Eleven albums into an illustrious career, Pain Of Salvation are arguably the quintessential prog band. Always changing and evolving their sound, the band have remained consistent throughout. 2017’s In The Passing Light Of Day was a very intimate affair written in the wake of vocalist Daniel Gildenlow’s hospitalisation and subsequent near-death experience that seemed to harken a return to guitar-driven music.
On eleventh album Panther, the band see no reason to change one tradition, delivering another concept album. The album centres on a world with a small population of panthers, those different such as on the autism spectrum, living in a world populated by, and designed for, dogs - or, neurotypical people.
In almost every other way though, Panther is a very different beast - pun intended - to its predecessor. Gone is the focus on guitars, possibly due in part to the departure of guitarist Ragnar Zolberg. In its place is a very left-field change in direction, with industrial electronic influences along with synths and glitching effects throughout. It’s an altogether grimier affair, one that dives deep into the seedier underbelly of the world it inhabits. While it is a far less immediate album, the payoff is, for the most part, no less rewarding.
Opener ‘Accelerator’ uses swirling synths with polyrhythmic guitarwork and an off-kilter time signature, lurching suddenly into being. It paints a picture of an uncompromising and uncomfortable world through its glitching, industrial soundscapes. While it’s one of the most immediate songs on the album and a solid opener, it’s also a weaker track with relatively little buildup compared to the rest of the album. In contrast, the sorrowful, piano-driven beginnings of ‘Wait’ crescendo to a grandiose power ballad that tugs masterfully at the heartstrings. The most straightforward rock song is penultimate track ‘Species’, employing more ordinary time signatures and sounds like early grunge channeled through the lens of Pain Of Salvation.
The instrumental moments are some of the strongest points on Panther such as the clean-picked acoustic lick that underpins ‘Keen To A Fault’ along with the balladry of ‘Wait’. They let the songs breathe and unfurl at their own pace, rather than driving ahead solely on guitars or vocal lines. Closer ‘Icon’ is a mammoth, thirteen-and-a-half minute epic that switches from its piano-led opening to glitchy electronics before debuting a monolithic bassline that’s one of the heaviest moments of the album. Standout moments include the yearning guitar break that firmly puts the focus on guitar work and its stomping bassline is joined by Gildenlow’s emotive croon. The song crescendos in its final few minutes to close the album with layered vocals, swathes of keys and scattered drum fills.
The grimier, industrial feel of the album is balanced against a production that matches this without suffocating. It feels claustrophobic, ebbing and flowing between urgency and unsettling slower passages. There are missteps; title track ‘Panther’ sees the unwelcome return of Gildenlow’s rapping, but as with the direction Pain Of Salvation took with Panther, it’s a bold choice. The song doesn’t stand up on its own merits but slots in well with the album as a whole. It also features the most heavy-handed symbolism with the lyrics “How does it feel to be you? / She once asked me / I said, I feel like a panther / Trapped in a dog’s world”. It comes across as more of an “us vs. them” of “weirdos and normies” that sadly detracts from the concept with its cringeworthy lyrics.
The industrial influences and polyrhythms are where the album is at its strongest and there’s plenty of instrumental moments that let these truly shine. The least immediate moments also bring some of the best moments, with ‘Wait’ a particular highlight as it gradually unfurls over its seven minutes with a payoff that’s well worth it. Panther is let down predominantly by the sky-high expectations set with In The Passing Light Of Day and Panther’s missteps. That said, fans of the band and prog will find something they like here and it’s a bold move to make such a huge departure from previous albums and sounds, that for the most part, is well worth it.
Panther is out now via Inside Out Music. Purchase the record here.