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I've reviewed three other Pain of Salvation albums here. All rather highly rated. All turned out to be obnoxiously long reviews because I couldn't stop myself from writing until I had every little detail that made those albums so great down on paper. One has been dubbed my favorite album of all time. I generally hold Pain of Salvation in the absolute highest tier of not just great progressive metal, but godly music in general. I view Daniel Gildenlow as one of the most talented and powerful individuals in the business. I even managed to enjoy the musical clusterfuck and lyrical labyrinth that was BE. In short, I pretty much unconditionally love this band like a typical naive fanboy.
That being said, Pain of Salvation have managed to release an album that I completely fucking despise with every fiber of my being. I didn't just get this album yesterday, either. I've had it for around two years, which is generally more than enough time for me to "understand" an album that I dislike at first - assuming there's anything in it worth understanding to begin with. No such luck here.
This band has always been very good at a few critical things - taking an idea or a concept, building a tangible framework around that concept, crafting a world to house that framework, and then developing an intricate and empathic musical journey through that world wherein both the lyrics *and* the music express the nuances of the original concept. One is incomplete without the other. As such, their music has never really been a vessel for the instrumental masturbation that you typically find in progressive metal. Rather, they utilize their instruments as a medium for the listener to lose themselves in the world that has been presented. This approach has produced a number of stellar albums, and some albums that were pretty strange but, at the end of the day, still captivating. One in particular seems overly relevant -
Since Scarsick is the direct followup to The Perfect Element I, I feel that I should mention a few things about that album. The Perfect Element I is basically about a boy (He) and a girl (She) living in a fictional place known as Idioglossia. As the characters grow up together, they each have vital things missing in their lives which leave empty spaces in their wake, and the characters consequently choose to fill these empty spaces in rather depraved and jarring ways while trying to survive in the dreary backside of society. The album encompasses a large number of complex and interrelated themes, including childhood, adolescence, violence, sexuality, tragedy, loss, the human mind and soul, the individual and the society in which he exists, emotional extremes, and more. The album eventually comes to a conclusion with a focus on the male counterpart, He, as his society shuns him, burns the spark of life out of him, and drains all will out of his soul. The lyricism on The Perfect Element I is incredibly dark and distraught, but also very poetic and intelligent. The way the lyrics are delivered gives the listener insight into what the characters are feeling and the trials which they are being pushed through. The music behind the words admirably enhances the vocal delivery. Overall, the album is incredibly moving and largely convincing.
Fast forward to Scarsick. The album is a continuation of the story introduced on The Perfect Element I, but the focus has shifted entirely to He after his destructive falling out with society. Now, remember what I said about Pain of Salvation being really good at taking a concept and developing an encompassing lyrical and musical framework around it? Apparently, the male protagonist from TPE is now very bitter and completely pissed off at everything, and Pain of Salvation *really* want you to know that. No longer do we have the wide range of themes that were found on TPE. Here, there's pretty much one theme - "I'M ANGRY AND CYNICAL AND I HATE EVERYTHING." Now, from a conceptual perspective I can completely understand the basic approach that the band has taken. We have this utterly wrecked character who has been gradually transformed into a sardonic prick, and as usual the lyrics and the music are going to as closely as possible reflect the things that this character is feeling. The only problem this time around is that the things that this character is feeling apparently translate into really fucking horrible music and embarrassingly pathetic lyrics. A great concept is a great concept and a great story is a great story, but if your delivery is unlistenable, then you have an issue.
The other problem is that while the themes and ideas on TPE were genuinely interesting and abstract, the stuff on Scarsick comes way too close to being a vessel for Daniel's personal views on Western civilization. It's not exactly a big secret that Daniel doesn't like the United States government very much. At one point he even refused to go on a tour in the US because he didn't want to submit to the US government's finger printing requirements for foreign visitors. So here we have the song "America". Not only is the music itself irritating as all hell with its bouncy rhythms and poppy melodies (for an example of how to do this in a slightly less retarded fashion, look back to the Entropia album and the song "Stress"), but the lyrics are typical anti-war, anti-government, anti-capitalism stuff - and they're more banal than interesting.
To further exacerbate the lyrical tragedy, you have songs like "Cribcaged" where Daniel includes the f-bomb in something like 16 or 17 consecutive vocal lines, denouncing everything from home designers and strip poles to million dollar kitchens and Al Pacino posters. F this. F that. And that. Oh, and that too. And those dozen things over there also. Come on. Seriously? I mean, to be honest, I can probably agree with some of the ideas that he's trying to get across there - although some of the subjects he targets are laughable - but the way he does it is completely juvenile. I'd understand if the song was a joke, but I'm pretty sure he's being completely serious. Sad. Furthermore, with songs like this and "America", it can be difficult to tell if the thoughts are those of the male character from TPE or those of Daniel himself. This, at least for me, interferes with the mood and immersion that made TPE such an incredible album and is one of the major reasons why this album is a disappointment to me as The Perfect Element part 2.
There are some other gems. On "Spitfall", Daniel seemingly found it necessary to formulate an ironically rapped song that cuts down the mainstream rap artists that are dominating the American airwaves. I found the lyrics fairly amusing, but not so much in a "Hey, this is really good" way. More in a "Wow, is Daniel really singing this?" sort of way. Musically, this song - as well as the preceding title track - is somewhat reminiscent of Candiria, with the exception that Candiria is actually good at making this sort of music, while Pain of Salvation completely suck at it.
"Disco Queen" is just gay. I'm sorry, but mixing straight disco and metal isn't new or exciting. Other bands have done this kind of thing, and it's dumb. That is probably the reason why this appears to be new and exciting - nobody does it anymore because of how fucking dumb it is. The closing track, "Enter Rain", is pathetic as a closing track. Ten minutes of boredom. Coming from a closing a track as awesome as "The Perfect Element", "Enter Rain" doesn't even qualify as a proper climax. Some of the other tracks are okay. "Mrs. Modern Mother Mary" has some cool rhythms and is a decent song all around. "Kingdom of Loss" is pretty good musically, but has more of that trite lyricism about how everything in America is for sale. Meh.
All in all, I just can't find much to like on this album. It's missing the flow, the conviction, the power, and the pure pathos of everything that this band has put out prior. Much like the fictional character that Scarsick is meant to represent, you could say that this album is a burning wreck. I guess, in some way, I can give credit to the band for making that thematic connection (if that was even their intent), but it came at a severe cost. I doubt I would ever recommend this album to anybody who has not heard Pain of Salvation before, because the very things that have defined Pain of Salvation as a standout band over the last decade are grossly understated here. Or altogether missing.
Hopefully this was a one-off.