Just when you think innovation is dead, some bands rise to the occasion with flourish and vivid inspiration. Pain of Salvation is a favorite band around my house, and any release from them is automatically an event. Their newest offering is called “Panther”, a title that immediately evoked so many emotions in me. The album releases on August 28th, and I daresay that it is their best since “BE”.
I know that will be a controversial statement; after all, what Pain of Salvation album isn’t controversial in one way or another? The band comes to us from Sweden, home of a ridiculous number of amazing metal bands. The current lineup includes: Daniel Gildenlöw on lead vocals, guitar, and lots of stuff; Johan Hallgren on guitar and vocals; Léo Margarit on drums and vocals; Daniel Karlsson on keyboards, guitars, and vocals; and Gustaf Hielm on bass and vocals.
Where to begin with this record? Pain of Salvation have always been the masters of emotion, wit, and dark beauty. Their reach extends into all kinds of genres and into all sorts of topics. Their signature sexual vibe, outright coolness, and intellectual fervor cannot be denied them. When telling a friend about this band, I might mention that they are “progressive metal”, but I always add “but not the Dream Theater kind”. Honestly, I don’t know if progressive metal is a fair label for them, though, as they defy it time and again.
On “Panther”, the band once again redefines their sound; they are always one step ahead of the fans, and we fans simply have to catch up at some point. Their last album, “In the Passing Light of Day”, is almost universally adored for its rugged, powerful polyrhythms and heaviness. I noticed that many fans assumed this new album would be more of the same, but Pain of Salvation is not so easily understood. This album ditches the focus on technicality and guitar, which I know is a surprise because so many members are credited with playing guitar. Now, there are plenty of guitars, but there aren’t so many riffs or walls of distortion. No, this album is calculating, jealous, and scorching in other ways.
This is progressive metal more in the vein of Faith No More or even System of a Down. This is music with callbacks, I believe, to the 90s, especially. There is almost an urban, industrial atmosphere to the entire affair, and the rhythm section plays a vital role in driving the music, even more than usual. Instead of sweeping keys or monstrous riffs, the music features stunning electronic rhythms, unnerving keyboard swathes, and surges of technicality and turmoil that will blow your mind. There is a sense of true novelty and inspiration throughout the entire album.
“Panther”, as you can probably tell, is not easily described. It simultaneously features some of Daniel’s tenderest and most innocent vocal melodies, as well as some of the most tumultuous musical portions the band has ever played. There are sections of rap-singing, something that I absolutely adore when Daniel does it, not to mention howling vocal harmonies and even a significant amount of vocal filters. This is Pain of Salvation, not on steroids, but under the influence of pure inspiration, heavy restlessness, and vibrant introspection.
One thing I want to mention is Léo’s striking performance on drums. I personally believe that he is one of the most underrated drummers in the business, and I hope that will no longer be the case after this record. With impossibly complex blast beats, stuttering and brilliantly random beats, and legendary fills, Léo is more than likely going to stake his claim as the best drummer of the year, in my book.
Pain of Salvation is more than music. They are poetry, as well. “Panther” is no different in that regard. This album touches on the hows and whys of humanity’s treatment of those different than they—the “panthers”, so to speak. In a world full of dogs, striving to keep up the norm and the grind, can we dare to be a panther? Can we dare to be different, creative, and visionary? Dangerous, even? And even though society seems to be moving towards recognizing and celebrating those who dare to be themselves, it also feels like we are stomping them under our feet more than ever, too. This album both calls us to dream and be ourselves, while also challenging us to celebrate others who do so.
At this point, I feel like I need to offer a warning. This is not “first listen” album. You will not listen to “Panther” and be blown away immediately. Why? This album is too complex and also too simple to process in one listen. After a few times, though, I found myself transfixed, and the roaring intensity of the whole record has kept me coming back over and over again. This will grow on you. It will invade your mind. It will steal your focus. I have no doubt.
The album has nine tracks, and I don’t want to go over them all here. The singles are “Accelerator”, “Restless Boy”, and “Panther”. “Accelerator” starts out as something that could have been on the last album, but soon proves it is an entirely different beast. The potent vocals near the end always give me chills. “Restless Boy” is something of a transitional track, but it is absolutely brilliant in its own right. This track really showcases Léo’s outrageous abilities on drums, and it never gets old. Lastly, the title track might be one of my favorite songs of the year. It is daring, and soaked in both R&B and metal. Daniel raps through the lyrics with zeal and utter coolness, and the electronic ambiance haunts me. When the waves of guitar start to hit, goosebumps start to pop out all over my neck. Yet, this also might have the catchiest chorus on the album, and I can’t stop singing it to myself.
Other favorites on the album are “Unfuture”, “Keen to a Fault”, and “Icon”. That’s a lie, honestly, because I love every single track. These are good highlight tracks, though. “Unfuture” feels like a darker version of the band’s “Road Salt” albums. It feels post-apocalyptic and almost Western in vibe, and the vocals are deep and unsettling. “Keen to a Fault” is a great play on words, and might be the most straightforward prog song on the album. It has great keys and an addictive rhythm. I love the acoustic guitars on it, too. Lastly, “Icon” is the what many would expect to be the “epic”, clocking in at over 13 minutes in length. Rather than resorting to tropes, though, the song is evocative, atmospheric, and burning with meaning. It does have a great rocking rhythm at points, one that I feel is very memorable, but much of the song hovers and emotes within a huge musical space. What a song, and what a way to end this album!
Pain of Salvation make music that pleases them, that fits their conceptions and messages. They don’t fit any mold, and they don’t even try. That is exactly why they are one of my favorite bands, and that is exactly why “Panther” is one of the best albums they’ve ever made. This is a work of vision, nerve, and dominance, and it will steamroll all expectations. The cover art is a perfect representation of the intellectual fantasy, gritty urbanity, and sexual sleekness that lives within this record. Will you dare to be a panther?
Find Pain of Salvation online: