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If there's one statement to be made about Pain Of Salvation's unique take on concept albums, it's that they're not content with simply letting the lyrics tell the story; rather, the contextual visage of each album bleeds right through into the music, and it's most evident right here on 2007's Scarsick. Dissonant, straightforward riffing and aggrivated tones dominate this opus as fitting with the concept, but does it work? Let's scale back a bit.
Prior to this release, Pain Of Salvation was riding pretty on the coattails of its previous album BE, the conceptual behemoth that spawned a live DVD and a hell of a lot of scratched heads (Read the DVD booklet; it's very helpful). But needless to say, after a track record like Pain Of Salvation's, expectations were sky-high for Scarsick. Well, I think it's fair to say that it blew away the expectations of all involved...in various directions.
So what we've here is the proper part-two to the much-lauded Perfect Element album, so it feels only fair to address the concept in order to give context to the music. The last of that album left a young man against that dirty floor, eyes fixed on the ceiling - tossed around and left embittered to the world that shunned him. Scarsick takes us into the mind and through the eyes of this young man.
In this way, this album succeeds where a more traditional approach couldn't have reached: a bitter, sardonic mostly-rapped Spitfall mocks and lashes out at materialistic rappers, while elsewhere cheery and bouncy melodies house the seething lyrics that criticize America in the song of the same name. The 'sick' and 'scarred' memes are repeated many times throughout the album, being drilled into the listener's head by the time the final track Enter Rain comes to a close. Irony and mood juxtaposition are just two of the thematic devices at work here, but the most important question of the music is whether it's an enjoyable listen or not.
So is it? Well, sort of. Much of the musically-linking threads from PoS's past releases - such when the refrain breaks down into a euphoric wall of sound under Gildenlow's passionate vocal acrobatics - are either missing or altered here. Influences are grabbed from every which way, with a greater influence on rapping (Much of the title track and Spitfall) in the beginning and then 70s pop in America and even disco with the bizarre and somewhat erratic, drawn-out and even a little disturbing Disco Queen, but much of the rest of the album is deep in its own embittered little style. I even sense a little bit of Korn in some of the stop-start riffs and panted or angrily-shouted but clean vocal work at points. That last part alone would be enough to turn off many metalheads I know without a second thought, but it's difficult to paint a single style that dominates the whole album. The individual songs, however, seem focused within themselves, not straying from their territories for the most part. What you hear in the first few minutes of the song will likely be what you hear in the last few minutes, with a few exceptions.
Speaking of which, Cribcaged. This is weird for PoS - it has one or two vocal melodies throughout the whole song and has "fuck" in half the lines. I'm fine with the swearing and the lyrics as they fit with the theme, but the song is just very repetitive. There are a few nice parts, but it and others on the album such as Scarsick and Kingdom Of Loss suffer from that lack of variation. It gets somewhat boring on repeated listens.
I see no problems with the production, though. It's darn crispy.
Can this be compared to the rest of the band's collection, or even just to its predecessor? Not really. This is bound to be remembered as the black sheep of the band's discography, a rougher and grittier but deliberate effort: by that I mean that it wasn't brought about by a lack of focus within the musicians, such as Helloween's Chameleon, but rather a purposeful shift in focus for the recording, such as Sonata Arctica's Unia.
It's important to remember, though, that for those of us who know well Pain Of Salvation, the boys haven't sold out or lost their direction; on the contrary, it would seem that they know exactly what they're doing, to the point of releasing an album so musically into He's theme of bitterness, despair and anger that they seemed to have angered quite a few people in the process. Don't fear, though - if I'm right and this whole opus was written as a thematic extension of its lyrics and concept, then Daniel and co. will have new and very different material coming up for us on the next record.
Buy/download/avoid? If you've read through this and aren't feeling confident about it, then download a few songs - try America with its infectiously catchy everything and Spitfall with its surprisingly well-rounded and paced rap job. This is the kind of album that was unleashed upon a fanbase that wasn't expecting its style, but it deserves a look both as a historical discography curiosity and to see what became of The Perfect Element Part II.