PANTHER is Pain of Salvation‘s seventh album, not counting the mostly rearrangements of Falling Home and deliberately counting the Road Salt diptych as a double-album. On some level, this count accurately represents PANTHER, which certainly shows some exciting returning elements of the Swedish progressive rock band’s sound, ideas which haven’t been present in a serious way for over a decade. Perhaps more subtly, save for long-time fans of the group, this is best viewed as their second album since vocalist, guitarist and primary songwriter Daniel Gildenlow suffered a near-fatal infection of necrotizing fasciitis, an event that seemed to radically reorient the band.
Prior to it, the group was entering the clear second phase of their career following the release of 2007’s Scarsick and the departure of their bassist and their drummer, each iconic and weighty contributors to the band’s overall sound while, by the end of career-restarting double album Road Salt‘s cycle, the group’s second guitarist and keyboardist also left, effectively leaving Gildenlow as the sole remaining member. Over the course of this period, the band was erring toward looser and rootsier material, seemingly to finally blossom beyond progressive metal as they’d largely been known for a more broadly progressive rock and even somewhat musical theater-oriented direction. But then Daniel’s near-death experience changed all that; they played the entirety of Remedy Lane, their masterpiece, front to back and, come next album, they had returned to the shores of progressive metal.
In a manner of speaking. While In the Passing Light of Day featured the same heavily syncopated attack and heavy guitars that had made defined the first period of the group’s career, it featured just as prominently the rootsier approach that Daniel had attempted to resituate the band within on both the Road Salt record as well as the acoustic and jazzy rearrangements found on Falling Home. Light of Day felt like a new and proper beginning for the group, synthesizing their experiments in the years when they seemed to be withering away under the hand with the sonic imprint that had defined the band for years, all under the literary touch of the real-life story of Gildenlow nearly losing his life and the thoughts of family and home this conjured up.
PANTHER is as pleasantly shocking as it is precisely because it mostly seems uninterested in the past. The first texture that hits you is a synthesizer and an especially synthetic one at that; it feels almost like they’re drawing more from experimental and abstract techno than from any kind of sound you might associate with progressive metal. There is still taut guitar chugging away in jagged syncopation in the background, forming the head-scratching and deeply proggy rhythmic backbone of the track, but it is rarely afforded the spotlight. By and large, this is a wise decision. There is a boldness to this sonic departure even though it is a slight change in tone, one that could have been easily undermined had they gone the more expected route by placing it as a texture behind a wall of heavy guitars. The shift also helps keep Pain of Salvation from coming across like a prog metal cliche, something they have vocally attempted to avoid since the earliest days in their career when Dream Theater clones seemed to clog up the genre that once had a multivariate set of approaches.
This rejiggered sense of allotment of sonic space, which gestures as much to the syncopated and rhythmically dazzling patterns all over career-high records like The Perfect Element and Remedy Lane as much as it gestures to the future, presides over the whole of the album. There are brief shots of banjo and arpeggiated guitar lines, sounding at once strikingly beautiful and finger-twisting to play; this is the sole gesture that virtuoso guitarist Johan Hallgren has returned to the fold, always a player that sought to wield his immense talents toward the texture and timbre of a song rather than lengthy pointless solos. The record’s sonic approach, which folds in gentle nods toward the avant-garde fringes of industrial rock as well, is a return of sonic textures the band hasn’t used since The Perfect Element. This is somewhat surprising in that, given the massive acclaim the record received within the world of prog, one would have imagined any other group to have more consciously self-imitated. The life of the band since Daniel’s near-death experience seems to largely be one of recapturing those older ideas that previously they had accelerated right past, using for an album or two before dropping completely, recontextualized into fertilized present-tense forms. The return of those industrial overtones is as much a dear as it is an exciting one, feeling at once like a loving gesture to long-time fans as it does a necessary sonic valence to feel modern and situated within the current sonics of prog metal rather than being a tired cliche.
The weaknesses of the record are, for those attentive to the band, somewhat obvious and expected. The lyrics, lacking the weighty punch of being grounded in Daniel Gildenlow’s real life like his very best material was, comes across as preachy and didactic. The intent is admirable, being a loose concept record about people on the fringes, “panthers in a dog’s world” in the record’s own words, those of minority status be it racial, sexual, gender or neurodiversity who are at once increasingly visible and increasingly tokenized in the modern context. Daniel thankfully retains his increasingly literary touch, one he’s always had but has particularly been developing since the days of Road Salt, but while that generates some satisfying and intriguing stray lines, it doesn’t keep him from penning some groan-inducing ones either. The intent of the line “You normals follow the ones you choose / Now, maybe that’s the problem” is certainly unambiguous and even somewhat true, but it doesn’t shake the kind of annoyance you feel when someone unironically invokes the notions of normies in 2020. That it coexists in the same song as “Pointing ink-stained sooty fingers all around / while our houses burn to the ground” is in many ways the perfect summation of Pain of Salvation over the course of their career, as equally likely to be brilliant and tender and thoughtful as to be thudding and on-the-nose.
That the album ends on the now-expected epic nearing 15 minutes is, ironically, one of the few prog cliches (aside from the seesaw of thoughtful and literary to self-serious parodic lyrics) that the group allows themselves. This is only really a criticism for people who are deeply familiar with the band and by now hope for a different approach to closing out a record. In terms of arrangement, their epics tend to be more ambitious and thoughtful than the prog metal cliche of song/endless soloing/song. Pain of Salvation are a group of virtuosos, but they refrain from needless noodling and showing off for its own sake, building the album-closing epic “ICON” with gradually shifting moods and timbres that also keenly evoke the preceding tracks. Still, it’s hard to feel that this closer has the same eruptive catharsis as previous ones like “The Perfect Element,” “Beyond the Pale” or even the title track of their previous record “The Passing Light of Day.” It’s a solid song and, for those new to the band, the sense of discipline and song-oriented arrangement choices will dazzle. For those well-acquainted with the group, especially after an album that feels otherwise so fresh and vibrant and contemporary, it can be somewhat of a frustrating retread.
As groups like Haken and Caligula’s Horse are following the rulebook of the genre and producing high-caliber (even end-of-year worthy) records, it is exciting to see a decades-old well-worn group in the genre treading new ground. Daniel Gildenlow’s previous unwillingness to strongly repeat himself may have been what made them so exciting early on, but their late-career reacquisition of those jagged syncopations are just as intoxicating as when they were first deployed and show why people cared so much about this band in the first place. And, all things considered, lyrics are the least important aspect of heavy metal in general anyway, being a genre more often predicated on mood, texture and energy than the specific language deployed in its songs (though admittedly this is sometimes to the genre’s detriment). When it comes to mood, texture and energy, this album has it in spades. After a career return like In the Passing Light of Day and the frightful circumstances surrounding it, we should all be thankful that the band kept the wheels on for another record and have retained and deepened that returning spark.