Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Pain Of Salvation Unleashes The Dark Age Of Treason

I've been doing a number of negative new music reviews lately. It's now time to change all that. A relatively new album from an old favorite band came to my attention earlier this week, and this is a shining example of what it takes to get a positive album review from a critic as harsh as myself. For one, you can't put out a half-hearted effort like Pete Townshend or Trent Reznor tried to do. I have no doubt that their hearts were in the right place when composing their latest magnum opuses, but somehow the passion for their music got lost somewhere in the translation from artistic concept to listener reality. I'm not saying that either Townshend or Reznor are bad artists, just that their last albums weren't their most stunning work. Despite showing flickering moments of brilliance, even former music staples such as Dream Theater and U2 have shown a steady slope of creative decline in recent years.

However, even despite the fact that more and more old favorites are now worth more a cautionary download to determine if their latest efforts are worth actually paying for, there are still a few artists whom I can buy without even considering fretting what I might hear when I pop the disc in the player. Simple Minds, Devin Townsend, and Dead Soul Tribe are among these artists, as well as the subject of today's music review: Pain of Salvation.

Having been released at the end of January this year, the latest release from Pain of Salvation somehow slipped right under my radar. I didn't see any news of its release on the band's website, nor did I see any blurbs on HardRadio's HardNews. I didn't see it in stores. I just happened to notice it when searching for something else on Amazon. Of course, since I saw that they had a new album on Amazon, I immediately placed an order for it from The End Records, where their albums are consistently cheaper and they don't charge shipping inside the United States. Needless to say that I already knew the album would be exceptional and probably hands-down the best album of 2007. (Sorry everyone else, the year ended in January when you had your asses handed to you; you can feel free to give up now.) But having heard nothing about it beforehand, I was in no way prepared for what Gildenlöw had in store for us.

To summarize Pain of Salvation's work is at the same time easy and extremely difficult. All of their albums blend the same socio-political awarenesses into different conceptual outlets. They all touch on a large gamut of issues including, but not limited to, sociology, interpersonal relationships, family, emotional trauma, sex, drugs, media, religion, politics, war, environmentalism, and consumerism to create a big picture overview of the problems facing the planet Earth and its primary inhabitants, us. Instead of simply addressing the issues, Daniel Gildenlöw weaves them into powerful and emotional stories that focus on their consequences in a way that will leave the listener shellshocked by the end of each album.

So far they have released Entropia, which follows an individual's journey from cradle to grave and follows the person's life, decisions, consequences, accomplishments, failures, regrets, and salvation. Their second album One Hour By The Concrete Lake is a heavily environmentally aware album about a man who serves as a minor cog in the military industrial machine and comes to the realization of the morality of the industry he supports when he travels to Lake Karachay n the former USSR, where so much nuclear waste was dumped over the past fifty years that if one stood on the shore for one hour then the exposure to radiation would be such that death from physical injuries would occur in just two weeks, and he entire lake has been covered in concrete and would need to stay that way for tens of thousands of years to be environmentally safe once again.

Then came their shining masterpiece The Perfect Element, Part 1. This is the album that deals with every repressed sociological issue that scars us from childhood through adulthood with an unabashedly frightening ferocity. It follows two central characters, a troubled and abused boy who is ostracized by society for his pain and his intelligence, and a sexually abused girl who runs away from home and does whatever she can to survive on the mean streets. Both of these characters turn in their adolescence and teenage years to violence, drugs, and sex to fill the voids which have become their existences. The album closes with the girl going through a clinical psychosis and the boy lying on the floor at the end of all hope. This is the album that focuses on the formation of the individual and everything that can go wrong — that does go wrong — essentially trying to figure out what makes people tick, what makes some people stop ticking, and what makes others want to make people stop ticking. The Perfect Element 1 was the first album that ever really fully explored any of these issues with any serious attempt to explain and sympathize with those affected without blaming or empowering. Although I have no doubt they may one day find a way to outdo the notoriety, originality, or importance of this album, I sincerely believe that they have yet to. It is the album to pick up if you want to introduce yourself to Pain of Salvation. Devote some time to read along with the lyrics as you listen to the music, preferably with headphones and without interruption, for the first time because the album moves fast and you need to hear the music and understand the story to get the full impact. You will not be disappointed.

Next they released Remedy Lane, in which Daniel Gildenlöw borrowed elements of his own life to create a fictional account exploring love, lust, and relationships with the same keen introspection and awareness that he devotes to every other album. Then came BE, the massive, symphonic undertaking where Gildenlöw combined elements of various monotheistic religious beliefs as well as a lot of social, political, and environmental issues to reinterpret the origin of God and how He relates to humanity, and how humanity relates to Him. Although it doesn't quite reach the emotional impact of The Perfect Element 1, BE is probably the band's most ambitious undertaking to date.

Then comes their latest undertaking, Scarsick, the actual topic of today's post. This album harkens back to the jaw-dropping musical and lyrical intensity of The Perfect Element, Part 1 with good reason: This is actually The Perfect Element, Part 2. Daniel Gildenlöw kept that aspect secretive because he didn't want its acclaim to come from the fact that it is the most highly anticipated album they've put out since The Perfect Elemet 1 back in 2000. He wanted it to be able to stand on its own merits, which it does marvelously as its own self-enclosed story. This album fully explores the second chapter in the life of the boy from The Perfect Element. It doesn't touch much on the girl, who will get her own separate album later on. With this album, Gildenlöw explained that he didn't want to just show us the end result of the boy's actions, but actually explore what made him the way he is. It's not enough to say that the kid is not all right, Gildenlöw wanted to explore why the kid is not all right. What is wrong with society to make him this way? So this album is much less an examination of one scarred invidivual's fucked-up life, but an exploration of the society that created the what it labels a monster.

The Perfect Element 1 ended with its title track, an emotionally draining, cataclysmic song that ends with the boy contemplating homicide, then suicide, and ending up numbly laying on the floor, mindlessly taking in television. What's happened to him in the seven years since?

Scarsick" opens up with the intensity where "The Perfect Element" left off. To say that the opening three songs of Scarsick are aggressive isn't saying quite enough. These are ferocious, intense, and angry monsters of songs. The first three songs are probably some of the hardest and most disturbing songs that Pain of Salvation ever recorded. Given their intelligent emotional depth I could argue that they're some of the conceptually hardest songs performed by nearly any band. When "Scarsick" kicks in, the listener automatically feels two things: Physically assaulted, and that he or she is going to be in for one hell of an amazing ride. Even when the song does break after the first verse into a more mellow, old school 70's prog rock arrangement reminiscent of Yes, ELP, or Kansas the background music is still haunting enough to keep the levels of apprehension consistent, then it's back to more ass-kicking heavy metal.

Next is what I consider the crowning achievement the album, "
Spitfall." This is an all-out attack on the culture of bullshit posturing surrounding the rap industry. It doesn't condemn rap as a valid art form, but it does condemn the gangsta-thug lifestyle that is practically synonymous with it anymore, all the while sympathizing during the chorus with the type of background that breeds the culture. To be able to condemn the culture that surrounds a type of music without condemning the music itself is brilliant enough, but to condemn it while sympathizing with it is remarkable. In the actually rapped verses of this distructive diatribe, Gildenlöw mirrors my feelings toward the culture by exposing every molecule of bullshit in it in a more eloquent fashion than I could ever find the words to convey. Think of this as a seven-minute, angrier "Diffidentia" about the gangsta lifestyle.

Cribcaged," a play on the new word for "home," exposes a culture that puts more emphasis on the things — the material possessions — it can attain than on taking care of the lives we bring into the world. It starts out softly, almost feeling empty, as empty as the soul feels when filled with the uselessness of material desire, then it builds dramatically into a violent rejection of material desire and the emptiness it begets. Although it's more of a ballad, the dripping vehemence of the distaste for the culture displayed in it makes it stand amongst the first two tracks as far as in-your-face intensity. When you get done listening to "Scarsick," "Spitfall," and "Cribcaged," I guarantee you, you will be floored.

"America" is, as you might have guessed, a somewhat sympathetic, highly sarcastic attack on America consumerism. It's more of a light and fun song than the previous three and sort of marks a shift in gears in the flow of the album. Although overall, it's a fun song reminiscent of Supertramp or Eighties Jefferson Starship, maybe a little Lamb Lies Down Genesis thrown in for good measure, don't think that it doesn't have Pain of Salvation's trademark dark, entropic edge. At the same time it boasts America's accomplishments it derides the country's politics, consumerism, and ignorance. It ends proclaiming "It could have been great, America!" and comparing the empire as a "new kid" to the Roman Empire, the English Empire and the Soviet Empire, reminding us that it's only a matter of time. I should take this opportunity to note that, in the liner notes, Daniel Gildenlöw wished to thank George W. Bush for all the inspiration.

Probably the strangest song Pain of Salvation has ever done comes up next: "
Disco Queen." It's unmistakable that Pain of Salvation actually made a pseudo-disco song. It opens with a melody and rhythm so perfectly clichéd that you would expect it to actually be played at a disco. I honestly felt, when I saw the song title, that this would be the one song on the album I would certainly not care for since I hate disco with the passion of a thousand angry gods, however I daresay that this song is actually not as bad as you might think. Aside from the recurring opening segment, it quickly breaks down into a typical Pain of Salvation song with their typical dark and dramatic edge. Musically, it's one of their more creative and adventurous songs, as creepy and disoriented as the subject matter it addresses — a drug induced rape in the fast-paced world of a discothéque rave.

Kingdom of Loss" has been the name of the official Pain of Salvation website since The Perfect Element 1 came out, and on The Perfect Element 1, there's a track called "King of Loss." I never really knew whether "Kingdom of Loss" was an actual song Daniel had written or if it was the natural home of the "king of loss." Now I know that it was, in fact, a song he was saving for just the right album. This song explores the "king of loss" and what exactly made him so — essentially, the society he grew up within. "Kingdom of Loss" is not quite just a somber song. It's actually a sad song. It's a numb song. The character in it is not really sad or angry or calm or indifferent. The character is just plain numb, having taken in so much consumerism and advertising, and reflecting on how fucked up it has made our society overall. An interesting aside that I found particularly humorous, on the lyrics sheet, selectively random words like "toys," "cars," "life," "God," "war," "us," "self-confidence," and "more" are all capitalized and followed by a small "TM" just to add some extra sarcasm to an already wonderfully sarcastic song.

I'll spare you the speculation and just tell you outright that "
Mrs. Modern Mother Mary" is a highly cynical religious song. It returns to the heavier music after the quiet "Kingdom of Loss" with a soring and majestic overall hook. It might be misconstrued by ignorant zealots as an attack on God, but it's not. It's actually an attack on blindly following a brainwashing religion that is constantly manipulated by evil individuals to carry out agendas that God would never condone. It points out how much the suppression of enlightenment is still as alive and well today as it was five hundred or fifteen hundred years ago.

Idiocracy" is at the same time as hard as "Scarsick" and as creepy as the creepiest parts of "Disco Queen." It specifically targets the political side of American culture, pointing out in cleverly combined, poignant word combinations the corruption and evil manipulation in modern American politics and how it affects the world. He's not so much as condemning America itself as a certain current leader's idiotic and self-serving agenda, and the way the world is headed.

"Flame To Moth" sees our protagonist realizing a world gone wring and feeling helpless to prevent it. There's a certain realization when you accept the fact that there are wheels in motion too grand and too powerful for any one man to stop. This realization begins the third and final chapter of the album, where the male character rejects the lifestyle that society requires he acquire and finds that he's left with nothing. His only prayer is that in the future, when we're looking at the devastation which humanity hath wrought upon itself, that some of us in the past rejected it, despite not beng able to stop it.

"Enter Rain" is the natural extention of "Flame To Moth." In a live interview, Daniel Gildenlöw characterized all Pain of Salvation albums ending on a sort of down note, where the character is staring down the edge of a cliff, beyond the point of no return, after all other options have been exhausted, and just waiting to make that one final choice. The character never does make the choice for us because the focal point of each album is on the circumstances that bring us to those sort of dramatic conclusions, and not on the outcome itself. Scarsick is no different. We see our main character somber, numb, and hopeless for the future. Despite it being the supposed final chapter in the story of this character's life, the song itself is not nearly as dramatic or final as the title track which closed The Perfect Element 1, which is an unparalleled masterpiece of unbridled emotion with an ending that will leave you hollow. Although a worthwhile effort, "Enter Rain" ultimately falls short of that sort of impact. Compared to the magnitude of most of the other songs on the album, I would be willing to say that "Enter Rain" is probably the weakest song, with not quite enough drama or poignancy to stand amongst its peers.

Not only is Scarsick one of the heaviest albums the band has made, both lyrically and musically, it's also probably the most cohesive. The songs don't relent for strange breaks into other musical styles, and they hold their own pace from one track to the next. If it weren't for the more prominent use of the word "fuck" in some of the songs, almost any song on the album could be played on the radio, save for maybe "Enter Rain." "Kingdom of Loss" might not be the best choice, not because it doesn't hold its own, but because it's a bit slower and more contemplative song, as is "Idiocracy," which the average radio listener might get bored with actively ignoring. "Disco Queen" is no less a cohesive work, but I think it would be too surreal to appeal to the average radio listener.

Overall, with Scarsick, Pain of Salvation has created yet another conceptual masterpiece. Musically, it's probably the best album in their catalog to introduce the novice or casual fan as the memorable songs will stand out and appeal to most modern music fans right away. Lyrically, it falls just slightly short of The Perfect Element 1. There are a lot of bold statements to be made on Scarsick, but it lacks the intimacy of The Perfect Element 1, as well as the notoriety of the shock value, once you get past the first three songs. Finally, for anyone who thinks System of a Down are really prolific socio-political songwriters or Korn makes really aggressive social statements, Pain of Salvation has proven with Scarsick that they are the band that System of a Down and Korn can only aspire to be.


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