Album Review: Pain of Salvation, “PANTHER”

I have been a fan of Pain of Salvation for over 20 years now. When I first discovered this band, they had just released The Perfect Element Pt. 1. At the time, they were the rising stars of the prog genre, known for taking everything up to 11. At the time, they had made a name for themselves as a a band that would tackle big themes with complex, brainy, intricate music. They wrote concepts about morality, war, the nature of God, nuclear proliferation, and that’s just a start. I remember years ago, after trying to get my brother into Pain of Salvation for the 90th time, he finally said, “Look man, their music is intimidating! It’s like sitting down and deciding to read the entire Dune series.” I’d say it was a fair assessment.

Years later, they’re still writing music. But, their albums have become increasingly introspective over the years, with more human stories taking center stage. This progression makes sense to me- what is more complicated than human relationships and emotions? Pain of Salvation’s last album, In the Passing Light of Day, was pure emotional catharsis- a musical retelling of frontman Daniel Gildenlow’s life-threatening illness. Although the album covered lots of ground, the song “Full Throttle Tribe” introduced the existential theme that would form the basis of PANTHER. In that song, Daniel talks about how his loneliness is an outgrowth of feeling displaced, with lyrics like “I never signed onto this mankind, no color, race or creed felt truly mine.” He talks about how he wants to create his own “tribe”, where his intensity and unconventionality is accepted.

Panther is a continuation of this cluster of themes- discontent with modern society, a feeling of displacement, a longing for a ‘tribe’ that accepts without judgement or an eye towards rehabilitation. From the very first track, “ACCELERATOR”, the band comes out swinging , with an aggressive indictment of modern society that sets the stage for this album. The dichotomy of the “restless and untamed” vs. the “normals” is an important one on this album, as a contempt towards a society that assimilates and squeezes out originality and uniqueness is central to the narrative. I love this track- it has a feral energy that permeates throughout the track, and makes you want to run a few laps.

“UNFUTURE” starts with downtuned acoustic guitars and almost industrial sounding production, which instantly reminded me of One Hour By the Concrete Lake‘s “The Big Machine”. The lyrics paint a dystopian reality, where our hopes and dreams are crushed. “RESTLESS BOY”, the next track, starts out with several layers of synthesizers and a brilliantly unconventional groove. As soon as the “I can see that you’re trying to understand” part kicks in, it’s hard not to bang your head. This song is pretty great overall, but I think it’s a particularly exemplary showcase of drummer Leo Margarit’s incredible breadth as a drummer. The way he switches from a highly syncopated groove in the verses to Meshuggah-esque pentuplet groupings is seamless.

“WAIT” quickly became one of my favorite tracks on the album. As a longtime fan of Pain of Salvation, this track felt very familiar, with the exception of autotune on Daniel’s voice during the verses. I know some will take issue, but I think autotune can be used tastefully as a vocal effect rather than a corrective measure. Particularly in this song, it creates a mechanical distance that contributes to the impatient, restless, melancholy atmosphere that the song is trying to create. The chorus is one of my favorites since “To the Shoreline”, with gorgeous harmonies and melodies that stay in your head. It’s painfully melancholic and beautiful.

“KEEN TO A FAULT” is built around a fascinating rhythmic pattern, with a programmed keyboard part, a clever acoustic riff, and complex drumming that playfully switches how it leads. The next track, “FUR”, though short, is a beautiful instrumental piece that reminds me of some intersection between Punch Brothers and Danny Elfman’s soundtrack work.

I’ve seen a few reviews that have mentioned the title track, “PANTHER”, and I think this might be one of the more divisive tracks on the album for first time listeners. Those of us who have been following Pain of Salvation for a while are used to Daniel’s speak-singing , with songs like “Used” and “Ending Theme” being notable examples. This isn’t my favorite track on the album, but it does provide necessary context for the narrative. ” ‘How does it feel to be you?’ She once asked me. I said I feel like a panther, trapped in a dog’s world.” The juxtaposition is important- the way I see it, panthers are sly, independent, ingenious, and strong, while dogs have the behavioral temperaments that are a byproduct of centuries of domestication- they are obedient, loyal to a fault, and subservient. I think the production on this track reminds me a bit of late 90’s/early 00’s nu-metal, which isn’t entirely a bad thing. This track grew on me the most.

So, what do you do if you’re a panther, stuck in a dog’s world, cramped in a doghouse, forced to eat dog food? You withdraw, which is the theme of one of my favorite songs on the album, “SPECIES”. It paints the picture of a person pushed to the margins of society, living off the grid, not necessarily by choice, but well adapted to this unusual lifestyle. The chorus rings so true, in this day and age: “Sometimes I hate my fucking species/Yet most days I’ll do anything to please it.” While other album closers are more bombastic, “ICON” ends the album with a dark, contemplative feeling that doesn’t quite leave you feeling completely resolved, as haunting and psychedelic guitars spin out of control as Daniel repeats the refrain, “she keeps on calling me.” And as I considered the reasons why it would end with a psych-y fadeout, I think the theme of the album is discontent, so perhaps it indicates that this sort of angst/ennui is a perpetual cycle for those who are different. Just a guess.

As I have worked with individuals who are neurodivergent, I can’t help but apply the messages of this album to how we treat those with disabilities. If a listener only views the whole dichotomy between the normal and the “wild and untamed” as purely an existential journey towards self-actualization, there’s another side of the album might be ignored. I say this because I have autistic friends who help me see that the whole concept of a societal “normal” is flawed. Behaviors I’ve been conditioned to accept as normal are actually quite bizarre. Yet, mainstream society often struggles to make room for those who are different, even though the society that they are trying to adapt to doesn’t make much sense either. I’m not sure if the band was specifically seeking to address neurodiversity, but I felt like it fit.

As someone who has always struggled with feeling different than everyone else, I felt that I could relate with the central message, and it’s quite empowering when you internalize the message that it’s a source of power to embrace your differences, whatever they might be- your mental illnesses, your sensitivities, your perspectives, your interests; in short, your unique self.

The press release mentioned that this album would be one that would grow on the listener over time, and I would agree. I immediately liked about half of the album (“ACCELERATOR”, “RESTLESS BOY”, “WAIT”, and “SPECIES” being among my favorites), but over time, I felt like I fell in love with the other songs, and started trying to listen to the album in full, so that I could see the bigger picture. All albums benefit from close listenings with headphones or a good sound system, but I feel like there’s so much going on on this album sonically that you absolutely lose part of the experience if you don’t use headphones or actual speakers. For example, I first listened to “ACCELERATOR” on my phone’s speaker, and was shocked at how differently it sounded on my desktop. Yes, this is always the case, but on this album it’s even more so.

PANTHER is a sincere, introspective, and powerful album that will win you over if you let it. Fans of the band will love the new musical elements that have been added to the mix, and new fans will find a strong, fascinating offering with infectious melodies and a highly experimental approach. “Progressive” music can be ironically stale, but it is always truly refreshing when progressive bands actually progress.

Pain of Salvation’s latest album, PANTHER, will be released on August 28th, 2020 through InsideOut music. Pre-order it here.

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