I am an intellectual consumer of music. By this I don’t mean that I’m a “smart person who listens to music.” I mean that generally speaking I do not listen to music because of “the feel.” As with all blanket statements, I’ve now found four exceptions to that statement, but what I mean is this: I want music I hear to be stimulating. I dislike minimalism, drone, and funeral doom because they do not excite my mind. I enjoy, instead, riffy, epic, ‘progressive,’ and melodic music—things which keep me interested and which surprise me. I rarely engage with music based on how it “feels” or, for example, bands whose lyrics hit me right in “the feels.” But Pain of Salvation, particularly Road Salt pt. 1, did just that to me in 2010. It sucker punched me right in the feels. In the Passing Light of Day strikes that same chord for me, but in a way that I think will keep me coming back for a long time.
I don’t know the details—and I don’t need to know them for the purposes of this review—but I do know that singer and songwriter (also co-producer) Daniel Gildenlöw was on death’s door in 2014. He was hospitalized in Uppsala, Sweden, where this album was also recorded. Those two bits of information set the stage for what is an emotionally poignant and heavy album that deals honestly with facing down death. Much of In the Passing Light of Day is a profound reflection on grief. The album starts with the line: “I was born in this building / it was the first Tuesday I’d ever seen / And if I live to see tomorrow / It’ll be my Tuesday number 2,119” (“On a Tuesday”). The track is angry and desperate, but honest about the fear of death (“the things we humans say to survive / the promises we make / the lies we tell, the vows we take”). Similarly, follow-up “Tongue of God” grooves through the refrain “Cry in the shower / Smile in the bed…” and echoes Barbara Ehrenreich’s critique of the cult of positivity in cancer treatment (“Don’t be afraid I hear people say / As though it will let me live if I’m just brave”).1
The whole album is loaded from start to finish with big, chunky, emotional songs. But what I appreciate about Pain of Salvation‘s later stuff is Gildenlöw and company’s excellent compositions and arrangements. These dudes write beautiful, evocative melodies and subtle arrangements. “Silent Gold,” for example, is a simple, piano-driven song with sloping bass and a chorus that will make anyone who has ever had feelings for another person ache a little. Especially for me, the closer—also title track and bookend—strikes a brilliant, if difficult, note. This is the kind of “love song” that you can only understand if you’ve been in a long relationship—and the longer the better. The lyrics likely deserve their own paragraph, but the way that Gildenlöw uses poetry is genuinely unique in metal and prog. He invokes gut-level reactions with honest, authentic descriptions of pain, love, loss and death. The heaviest moment on the whole album is when he recapitulates the first two lines of this passage and drops the hammer on line 4: “My love, don’t be afraid I hear you say / I am here for you all the way / I just wish that I could smile and say / “Baby, hey, I’m in too much pain to feel afraid” / My lover, my best friend…”
The other theme which runs through this album seems to be the use of sex and, the guilt it generates, as an outlet in the face of grief. This is a thing that has shown up in earlier Pain of Salvation stuff, but it’s very pronounced. In listening, I can’t tell if these are sort of “parallel tracks” of a single story, or if there’s no story at all. But in my head it forms an arc, where someone is trying desperately to feel alive in the face of the annihilation of their life and physical body. These songs, like “Meaningless” and “The Taming of the Beast,” are paired with tracks like “Reasons” and “Full Throttle Tribe,” which seem to tell the story of someone pushing away from his “lover and best friend” while grieving. It creates an arc that is immense, gripping, beautiful and difficult to hear at times, but it is giving and engaging. It’s artful in a way that most music I review is not.
It’s unclear if it’s good or bad that it’s taken me 900 words to make it to the part about the instruments and production. I think I like the bassy, compressed tone now after literally dozens of listens. The band uses a lot more polyrhythms and chunky, progressive riffs than they did on the Road Salt records, but this is most certainly not The Perfect Element Pt. I or Remedy Lane Part Deux. The heavier material sounds almost chaotic, at times, with “Full Throttle Tribe” stumbling to its finish over the sound of children yelling, or the peak of “The Passing Light of Day” halting along simplistically—with feel and tone reminiscent of System of a Down. What I like about this approach is the amount of ‘white space’ in songs like “Meaningless,” but at the same time, the excessively crushed master doesn’t give that space much room to breathe. There are moments here that should be “punchy,” but that don’t really feel like it. Still, I’ve grown used to the sound and I like a lot of the tones that they’re using. The guitars and drums don’t sound like anything else I’ve listened to recently, and the bass is round and produced in such a way that it runs very close to the same register as the kick drum, which leads to a very bassy mix.
While I like all the songs more with each subsequent listen—and the whole album, which runs 71 minutes—it didn’t click until I really listened to the story and formed a coherent narrative in my head. Once this happened, and I became emotionally invested in the story I was being told, In the Passing Light of Day took on a new dimensions and I’ve listened to it non-stop since. This is not the kind of album a person can write twice and that’s why such albums are so rare. But this is one of those rare pieces of music that will engage you emotionally, reflecting meaningfully upon how fragile life is, how fragile love is, and how the world is random and in constant flux. At the same time, Pain of Salvation continues to produce idiosyncratic, unpredictable, and beautiful material. I’m glad we didn’t lose them in 2014.