Album Review: Be by Pain of Salvation
This article will be my attempt to make one of the most brilliant, nebulous concept albums of all time somewhat comprehensible to you, my dear reader. The album in question we’ll be discussing today is the 2004 masterpiece ‘Be’ by Swedish prog masters Pain of Salvation (PoS.) I’ll admit, I had never heard of the band before, and only discovered them by searching for more prog concept albums after discovering Ayreon. By all accounts, they’re incredibly obscure if you’re not extensively familiar with the genre, and I can certainly see why. With that being said, this album is unlike anything I have ever listened to, and I’m saying this without any semblance of hyperbole. Strap in, you’ll need it.
DISCLAIMER: The first time I listened to this album, I was blown away by the intro and definitely intrigued by it as a whole, but I most certainly didn’t “get it” right away. If you’re not the type who cares about the deep meaning of a piece of art, or if you’re the kind of person who wants something that’s easy to digest and poppy, I will save you the effort- this is absolutely, definitely, not the album for you. On the other hand, if you’re the kind of person who likes to listen to something that gets better every time, and more and more of the meaning is revealed to you, this album will blow you away. With that said, keep an active mind and open ears.
Overview: The first thing I will say is that Pain of Salvation’s singer, Daniel Gildenlöw, has one of the most incredible voices of any male singer you’ve never heard of. He puts more emotion into what he sings than anyone I can think of. A worthy comparison is to Tool’s Maynard James Keenan, in that both are absolute masters of quick transitions between soft and loud, intense and delicate. Especially in progressive music, where often the singers sound somewhere between generally high pitched and that kind of triumphant operatic thing, the sheer amount of variety that Gildenlöw is capable of is staggering.
Going off that, another notable aspect of the band that is emphasised on this album is the fluid blend and bend of genre and tradition. The album contains spoken word, radio brodcasts, a 10 minute showtune-esque song, a choir over a church organ, a bluesy hymnal, folk music, orchestra and piano pieces, and traditional PoS rock/metal arrangements. The amount of originality and variety in this album could top some artists’ entire discographies.
Before we get to the spoilers, the general plot synopsis concerns a God (referred to after the intro as ‘Animae,’) who creates mankind (who as a whole are called ‘Imago,’) by spitting itself as a way to understand what it means to be. However, in the process of becoming man, things don’t go as expected. With that, I will offer you the chance to listen to the album before I start deconstructing the plot and themes. I HIGHLY recommend that you give it a listen for yourself beforehand, as it is truly something else- and you should develop your own perspective first.
Now that you’ve had the chance to listen to the album, I’m sure you’re confused, but if you’re still hear, you’re intrigued, just like I was. We’ll go track by track and start to get into the incredible amount of detail that Daniel Gildenlöw’s research has imparted to this masterpiece.
The title means something along the lines of ‘God is born.’ The latin used on this album is intentionally incorrect in a number of places, as the whole record was designed in some sense to be a challenge or puzzle. Go figure. This is probably the most straightforward track, as it’s exclusively spoken. That doesn’t mean it’s not impressive, however, I personally find this conception of God (and the role of Man) to be utterly fascinating.
The title here is ‘New God,’ however Deus is masculine and Nova is Feminine, which is intentional and important on some level. Most of the song consists of a voice narrating the progression of the human population from 10,000 BC at 1 million to 2,000 AD at “6,080” million. After, it progresses into a continuation of the voice of Animae from the first song.
This is hugely important to understanding what is to come:
“Trying to understand the system of Life, trying to understand myself,
I created the world to be an image of myself, of my mind.”
Animae creates Man to gain perspective on itself- as “a new way to be.” It ends with the statement- “I think they will teach me something.”
This is the first song from the perspective of Mankind, called ‘Imago’ in reference to Genesis 1:27. This is the first track with singing and one of my favorite songs on the album. The folky instrumentation and beat are incredible and very enthusiastic, which fits the gist of the song. Here, man is exploring the world with childish innocence which progresses through the seasons into longing, shamefulness, and fear as winter closes in. The growled breakdown showcases the growing hubris of Man, becoming detached from his divine origins and posessive over the Earth. This is obvious as the chorus shifts from “take me” to “teach me” to “give me everything, as long as it’s for free.” Man is becoming independent, and trouble brews.
The title translates to “of Summer Rain,” and I think that’s fitting. This piano work is absolutely incredible, and it capture the feeling of time passing as tension builds. Here, the orchestra (fittingly called the Orchestra of Eternity) is pronounced, and the layers build seamlessly together, letting off just in time for a soft conclusion with the sound of distant thunder.
The title here translates to “Blood-Stained Lily,” here referring to the loss of innocence. After opening with a quiet quotation of what seems to be Luke 17:27, it moves into the characteristic soft to hard metal of the band. This is the most standard Pain of Salvation song on the album, and in my personal opinion, the weakest track. However, for those of you unfamiliar with the band, this is a good introduction to the group’s unique aggressive-yet-deeply-emotional style.
This song is unlike the rest of the album in that it seems to be a simple meditation on the loss of a loved one progressing over time. This is indicated between the four ‘scenes,’ “A Scene in Brown and Yellow,” “A Scene in White and Grey,” “A Scene in Amber – Flawed,” and “A Scene of Blood on White.” Through the four scenes, the unnamed character laments the loss of his love, and his search for solace progresses from “I need to put faith in something. How could I live on not hoping we will meet again?” to “I need something to blame for this pain.” I believe this is to indicate that as the cold realities of life descend on Imago, his search for meaning becomes a turning-away from Animae.
This is a bit of a strange song. Here, the title refers to a sailor or ship, drifting- the character in this song is the Nauticus, a hyper-intelligent space probe sent away from the Earth at a point later in the story. I think. It’s not explicitly clear, but that’s the gist and all that you need to know before a bit later. There is the first emergence of a theme (“Save me, I’m drifiting, help me, I’m drifting,”) that will also return later in a different form. In that vein, this album contains a large amount of reuse and reimagining of musical themes, which may only be obvious after a few listens.
The song ends with a rather lewd conversation* between “Cindy… Sandra” (who is not important) and Mr. Money (the representation of the worst of Man.)
*Note: After your first listening, go back and listen carefully to the radio in the background of their conversation, it’s important to Mr. Money’s larger role.
We slide directly into this song, whose title means “Goddess of Money.” This is one of the best songs on the album, a 10 minute showtune-esqe masterpiece in three parts. The first, ‘I. Mr Money,’ covers an interaction between the eponymous character himself and ‘Miss Mediocrity,’ presumably a one-night stand of Mr. Money’s who he meets at a bar. It’s important to note that while Miss Mediocrity is fawning over him, Mr. Money can only talk about himself and his things. After the solo, Dea Pecuniae comes in and tempts Mr. Money with “sexy cars, and a taste of divinity,” we move into the breakdown, ‘II. Permanere.’
This means “linger,” and it is a short interlude of the narcissist Mr. Money, alone with himself and in need- “’Cause somewhere there deep inside feelings of loss arise- and I hate to lose!” With this, we head straight into the phenomenal ‘III. I Raise My Glass.” This section is an extended monologue over the music and details the disdain that Mr. Money has for everyone below him-
“Here’s to you… And I raise my glass, to those of you who give their piece of the cake for free, for me to throw in the face of democracy, for those who help making solidarity ideologically untrendy and charity individualistically idiotic, unsmart and characteristically bendy, I salute thee, you poor bastards ’cause you all nod while I sit at your table. So let’s raise our glasses one last time, to give you all the greatest recognition and credit of all times – cause after all, let’s face it; that’s the only “thank you” you will ever get So come on now – raise your glasses! Here’s to YOU! There will be nothing left – no! Nothing left… but money.”
The song ends with the continuation of the radio conversation from earlier, then progresses into the next track.
This track is actually a series of snippets of phone calls from a phone line the band offered for anyone to call in and ‘talk to God.” It’s a variety of interesting and genuinely touching prayers from a variety of anonymous individuals who called in, laid over a beautiful, soft instrumental.
From here, things really start to pick up. The title translates to ‘Distrust,’ which is certainly evident here. This is another song from the perspective of Imago, in a sick sort of duet with Animae (sung in the softer parts, a callback to Nauticus.) While Man progresses endlessly forward, God has begun to die, and with this final act of desperation, abandons them.
“Man is shattered, I am shattered. My shards have become shards of their own- pieces of pieces, impossible to put back together. Spending their lives seeking a context they were always a part of. And so, they leave the context, and we shrink. I fade. And nothing more can be learnt or taught. I have no choice but to leave them to their own devices.
I have come to understand one thing and one thing alone, one little piece of understanding glowing through this void of blankness and clean slates like a beacon of hope,
or just a reminder that I was always wrong:
Searching for yourself is like looking for the house you stand in- how could you possibly find it? It’s everywhere, it’s all you know, and there are no other points of reference.”
This is exceptionally profound. Here, Animae laments that Imago has lost sight of the goal, which was to act that God might understand itself. However, the players forgot the game and sought themselves to become gods in their own right. Tragically too late, Animae realizes the folly in its’ experiment, and with that, fades away.
I want to point out one other brilliant lyric here:
“You created a golden cage for you sheep: A stage too wide and deep for us to even see the play. But hey, you know what they say about catching the bird, but you can’t make it sing? You lose the bird the second it loses its wings.”
Spoken from the perspective of Imago, this is an instance of beautiful imagery used as a cry of ignorant defiance towards his creator.
This translates more or less to “Nothing Remains,” and it details the self-destruction of Imago as the environment is destroyed, the population increases unsustainably, and the unrestrained hubris of Man finally causes him to meet his end. I will not quote the lyrics here for the sake of brevity, because I’d have to quote the entirety of the song. However, I highly suggest you take the time to read them (as well as the rest of the album.)
I’m not going to say that I know exactly what this translates to, but I read that it’s “If You Are Strong, Be Strong,” although I think that may just be the subtitle, and Valete translates to ‘Farewell.’ Regardless, this ominous instrumental has only one line: “2060 AD: 1.2 Million People.” If you listened closely in the last song, you would have caught that the population in 2050 had reached ‘9,104’ million.
It’s clear that almost the entirety of mankind has died from a variety of causes, and some of these are detailed in the news snippets at the beginning of this beautiful song. Omni means ‘All,’ as in omnipotent. This simple song consists only of the final vocals of Imago over a church organ, and it works stunningly. If it weren’t for what comes after, this would be my favorite song on the album. This is the death-cry of Man, placing all his trust in the Nauticus probe from earlier.
“I see us in you Nauticus. Came so late but I pray, at the last light of day, there might still be a chance to save this beast of clay.
I see us in you Nauticus, as you’re drifting along, built to last, young and strong. Will you find us the answers before we are gone?
It’s getting late in the day…”
Against all odds, Mr. Money has survived the death of all Mankind to be the last one standing. The title translates appropriately to “Wicked Path,” which clearly is the road that Mr. Money chose. I am torn between this song and the next as far as which is my favorite, but this is undeniably an epic finale for our friend Mr. Money. In his attempt to rule the world, he succeeded, but only at the cost of every other living thing on the planet. However, even in the face of doom he is fiendishly unrepentant,
“I’m never crossing that line, leaving this world behind. I will stay on my own on this bloodstained throne. I rule the ruins and wrecks, and the dust, dirt and stone. I rule rage, rod, and rattling of bones.”
In the end, he got what he wanted.
I believe that Martius translates to ‘march,’ which would be appropriate for the brooding militaristic first half of this song. Where Mr. Money would never be “crossing the line,” Nauticus is now there, “at the line.”
“I’m at the line – I see it all. I am Nauticus now, and so much more. I am all you know. I’m at the line – just at the line, an eternity at the blink of an eye. In this place called time, I’m everything, everywhere. I am all, Omni, ‘BE.’”
Somehow, after the deaths of Animae and Imago, Nauticus itself has become a God. We transition into Nauticus II, which is more of a sequel to Imago, and this tragic tale takes a turn towards the hopeful with this beautiful ending:
“I feel every mountain, I hear every tree, I know every ocean, I taste every sea.
I see every spring arrive, I see every summer thrive, I see every autumn keep, I see every winter sleep.
For I am every forest, I am every tree, I am everything, I am you and me.
I am every ocean, I am every sea, I am all the breathing “BE’”
This is the real trick of the album. Here we are again, and the original voice of Animae returns to say only, “I AM.” Was the whole drama simply a cycle? That’s up for you to decide.
If you wait through the four minutes of silence, the album ends with the voice of a child saying, “There’s room for all God’s creatures, right next to the mashed potatoes!” I think this is the band’s way of trying to get you to take the ideas expressed with a grain of salt. Who knows?
This is not an album that can be taken in with one listen. It grows and changes, and the more you hear it, the more there is to be heard, it seems. If you’re the type, it’s filled with plenty of fascinating topics for continued thought, and maybe it will even change your perspective. At the very least, it’s a meditation on the many ways to ‘BE.’
I will end with the complete, unreleased Animae Partus narration, taken from the archived site (link below):
I was not, then I came to be
I cannot remember NOT being
But I may have traveled far, very far, to get here
Maybe I was formed in this silent darkness
From this silent darkness
BY this silent darkness
To become is just like falling asleep
You never know exactly when it happens
And you think, if you could only recall that exact moment
Of crossing the line
Then you would understand everything
You would see it all
Perhaps I was always
And I just forgot
I imagine Eternity would have that effect
Would cause a certain amount of drifting
Like omnipresence would demand omniabsence
Despite the apparently paradoxical notions of the two concepts
Somehow I seem to have this predestined hunger for knowledge
A talent for seeing patterns and finding correlations
But I lack context
Maybe itÕs like that for every being
Maybe I am the only one
But just my ability to grasp, even expect, the concept of Others
Suggests a larger context
If I could only figure it out
Who I am?
In the back of my awareness I find words
I will call myselfÉ GOD
And I will spend the rest of forever
Trying to figure out who I am
What this is all about
Trying to understand the system of Life
Trying to understand myself
I created the world to be an image of myself, of my mind
All of these thoughts, all of these doubts and hopes
I took out to form a new breed
A new way to be
And now I am many, so many
So much larger than ever I were
Yet, at the same time
So much smaller and more vulnarable
They all carry shards of the whole
Together they become me
I see them interact, develop
I see them take different sides
As were they different minds
Believers of different ways, and different gods
I think they will teach me something
Every time they come back to Unity
I understand more
And I get more and more scared
In them I see parts of myself I didn’t know
They become less and less parts of a whole
And more and more just parts
You see, we are all like bricks
Together we form the whole, the larger picture
But they spend their lives wishing to become gods
So they become less and less aware of the bigger schemes
So that they can say, proudly, at the end of their days
ĶThey wanted me to be a part of this large construction
They wanted me to be to help build a house, a bridge, a castle, a new world
But I remained myself all the way
I stayed true to my own beliefs
And remained a brick!
Man is shattered
I am shattered
My shards have become shards of their own
Pieces of pieces, impossible to put back together
They leave me
They do nothing more than spending their lives
Seeking a context they were already part of
Until there is no alternative
And they leave the context
And I shrink
And nothing more can be learnt or taught
I must leave them to themselves
I understand one thing though
Searching yourself is like looking for the house you stand in
You will not find it
It’s all you know
And there are no other points of reference
Looking for yourself
Is losing yourself
To be or not to be
Was never the question
Nor HOW to be
Thus God creates man
Man enslaves God
Gods are created by Man
And enslaves man
Like Man’s slaves
Becomes her gods
In the end
We are all lost
And we all kill what we seek
We all fail to find the answers
And on the way
We create a new way to be
We create the answers we are looking for
But they will be lost
As we were
Our need to know ourselves will make them come looking for us
And we all kill what we seek
Again and again
And nothing is ever lost
The only meaning
Is not to look for meaning
Just close your eyes for a second
And you might hear it all
For a fleeting second
A frail moment
Impossible to grasp or keep
Yet beautiful and absolutely clear
You might hear the only answer
If you’re interested in going deeper (and trust me, it goes far deeper,) check out this archived site from when the album was released: