Take a look at Pain of Salvation's discography and Med's review of Be and you might be drawn to believe that Pain of Salvation is a piece of unsalvageable pretentious wankery. If you have a look at the 'Other members liked' section in the Be review, you might also think that they are Dream Theater wannabees with much the same style. You'd be wrong on both counts.
At least on this album, Pain of Salvation is driven neither by obscenely complicated instrumental arrangements, nor by five minute shred fests or keyboard solos. On The Perfect Element Part 1, the main force behind the band - and the thing that makes you sit up and pay attention - is the amazing and incredibly diverse voice of Daniel Gildenlow. I swear the man can do just about anything, and the music of Pain of Salvation takes full advantage of his talent, alternating between fast paced metal riffage with Daniel adopting a harsh, grating vocal style, and softer, more melodic arrangements, allowing Daniel's vocal line to soar above unassuming yet beautiful guitar and keyboard parts. In fact, Pain of Salvation manage to do both of these in the album's opener, Used.
I mentioned that Pain of Salvation were not like Dream Theater or other bands that get labeled as wankery. This is true, but The Perfect Element Part One is still a heavy listen. It's not something that you just pop in and listen to a couple of songs. The styles are many and varied. The songs are long. The titles are sometimes incomprehensible (Idioglossia, anyone?) In the time-honoured tradition of prog, The Perfect Element Part One is a concept album, in this case dealing with the formation of the individual. As Part One, it concentrates more on childhood and adolescence. It's quite a stomachful to digest. But The Perfect Element is well worth the effort.
Yes, there are solos. These, however, are tasteful and smooth. I'm pretty sure it's Hallgren doing the soloing, and he's very good. But he restrains himself for the most part, producing a refreshing change from the play-as-fast-as-you-can, I'm-not-happy-unless-my-fingers-are-bleeding approach of some prog I could mention (Racer X comes to mind). Yes, there are symphonic arrangements. These work well across the board, the most notable examples being the dramatic opening to Used, the wall-of-sound chorus of Ashes, and Epilogue (which is a symphonic instrumental closing piece). Hermansson does the vast majority of these symphonic parts (Epilogue being the exception) and he does a very good job. In fact, Hermansson is used well across the board, providing an extra layer of sound that helps to give the album its epic feel. Yes, Gildenlow's lyrics are completely opaque. They're probably decipherable, but the music is so good that I don't feel the need.
The Perfect Element Part 1 covers a lot of ground musically. This is perhaps a weakness of the album; to me, it doesn't quite come across as a whole. It's so diverse that it's almost a collection of songs rather than a work of togetherness. Which it isn't meant to be - it is after all a concept album. The structure also works against Daniel and crew; the placement of Idioglossia adjacent to Her Voices (both weighing in at around eight minutes) usually results in me skipping one or the other. Dedication, an acoustic track, is placed next to King of Loss, which, while not being a 'soft' song, takes a while to get going, so you don't really feel in the mood for the two minute long softer intro. However, these are all minor quibbles that don't detract markedly from the album.
This is going to make the review much too long, but here's a track-by-track.
Used - 4.5/5
Pain of Salvation announce themselves with tense symphonic arrangements and unusual drumming patterns. To start the song proper, Daniel makes a kind of 'whuh' sound and Used devolves into a strange techno-influenced, sparse verse. The lyrics are strangely sexual and packed full of innuendoes, delivered by Daniel in his low-and-harsh incarnation. PoS flex their rhythm muscles in the off-beat 'Getting used to pain' prechorus, before Daniel switches voices and wails over a melodic and gentle guitar and keyboard part. Hallgren unleashes awesomeness on his guitar in the form of a killer solo, and the tension just builds and builds as the band chants 'Getting used to pain' under Daniel's impossibly high lead vocal line. An interesting mix of sounds in this one, and a good opener.
In The Flesh - 5/5
This is my favourite proper song on the album. It opens with a ridiculously catchy lightly distorted guitar pattern on the higher strings. The chorus in the first section is very laid back and relaxing, settling the listener down after the hype-up of Used. Daniel croons 'Fly away, fly away, fly away, don't be afraid, don't hesitate, fly away' over the same riff, which hasn't gotten boring yet. It picks up the energy around the 4:30 mark, before returning with an even cooler guitar line. This part is hard to describe, but Daniel's voice melds perfectly with Hallgren and Langell's parts. As with Used, the sound thickens and the tension and emotion builds, with Daniel's vocal line imitated in constantly higher registers. At 6:53 the instruments cut out and the vocals continue over a sustained single note, before the song takes yet another change of pace by moving into a piano/acoustic guitar section. The next section is really the intro to Ashes, as you hear the harmonised keyboard/guitar to that song drift in...
Ashes - 4/5
If you"ve heard anything from The Perfect Element, this is probably the one you"ve heard. That strange harmonized ostinato opens the song, and continues with only the vocals. The drums enter in the prechorus and then Pain of Salvation hit you with the densest section in the album " cymbals crash, synthetic orchestra parts soar, Daniel has some kind of strange effect on his voice, and guitar is lost amongst the wall of sound. This song is very emotional, yet the chorus is headbangingly heavy. Hallgren shows off with some decent shredding before the song devolves into a mess of dissonant guitar lines and feedback.
Morning On Earth " 5/5
Again a change of pace. Pain of Salvation let you down from the tension of Ashes with this laid back, beautiful piece of music. Hallgren opens with a very, very cool guitar line of harmonics. Daniel stays in his upper registers throughout this song, but the fact that his vocal line exactly follows the melody of the guitar is a tad annoying. The bass is audible for once in this song, emerging through the mix to play some very nice licks. The combination of fragile guitar tone and Daniel"s voice combine to make the track well-named " it does bring to mind images of morning. There"s a spoken word section, but it"s nothing special. Full marks for sheer relaxation and beauty factors.
Idioglossia " 3/5
I don"t really like this song. It"s too long, and it changes too many times for you to believe that it"s still the same song. I keep looking back at Winamp and going "Is Idioglossia over yet?" It doesn"t really flow properly, although there are some cool parts " the chorus to Ashes is reprised quite well, and around the 6:00 mark there"s a new section that saves the song from complete mediocrity. The last half of Idioglossia is much better than the first half. The main problem, though, is that Idioglossia is long, and is in the middle of the album, breaking it up a bit. I usually end up skipping this in favour of Her Voices. One thing to watch out for, though, is Daniel"s insane scream at 7:00. It"s mindblowing.
Her Voices " 4/5
The strength of this song is that it just slips by without you ever thinking "When"s the end?", or wishing for a different part of the song. Where you are is always a good place to be, if you get my meaning. The first half is ballad-like, before moving into that loud-but-fragile-and-emotional thing that Pain of Salvation do so well. An almost-solo comes in and repeats for a while. This section is really just a transition between the first half and the insanely dramatic, bring-in-the-symphony section that comes after it. The whole song seems like it"s been building to this moment as Daniel belts it over the top of a choir and various symphonic instruments. Suddenly the band bows out and it"s just Daniel and the piano. This song had many sections, like Idioglossia, but they flow together much better. This last section leads into Dedication, the next song.
Dedication " 5/5
This is pure class. Soft, emotional and gentle, listening to Dedication is like floating on a calm sea with nothing else in sight. That sounds overly melodramatic, but it"s what Pain of Salvation are best at. The song lacks the building sections of the rest of the album, but that"s fine. The addition of a piano melody halfway through is all the ornamentation needed. Not much more to say on this, other than go and listen to it now.
King of Loss " 3.75/5
Doesn"t quite deserve a four. Most people that I know don"t like this song, but I"m not quite sure why. The opening is quality PoS, and continues to build and build until we get to the chorus. The chorus to King of Loss is possibly the most annoying thing ever put to disc. Daniel"s vocal follows the up-and-down, slidey melody of the guitar, and it just doesn"t work. Frankly, it"s rubbish. However, the rest of the song is much, much better. The main thing about King of Loss is that it doesn"t seem to stand out. Oh, and it"s too long.
Reconciliation " 5/5
The thing you notice straight away is that the melody from Morning on Earth has been brought back from the grave in the form of a killer lead guitar line and vamped up to about twice the speed. However, this melodic section quickly goes away in favour of a chug-chug syncopated distorted guitar. Daniel breaks into harsh-and-low again in this section, providing a nice contrast. The melodic influences quickly reappear, with a bit more drive this time courtesy of some decent drum work. The song pretty much repeats this formula, with the awesome Morning On Earth lead line coming back right at the end. Killer song.
Song for the Innocent " 4/5
Starts off quiet, and you"re thinking "Nothing too special." Then Pain of Salvation hit you with an awesome middle instrumental section, featuring a great solo. This takes up a good half of the relatively short song, and it"s over before you know it. It gets severely marked up due to this solo section.
Falling " 5/5
Speaking of solos, this song is one. Ala "Shine On You Crazy Diamond", this is just a guitar meandering over some gently played synth stuff. If you"re a fan of this sort of thing, Falling is one of the best tracks on the album. It"s emotional and beautiful. Its only shortcoming is that it only lasts for under two minutes. Personally, this is my favourite song after In The Flesh.
The Perfect Element " 5/5
The longest song on the album. I won"t go into detail because it"s very long and complicated and I"m getting tired, but this song rocks. As a closer it"s perfect, covering all the musical ground that the album"s been through over the past hour or so. The sections are many and varied, but the song flows very well and it"s over before you know it. Quality.
I won"t rate this because it feels tacked-on to me, with The Perfect Element being the real closer of the album. It"s a symphony, a real one, not the keyboard synth, and as a classical piece of music it"s not too good. As a random tension-letter-offerer, though, it"s good. Like I said, nothing too special, but worth listening to.
This album is really quite good. It"s the only Pain of Salvation album I own, and if the rest are as good, they"re definitely worth picking up.
Daniel"s amazing variety of vocal sounds
Cool tension/release structure of songs, and tracklisting
Hallgren is awesome
Some kickass songs
Some less good, and very long, songs
Can get tiring if you"re not in the mood
On this album, Pain of Salvation is:
Daniel Gildenlow - Vocals/Guitar
Fredrik Hermansson - Keyboards
Johan Hallgren - Guitar/Vocals
Johan Langell - Drums/Vocals
Kristoffer Gildenlow - Bass/Vocals