The figure of the auteur is one which we’ve discussed on the blog multiple times. More than just an artist figure, the auteur represents a willpower which motivates an entire project, stamping their name (for good or for bad) on an album, a discography or any other form of art. It also represents a site of unprecedented danger, as arrogance, egotism and a simple lack of inspiration hover on the edges of creativity and look for a way in, looking for a way to twist art into navel-gazing self congratulation. Pain of Salvation have been skirting with these ephemeral lines between artistic impetus and artistic extravagance for years now, ever since Daniel Gildenlöw closed ranks around his vision and aesthetic. The previous three albums (and, one might argue, perhaps four) were mostly about his vision and his expression.
Even fans of the previous few albums (as this reviewer sometimes is) must admit that something was lost along the way, drowned in the excess of self expression that seemed to trouble Gildenlöw. However, so far the band have been able to avoid the complete plunge into the void which constantly looms around their work. The albums were obsessed with self articulation where it had already been achieved numerous times, to be certain, but their music and ideas were often fresh enough to shepherd the listener along their more bloated ideals (this excludes their previous release, Falling Home, which, besides being not that good, was also not really a full release in the classical sense). That being said, the previous releases still toiled under the same suspicions and were unable to completely dispel them. Thus, the latest release by the band is suspect; is In the Passing Light of Day, especially when considering the circumstances of Gildenlöw’s life (and near death), able to skirt away from the abyss of artistic self congratulation and produce something more?
The answer is exactly the same as on both Road Salt albums and, to some extent, on Scarsick and BE. That answer is: yes and no. Like previous releases, In the Passing Light of Day contains much to be lauded and enjoyed, even by die hard fans of the olden days of Pain of Salvation. Plenty of moments on it are honest, well written and well executed. However, too much of it is hedonistic, falling head first in to the singular momentum of Gildenlöw’s internal landscape. The result is an album that’s almost great but is weighed down by plenty of filler, tracks which feel not emotionally dishonest but rather emotionally excessive, themes stressed to the point of bursting along the seams (there’s a reference here, for you hardcore fans).
Let’s perhaps start by focusing on the bad, getting these contrite moments out of the way so that we can focus on the good. In this choice is perhaps revealed how much of a fan this writer is; all breaks, concessions and favor were afforded this album, as his heart truly wanted to love it. However, complete acceptance is denied by the shorter tracks on the album. Seven out of ten tracks can be classified as “shorter” on this album and out of those, barring “Silent Gold” and “If This is the End”, five of them fall incredibly short of their intended impact. They focus on nothing more than the loss and dejection which came with Gildenlöw’s brush with death and while that’s certainly a worthy, important and complex subject, it suffers from the repeated focus. Musically as well these tracks are constrained by similarity.
“Reasons” and “Meaningless” (whose names already hint at their coupling) try and scratch the same “heavier Road Salt” itch and end up cancelling each other out musically, their iteration left without much sense. “Angels of Broken Things” and “The Taming of a Beast” feel incredibly dishonest, with their mostly quiet run-time which then attempts to assert itself near the end in an almost identical structure. There’s no variety there, no real contrast and thus, any emotional impact that their culminations might have had is lost in how obvious their delivery is. “Silent Gold” begins our examination of the better sides of the album. Gildenlöw is once again the focus of the track but his voice is so broken on it, so sincere in its emotion, that it carries much more weight than its brethren do. The fuzzy piano only contributes and the faint intonations of bass on the chorus are perfect. The lyrics as well are much fresher than any other, shorter track, with a fascinating perception of god and community. The backing vocals are also a welcome addition, garnering the track more variety and coloration.
All of this leads us to discussing the longer tracks on the albums, those which save this album from being a complete sinkhole. All three of them, “On a Tuesday”, “Full Throttle Tribe” and “The Passing Light of Day”, are nothing less than marvelous, a portal into the early days of the band and the power of expression they once held. First, Ragnar Zolberg. While we shouldn’t be surprised by now of his proficiency, he shines extra bright on this album. His backing vocals, whether along choruses or otherwise, are simply brilliant and add so much needed humility and strength to Gildenlöw’s execution (which are, make no mistake, equally proficient). He’s become a valuable member of the band whose very presence propels them into new heights. Secondly, the drums. Léo Margarit is a goddamn magician but here, it’s the production rather than his playing that most strongly carries the parts. The drums, and the guitars too while we’re at it, sound absolutely exquisite, a true joy to listen to.
But what would great backing vocals and drums be without the actual tracks they’re participating in? From the gritty opening of “On a Tuesday”, obviously mimicking the famous “Used”, through the intensely energetic linchpin track of “Full Throttle Tribe” and all the way to touching and epic closer “The Passing Light of Day”, each one of these longer tracks are some of the finest Pain of Salvation we’ve had in years. Their run-time enables them to fully spread their wings, to feel comfortable with their ideas and the execution thereof. Gildenlöw as well sounds much better here, as his vocals are often dotted by more substantial, instrumental part, granting the listener respite from his delivery and thus greater appreciation of it when it returns. The closing track is especially excellent, with Gildenlöw absolutely devastating in his delivery on both the mute opening and the incredibly majestic refrains near its end.
All in all, these longer tracks are Pain of Salvation as we once knew them, a cohesive unit moving forward while exploring social, political and emotional ideas side by side, instead of relegating them to disparate pieces along the album. That’s perhaps the album’s greatest sin, in a certain respect: it moves between the more expansive and emotive long tracks to the more contained and separate short tracks and, in the process, loses a sense of cohesiveness which is sorely needed on Pain of Salvation releases. When considered as a whole, it can be incredibly frustrating. On one hand, we love some of it; the parts where it shines are bright and convincing. On the other, it’s hard to ignore the more contrived and needlessly self-obsessed parts of it, dragging the excellence within it down. Is this a sign to stop following this band? Not quite but it’s also no saving grace, no return to form. In that sense it’s even more frustrating. We’re still here, Pain of Salvation; we’re still here, Gildenlöw—but know that we hark for greater things. We can sense them there but there’s more polish, honesty and, most of all, humility that’s required to bring them forth.
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In the Passing Light of Day was released on Friday the 13th of January, via InsideOut Music. You can purchase it right here.