Album Review: Pain of Salvation, “The Perfect Element Pt. 1 (Anniversary Mix 2020)”

It’s hard to believe that Pain of Salvation’s brilliant album The Perfect Element Pt.1 came out 20 years ago. I was part of the group of prog metal fans that discovered the genre via Dream Theater. Upon discovering Pain of Salvation (through the Dream Theater message board), I felt like I had moved up a level as far as progressive music goes. I found a band that had incredibly intricate and technical musical passages, breathtaking vocals, and very intense lyrical themes. I was in prog-geek-Heaven.

To celebrate the 20th anniversary of The Perfect Element Pt.1, Pontus Lindmark and Thor Legvold/Sonovo remastered and remixed the album. Part of me always wonders why these remasters are necessary. As I see remasters come out each year, I think to myself: why mess with a great thing? The answer, for me, is that in almost every case, I feel like listening to the new mixes is instructive to me as a listener. I’m made aware of some part of the music that was previously muddled or tinny or lost in the mix, and that often enhances my appreciation for the record.

One of my favorite improvements in this new mix is the prominence of the strings. I thought the original mix of “Morning on Earth” was beautiful, but the lush string arrangements on this new mix really bring out a mood and atmosphere that, to me, really enhances the song. I also noticed that the harmonies are more prominent- “Idioglossia” is a great example of this. I do think there are some major sonic improvements in this mix, though it still feels recognizable for the most part.

Having said that, this is a highly emotional album, and, to me, the success of this mix has more to do with retaining the powerful emotions of the original album. With that as the rubric, I think this mix was a success, as the atmosphere and mood was augmented in subtle but meaningful ways. For the most part, the guitars feel heavier, the strings and harmonies make the songs feel more full, and the calm moments feel more subdued and tender.

Though it’s often futile to ponder why a band is it isn’t popular, I still don’t fully understand why a band like Pain of Salvation isn’t often mentioned among the best progressive metal acts of the last 20 years. Other bands like Dream Theater, Porcupine Tree, and Devin Townsend (who I love) have exponentially grown in appreciation and popularity, but Pain of Salvation seems to be excluded from mention among the more “important” albums and artists of modern prog metal. If I had a hypothesis, it would be that the music is too overwhelming in many ways. In this album’s case, the themes of abuse, addiction, self harm, and despair make it a heavy listen. The album’s diversity might also work against those who might struggle with a song like “Used”, which jumps from rap-infused metal to pop without skipping a beat. While I think it’s incredibly impressive that a band can write a song as heavy as “King of Loss” and as tender and touching as “Dedication” (two songs that are equally emotionally intense but very, very different), other people might be turned off by too much variety. Reviewers sometimes call this “lack of focus”, but I almost always view it as a strength unless the song feels so completely out of place that it removes you from the world they’re trying to create.

When I first discovered prog, I was drawn in by the complexity and flashiness- the fun. Pain of Salvation’s music is not what I would call “fun” music. It’s intense, and thought provoking, and deep, and in some cases, highly emotional. This is not to say that the music doesn’t have some amazing, jaw dropping, flashy parts, but unlike other prog bands, the complexity serves the music and isn’t milked to excess. In my mind, progressive music fans are looking for bands that take everything to 11, but I do think that Pain of Salvation’s music might even take it to 12- concept albums about the nature of God, the banality of evil, child soldiers, nuclear proliferation, addiction, miscarriages, existential angst, suicide, etc. might feel like a lot, but then when they’re written in 21/8, it might push things over the top. They’re never a casual listen, even at their simplest.

In closing, I think fans of Pain of Salvation’s music will appreciate this remix, but I genuinely hope that the rerelease of this legendary album will introduce new listeners to an album that felt ahead of its time 20 years ago, and will help their brilliance be appreciated in a world that might be more ready to take on their intensity and fury. And luckily, Pain of Salvation’s is still going strong many years later, with a series of quality releases in recent years (most recently with 2020’s Panther and also 2017’s In the Passing Light of Day). I genuinely hope that these remixes might inspire a new generation of fans to check out their back catalogue as well.

Buy the album here.

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