorn Soldier EP
Sylosis – Cycle of Suffering
Sepultura – Quadra
Dyscordia – Delete / Rewrite
Godthrymm – Reflections
On Thorns I Lay – Threnos
God Dethroned – Illuminati
Fragment Soul – A Soul Inhabiting Two Bodies
Mariana Semkina – Sleepwalking
Mini Album Reviews: Moloken, The Driftwood Sign & Midnight
Serenity – The Last Knight
Ihsahn – Telemark EP
Temperance – Viridian
Blasphemer – The Sixth Hour
Deathwhite – Grave Image
Marko Hietala – Pyre Of The Black Heart
SWMM – Trail Of The Fallen
Into Pandemonium – Darkest Rise EP
Bonded – Rest In Violence
Serious Black – Suite 226
Darktribe – Voici L’Homme
Brothers Of Metal – Emblas Saga
A Life Divided – Echoes
Thoughts Factory – Elements
You can also check out my other reviews from previous years right here: