Author: Vikram Shankar
Pain of Salvation – In The Passing Light of Day
The German word Gesamtkunstwerk is a term used in the study of aesthetics and art, particularly in that of 19th century European art. It means “total work of art,” and was used by the infamous composer and polemicist Richard Wagner to describe his operas, which he saw as being so artistically rich with multiple shades of profound meaning that they transcended one artform (the opera), and in fact were multiple art forms simultaneously (in his case, theatre, poetry, literature, and music). Pain of Salvation’s leading man Daniel Gildenlow would never go as far as to call his works Gesamtkunstwerk, but the challenge in evaluating Pain of Salvation albums is that they do transcend one form of art. Lyrical and conceptual meaning are elevated to such a degree that it’s almost meaningless to discuss the music without closely examining the poetry that Gildenlow and his tribe set to sound. Unfortunately, I am a musician first and foremost, and in-depth lyrical analysis is hardly my forte. I’ll nevertheless do my best to do justice to the beautifully expressed and profound concept of In The Passing Light of Day, as well as I can understand it, before I tackle the music in turn.
I: The Lyrics
The catalyzing force of In The Passing Light of Day, conceptually speaking, is a four-month hospital stay, during which Gildenlow received intense medical treatment for necrotizing fasciitis; his case was so advanced that, according to the album booklet, the frontman had a hole in his back deep enough to expose his spine. In The Passing Light of Day does not chronicle this experience chronologically so much as follow the protagonist’s thoughts through time in a nonlinear fashion, as the intense brush with mortality inspires him to revisit past events and emotions that have haunted him. The album therefore tells an emotional and mental story rather than a literal one, tracking the feelings of the protagonist throughout the experience.
“On A Tuesday”
The record begins in the present, with Gildenlow on the hospital bed, grappling with the reality of his situation in the progressive epic “On A Tuesday.” The first few lines of the album set the stage for the next 71 minutes of drama: “I was born in this building / it was the first Tuesday I had ever seen / and if I live to see tomorrow / it will be my Tuesday number 2,119.” The song is a hauntingly honest portrayal of the true difficulty of coming to terms with impending death, and at this point in the story, Gildenlow does not seem to have the willpower to come to terms with his situation honestly and with acceptance, but rather does so with anger: “The face of death won’t make me an evangelist / I close my hands / not in prayer / into fists.”
“Tongue of God”
The following track, “Tongue of God,” continues the lyrical motif of anger, directed this time towards God and those who offer empty, meaningless platitudes as comfort to the suffering, and introduces two more key motifs that dominate the record: sexuality and the metonymic use of mundane objects in the hospital room to stand for greater ideas. The sexually charged language of the chorus of the song (“Tongue of God / lick me clean on the inside”) introduces a key element of the “primal beast” – lust – that, as the record eventually argues, simultaneously corrupts us in life and saves us from death. The images of the shower and the bed are evoked in a haunting rhythmic voiceover, the shower being a place of pain where the protagonist’s true feelings of torment and death are at their most profound, and the bed (a double meaning perhaps for both the hospital bed and the place of sexual interaction) representing life, although not in a glamorous sense – the bed here is a place of insincerity, a place where the protagonist has to put on a brave face and refuse to acknowledge the harsh reality of his situation. The bed is where he fights for life, but there is no heroism in doing so – only desperation.
“Meaningless” continues the motif of sexually charged imagery, as the protagonist grapples with the guilt of an affair earlier in life. Here we see him express his desperation as the aforementioned primal beast threatens to destroy him through uncontrollable lust. He knows that what he is doing is wrong, but his lust is simply too great to control, and it is this lack of control that is even more palpably haunting than the sin itself: “I am not mine,” guitarist and second vocalist Ragnar Zolberg screams in a chilling high tone filled with desperation. A recurring line is introduced – “I need something of my own,” before Gildenlow delivers one of my favorite lines of the entire record: “I need something that is mine / if that must be guilt, then fine!” His uncontrollable lust may threaten to tear him apart, but pain, guilt, and agony are the only reality he knows.
“Meaningless” is followed by its lyrical antithesis, “Silent Gold,” a beautiful and simple love song. It is here that Gildenlow introduces another key element of the story, one that will prove to be a defining element of the story as it winds to a close: his decades-long relationship with his wife, his “lover and best friend.” If “Silent Gold” is an oasis tonally in the album, sandwiched between intense, turbulent lyrical themes and music, Gildenlow’s love for his wife is a similar oasis amidst all the trauma and pain he experiences in the hospital bed, although their relationship itself is not an easy one (as both the pain of the lyrics here and that of the record’s thematic relative Remedy Lane demonstrate). Their love is intense, and her effect on him seems to be so profound as to tear him apart physically: “Leave me open / Leave me fretless / Peel my cold skin / Make me reckless.” But the beauty of who she is, and what she does, inspires and comforts him. “God? God is what we do now” – their love is the higher power that Gildenlow believes in, the higher power that he will turn to in his most dire hour.
“Full Throttle Tribe”
“Full Throttle Tribe” takes a step back once more, this time back to Gildenlow’s pre-teen days, when he founded Pain of Salvation (then called Reality). Here, he describes the isolation, the inability to fit in and identify with those around him, that led him to form his own tribe, one where he could be himself, where he could “build [himself] a sun.” The motif of the uncontrollable returns once more: this time, it is his very essence as a person that is simply too much for those around him (“too everything is what defines my mind”). Just as his uncontrollable lust threatened to destroy everything, he warns that his passion and fire as an artist will destroy his new tribe (“I’ll take it too far and drive it too hard”). And then, in the haunting middle section of the song, it happens. As those who are aware of the band’s history know, the tribe that Gildenlow built and maintained since his pre-teen days fell apart around the turn of the decade, and now he deals with the pain of seeing his family fall apart, as well as the guilt of knowing that it was his own passion and will as an artist that lead to this collapse. “I turn the shower tap / Turn it all the way up / To burn this soul away,” he sings in a haunting reprise of the shower motif – the shower is not just a place for him to feel the deepest depths of his pain, but now is an agent of pain itself, facilitating his self-destructive agony. “Will you follow me?” Gildenlow sings at the close of the song, his last word turning into an agonizing scream, as the music devolves into sonic chaos. If he is asking this question of his current lineup, a virtually all-new cast of musicians, then he surely must know that he is asking them to step into the same fire that he asked of his former tribe, and the pain of having to do so is palpable in his voice.
“Reasons” returns to the world of a romantic relationship, this time characterized with undeniable fury. It is intentionally ambiguous who the subject of the protagonist’s wrath is, and frankly I do not believe it really matters. What does matter here is the pure, undeniable strength of Gildenlow’s fury as he yells “Because I hate every motherfucking word you say!” Whether this is a return to the world of the affair referenced in “Meaningless,” or a brutal argument with his wife, what is clear is that the world of romantic love is far from a comfortable one for him. “‘Are we true?’ ‘True to me or you?’” The protagonist’s passion here is simply too great to contain; he feels that he cannot be true to himself without destroying the harmony and peace of his relationship. If the album has already showed the potential for the protagonist’s lust and passion as an artist to destroy his world, here we see that his romantic love has the potential to do the same.
“Angels of Broken Things”
We then return to the present day with the incredible “Angels of Broken Things.” It is here, along with “On a Tuesday,” that we see the drama and pain experienced on the hospital bed articulated the most profoundly. We are taken directly to the bed during the night of an operation (Gildenlow writes in the album booklet that he underwent such operations every other night). He pleads with “fallen angels” to save him from his pain both physical and emotional, likely referring to the sedatives used to put him under for each surgery session. “Even sleep is full of broken things,” he sings hauntingly, a possible reference to morphine dreams but more likely referring to the thoughts of pain and regret that haunt him lying in the hospital bed. The Propofol sedatives provide him with a sleep so unnervingly deep that they “give [him] black / putting nothing in [his] dreams,” enabling him to get a brief respite from what haunts him otherwise. The music soars with a pair of lengthy guitar solos at the end; as the protagonist slips into a deep sleep, how fitting that words cease and it is an instrumental outro that speaks a thousand words.
“The Taming of the Beast”
“The Taming of the Beast” sees Gildenlow articulate the destructive yet intoxicating nature of his passion in the most profound way yet. “And let me run / To burn my wings or touch the sun / So let me fly / Just let me fall,” he sings in a reference to the classic Icarusian anthem from Pain of Salvation’s back catalogue, “Undertow” from Remedy Lane. Here just as in “Undertow,” the protagonist knows his will to soar is both unstoppable and destructive. He is both pained by who he is (“It’s not that I want to hurt myself, no / but some things are better broken than left on the shelf”), and invigorated by it (“I want to… explode like the sun and become pure gravity”). Once again, sexuality, the “sweet vertigo of lust,” is referenced as a key element of the primal beast that he has no choice but to unleash. Whereas in “Undertow” the protagonist is aware the fire will consume him, and thus lets himself be submerged, here we see him embrace his fire, telling himself to not “think too much of the ones who will burn.” With his final request to “set me free / cover your eyes,” his embrace of the inner beast seems complete.
“If This Is the End”
The closing two tracks of the record, “If This is the End” and “The Passing Light of Day,” show the protagonist dealing with two distinct ways to grapple with the all-too-real threat of mortality. The song begins with the clichés often offered in the face of death, presumably clichés the protagonist has heard from his vantage point of the hospital bed: “We had a good run / Our days in the sun / So come-what-may.” But he does not accept this. “Fuck all they say / I want to stay… STAY!” We see the beast rise once more, this time not destroying him and everything around him, but defiant in the jaws of death. Ideas from “On a Tuesday” are reprised – not just the opening lines of the record, a powerful reminder to the listener of where we are and what the stakes are, but God enters the protagonist’s thoughts once more. “I close my hands / Not in prayer / Into fists,” Gildenlow sings in “On a Tuesday,” – here, once more, he speaks to God in anger. All he has ever wanted is something he could control, “something of my own.” His chilling screams at the end of the track both stand for his physical pain on the hospital bed (“Cutting to my bone” here is likely a double meaning) and his anger at God threatening to take away his life, the one thing all of us can truly call our own.
“The Passing Light of Day”
“The Passing Light of Day” also shows the protagonist dealing with impending death, but this time he is grounded by that which has grounded him since his teenage years: his love for his wife. The lyrics take us to the hospital bedside, as the protagonist interacts with his wife. Memories are shared, memories of a long, difficult, yet rewarding and ultimately life-affirming journey together. The memories give him strength, as does her love and caring for him, but he has not yet fully come to terms with what is happening. “I want to be like the sun / That steady flame that burns on and on,” he sings, knowing that his flame may well be on its way to being extinguished. Then, the most explicit reference to Remedy Lane: an invocation of the “Ending Theme” chorus. What was initially an Ending Theme for a destructive relationship is now an Ending Theme for a naive and innocent past, for now the “Heroes of our childhood / [are] Dead, forgotten or gone.” And perhaps it is an Ending Theme for life itself. The protagonist grapples with regrets, acknowledging that the pain of misdeeds done earlier in life “still hurt today,” before the music hurtles back into the aggressive territory of “If This is the End.”
It is here, I believe, that the protagonist truly conquers his inability to accept what is happening to him. “If I could start anew / Would it be the same? If I only knew…” He has spent essentially the entire duration of the record dwelling in the past, reliving past trauma, experiencing regret for that which is already done. But, eventually he recognizes that the pain of the past is irrelevant, because “all that matters is here today… / every second alive today.” What is happening to him here is an inevitability, one that we all must face, and one no amount of anger can surmount. If he has spent his whole life searching for something that he can control, he seems to realize here that he’s found it: his life, as he lives it, in the moment. Even if God takes away biological life, his experience of it in the moment is his, and as long as he has that, the inevitability of death does not disturb him any longer.
What is the “Passing Light of Day?” The obvious reading of the closing track is that Gildenlow learns to accept the inevitability of death. But, as we all know, Gildenlow did not succumb to the illness, and made what doctors at the hospital deemed a “miraculous recovery.” I believe that the “Passing Light of Day” is not specifically the passing of life into death, but the passage of time, which does have as its culmination death for the individual, but, of course, exists independently of one’s own mortality. The “Passing Light of Day” that Gildenlow comes to terms with in the closing track, for me, is not explicitly and solely death (although certainly the track has deep resonance with those who have undergone the experience of losing a loved one), but the fact that he cannot go back in time and right all the wrongs he has committed.
The trauma and pain of the past cannot be undone, no matter how hard he tries and how much time he spends dwelling in the past emotionally. What he can do, however, is accept who he is, for all of his flaws. What he can do is hope for a better tomorrow, (in his own words) “no matter how frail and naive that hope may be.” “Our priorities do not change in the face of death; they just intensify,” writes Gildenlow in the album booklet. This experience reminds him of what is truly important in life: relationships, the here and now, art, love, and life itself. The conclusion of the album, which so clearly seems to state that the protagonist passes on, is for me allegorical, representing the way that we proceed through life. Like death, aging is inevitable. Like death, the passage of time is terrifying, despair-inducing. But, like death, it is a challenge that can be surmounted, with the strength of our loved ones and our faith in a better tomorrow guiding our way. “It is what it is; I’ll find my way through this passing light…”
II: The Music
I will now, in comparatively brief terms, offer my thoughts on the musical elements of In The Passing Light of Day. It is, of course, silly to analyze the music and lyrics of this record, or really any record, separately, since we do after all experience the two simultaneously as we listen. But at any rate, this is probably the best format for me to analyze such a layered and multifaceted record – so here we go.
Much has been made of how In The Passing Light of Day is a “return to the early days” of Pain of Salvation. There are certainly elements of the band’s sounds in past days making a resurgence here, with savage, intricate polyrhythms and syncopations, odd-time signatures, and even the classic woodwind textures of BE reappearing. However, rather than returning to the glory days outright, In The Passing Light of Day merely takes these elements and smoothly integrates them into the warm, vintage personality that Gildenlow has cultivated since the first Road Salt record. Even at the record’s heaviest, there is an organic, mature quality to the music (and production) that makes the album fit comfortably in the sonic trajectory the band has been on since 2010.
The guitar work from Gildenlow and Ragnar Zolberg is effective as always, technical yet restrained, with lead guitar work receding into the background except for one notable outro solo. Leo Margarit’s drums straddle the line between John Bonham’s measured thump and Matt Garstka’s shredding gospel chops, and Daniel “D2” Karlsson’s keyboards add subtle atmosphere, while Gustaf Hielm’s bass tastefully decorates the sonic landscape in a manner similar to the great John Paul Jones. The final distinctive aspect to modern Pain of Salvation that is worth noting is the way Gildenlow and company approach vocal writing – the classic Gildenlow spoken narration is in full effect, as well as emotive lower and mid-range singing and more impassioned husky rock belting, but the high falsettos are completely absent (save for second vocalist Zolberg’s awe-inspiring display of his high register on “Meaningless”). The effect may be underwhelming for some listeners, but for me it is fitting of the more mature approach the band has had in general with regard to the musical elements of the record.
Album opener “On a Tuesday” perfectly exemplifies the contrasts that define 2017 Pain of Salvation. Heavy, palm-muted riffage chugs along in a display of sonic aggression not heard in this band’s music since 2007, all the while dancing along a 7/16 polymeter that immediately called to mind Animals as Leaders to me. The song’s verses are a delicate, warm and lush bed of subdued harmonies, while the choruses soar in a melodic sensibility that reminds me of the epic choruses of Remedy Lane. A beautiful, subdued break calls to mind BE’s woodwind-driven ballad moments, before the music explodes into Scarsick levels of angsty fury. The extended outro of the track bring industrial electronic soundscapes to the fore while the melody is doubled by a fuzzy lead guitar (the effect used in this part of the track, which sounds like a bitcrusher to my ears, is to me a wonderful sonic exemplification of the frailty of life, as the sound threatens to splutter out just as does life – a stretch? Maybe…).
Heavy, polyrhythmic activity returns on the centerpiece of the record “Full Throttle Tribe,” with its reprise of the 7/16-v-4/4 polymeter and its bubbling vintage synth arpeggiator adding a spark and life to the track that perfectly complements the energy and passion of the lyrics. “Reasons” sees the band at its heaviest, with a dancing syncopated staccato rhythm a la Leprous meeting a crushing Meshuggah-style breakdown, and also contains some of the best harmony vocals of the record. Harmony vocals in general, which have long been one of my favorite aspects of Pain of Salvation, are present, if lower in the mix than I am accustomed to – they particularly shine in the quieter moments, like the lush second verse of “Silent Gold” and the chorus of “Angels of Broken Things.” The former’s tender piano balladry calls to mind the classic piano ballads of the “golden age of rock” like those by Lennon and Elton John, while the latter’s synthesized pulse and harmonies remind me of “Welcome to the Machine” by the great Pink Floyd, albeit supplemented by more subtle polyrhythmic activity. It is on these quiet moments also that Gildenlow’s lead vocals shine the best, almost breaking with expression and emotion in “Silent Gold.”
In “Silent Gold” as well as on tracks like “Meaningless,” “The Taming of the Beast,” and “If This is the End,” the band’s Road Salt-isms are on full display. “The Taming of the Beast” in particular is a Road Salt-style slow burner, with a brooding mid-tempo instrumental part that really seeks to do nothing more than set an emotional background for Gildenlow’s lyrics to take the foreground, an extremely effective use of compositional restraint. On “If This is the End,” the razor-sharp metallic guitars of “Full Throttle Tribe” are replaced by grungy and fuzzy overdrive that gives even more Road Salt warmth to the effect, with the track itself growing from humble Johnny Cash beginnings to a furious alternative metal anthem complete with a beautiful “Ending Theme” melodic reprise on slide guitar. The slide guitar returns on the closing epic “The Passing Light of Day,” where a subtle woodwind ensemble opening yields to a terrifically intimate single guitar and voice. The track’s build of tension and volume is incredible (those are the shortest seven minutes I think I have ever heard!) before more Road Salt-style grungy heaviness appears before being vanquished by a triumphant final chorus that gives way to a tender orchestral conclusion. This track simultaneously evokes Leonard Cohen’s sense of storytelling, Anathema’s sense of melody and harmony, and, at one point, Devin Townsend’s approach to heavy yet atmospherically effective riffing – truly a tremendous track in every sense of the word.
Is In The Passing Light of Day Pain of Salvation’s finest hour? Saying so would be absurdly premature. And even with more time, I don’t know if calling In The Passing Light of Day the best Pain of Salvation record would be quite honest. The band’s former achievements simply stand too tall. Furthermore, there is a part of me that does miss certain stylistic hallmarks of the band’s heydey that aren’t present at all or are relegated to the sidelines here: lengthy guitar solos are all but gone, vocal counterpoints and high falsetto shrieks are replaced by present-but-not-dominant harmonies in rhythmic unison and rougher rock roars, and keyboards are further back in the mix than on many of the band’s classics. But what I do know is that In The Passing Light of Day, as it is, is a stunning achievement. On it, the band have managed to integrate old and new sonically in a sound that manages to step forward by looking back, and conceptually, Gildenlow has crafted a wonderful lyrical work that is as emotionally potent as anything out there, offering a deeply personal yet fundamentally universal message of hope in a brutal world. In my eyes, the Pain of Salvation have crafted yet another masterwork that proves, as if there was any doubt, why they deserve to be known as one of the greatest bands of our time.