Some albums fracture: their own fame is somehow forgotten among listeners and even experts but their legacy can be found in countless acts that come after them. Whether it’s their approach to their specific genre, actual sounds and moments from the album or a method of production, the basis elements of what made up the album get recycled, reused, resurrected. This can create an interesting disparity between how important the album is and how much people know it or even still play it, so long after it came out. Entropia is one of those albums. Not only did it launch one of the longest careers in progressive metal, namely that of Pain of Salvation, it also broke numerous limits and forged a vision of what progressive metal could be, way back when in 1997.
1997. Let that sink in for a moment before we start actually listening to the album. What hadn’t happened yet in 1997? Prog-power wasn’t a thing yet. Dream Theater hadn’t yet released Scenes From a Memory nor had Porcupine Tree released Stupid Dream nor had Opeth released Still Life. What was to become modern progressive metal/rock was only a nascent idea, a growing form. Post rock and metal were a far away dream, except for several, solitary, groundbreaking bands. And now comes along Pain of Salvation. Basically kids; they wrote the lyrics and music for this album when they were teens and recorded it as they were exiting their teen years. It’s not only a fantastic album, it’s a daring album. It’s progressive metal sure, but it has parts much, much heavier than anything Dream Theater had done by that point. It has the touches of insanity and extreme emotion that Psychotic Waltz was already dealing with but this is turned up to eleven.
So many of the balances that would come to define progressive metal (for example, Gildenlow’s location within the instrumentation) were born in this album, long before they became a staple of the scene that would then forget it. From the opening moments of “! (Foreword)”, it’s apparent that we’re handling a different beast here: the opening riff is chunky, fuzzy and heavy. The accompanying guitars screech and the drums pummel away, sounding like something from a heavy metal breakdown than an opening to a progressive metal album. And then Daniel Gildenlow comes in. On one hand, his vocals are deep, almost spat at the microphone in nu-metal style, but then he screams and reaches notes which LaBrie could only dream of. His style then takes on the dramatic, the theatrical, before diving again into intimate, almost sexual lows. In that sense, “! (Foreword)” does a good job of introducing us to why this album is so important: these plays on light and heavy, on emotional extremity and sensual intimacy are by now staples of progressive metal.
But that track contains only a fraction of what makes this album unique and great. Right after it, perhaps reiterating on the opening track, “Winning a War” highlights the new sound contained in this album, bigger and more powerful than had been heard until then. Backing vocals perfectly elevate Gildenlow’s vocals into realms of prowess but I beg of you to wear a sharper ear for a second. Literally for a second: see if you can spy the synths behind the drums on the transition contained just past the one minute and fifty seconds mark. Hear that? How they crash with the drums and then draw out the note for a few moments only to return with the drums once again? Where have you heard that before? Oh, well, just about anywhere. The aforementioned Opeth later used this on Blackwater Park, Ghost Reveries and Watershed and many more bands have made this sound ingrained into the bones of the progressive metal community. Not to mention that guitar bridge right after it and the way the strings bow in the face of the player and the groove section near the end of the track which are masterpieces in and of themselves.
Pushing on, we come face to face with the opening to “People Passing By” and lo and behold, it’s a bass/synth collaboration punctuated by a single word that ushers in the track. Starting to see the pattern? The track itself is a nine minute monster, utilizing tensions between a tightly contained verse, created once more by accurate bass orchestration, and a violent, furious chorus. Nor is Gildenlow finished with his chameleon-like talents, changing his voice once again to appear more ethereal, more spacious along the bridges which tie the verse/chorus structure together. The middle of the track revolves around yet another brilliant bass passage, this time backed by guitars and more cheesy synths, echoing back to Dream Theater and the place they were in at the time. The unisons which grow from this collaboration, and indeed the part of the drums in supporting them, also hint towards what progressive metal was doing at the time. Entropia is not just a solitary mountain, creating something without context that would shine into the future, but more a conversation, embedded within the tropes and tools of its time and working new ideas with them.
One of the most impressive traits of Entropia is how much goes on during its run-time. We’re only four tracks in and we’ve already touched upon not only many innovations but also many tie-ins to past creations. And we’re not looking to stop: “Stress” is filled to the brim with both. One could point towards the overlay of a single synth chord over the first bridge, to the breaking up riff after the first chorus (echoing of course Dream Theater’s “The Mirror”) or once again to the unique vocals that Gildenlow manages to create above but still in relation to the instrumentation. Whichever element we choose to stress (get it?), we still wind up with a pushing of the envelope: Pain of Salvation have already done so much but keep going, chained to the raw emotion and passion that drive them ever onward.
We could spend much longer going over everything else that goes on in this album but that would obfuscate this, the most important point. The thing that sets Entropia truly apart from both its predecessors and antecedents is that selfsame raw emotion and passion. Under the album there bubbles a fury, a drive to make things happen, an impetus that cannot be stopped. While Pain of Salvation went on to create many more great albums they’ve also never quite re-captured that glint in the corner of the eye, the fire that burns within the heart, the agony and pain channeled through their music on Entropia. Perhaps it’s the raw production or the young age in which they wrote the music. Perhaps it’s the moment in which it was released, on the cusp of so many things yet to come. It was probably all of that, coupled with intense musical skill, that made Entropia great. While it has fallen to the wayside in favor of bigger and more polished releases, it still holds a conviction that is hard to resist.
I should know. Ever since I’ve come back to it for this piece, I’ve been unable to put it down. Something about it just makes other albums pale in comparison, appear as shadows to the intense light that suffuses this creation. And we didn’t even touch on the fact that it’s a concept album, with intricate, interesting and poignant lyrics. It’s as if Entropia is an optical illusion: the more you look at it the more it reveals, even in places that you’d thought you’ve already understood. I’ve chosen to focus on its opening movements for a reason but I invite you to dive deeper into this fantastic album and discover just how much it had to give then and how much it still has to give today. It’s truly an album that grows better with time, as we come back to it with more developed ears and understanding, allowing us to listen to all it has to say.