Writing music for the misunderstood is not exactly new. Emo was built on the chagrin of the disaffected youth and The Smiths’ enduring How Soon Is Now? is still an anthem for social anxiety. But this is 2020 and Pain Of Salvation are not flannel-wearing, shoegazing misfits hooked on teenage angst, and their frontman has a very good reason for dedicating his latest album, Panther, to “the outsiders”.
Daniel Gildenlöw was diagnosed with ADHD as an adult. By his own admission he’s felt like an outsider since he was school age but getting older and having responsibilities – in particular three children, including one with Down’s Syndrome and autism – made living with the disorder unmanageable to the point that he felt no choice but to get tested.
“All of a sudden the context had changed so much that there were only dysfunctions left,” he explains, candidly. “I knew I had a lot of quirks and weird things and then I think it was Ragnar [Zolberg, ex-guitarist] who said, ‘Maybe you have ADHD?’ I was like, ‘I don’t think I have ADHD’, but he knew someone who had ADHD, so I did a test and I scored amazingly well on the test.”
It’s thought that as many as 1.5 million adults in the UK have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder but only a small percentage are formally diagnosed. For many people with the disorder, the symptoms and effects are long-lasting and even with careful management and coping mechanisms it’s still entirely possible to struggle with day-to-day living. In fact, for any child or adult who is not ‘neuro-typical’, feeling normal is one big upheaval.
“I always found it weird to fit into a world that to me didn’t really make sense,” says Gildenlöw. “I would see a species that was focused on really weird stuff and doing really shitty stuff all over the world and I could not relate to that. I could not relate to the typical gender roles either and the typical things you were supposed to be interested in and how you were supposed to act in certain situations and the white lies and the bullshitting. It just made me feel weird, like I didn’t belong in that structure.”
Pain Of Salvation’s 11th album Panther comes with a manifesto for anyone who’s ever struggled to fit in but dig a little deeper and it reads like a roll call of very personal dysfunctions. First it namechecks the “restless” ones (while Prog is chatting to him, Gildenlöw is pacing up and down his living room). And then it references the “motormouths”. Longtime fans of the band will know that this frontman loves to talk.
“When I was a kid at school there was never any talk of dysfunctions, diagnosis or medications. I was just a restless kid,” he says. “I would talk too much in class and occasionally I would have to leave the classroom because I was not able to control my energies, or I would phase out and daydream. And that’s basically the personality I am today.”
Since Pain Of Salvation formed in 1991 both the band and Gildenlöw, their charismatic frontman, writer, multi-instrumentalist and co-producer, have held a significant place in prog. But what makes them valuable isn’t their ability to tackle big themes with cerebral, intricate music or that they write beautiful, evocative melodies with complex arrangements. It’s not that they dare to reinvent themselves on each new record while maintaining integrity. It’s that they manage to do all of the above and tell a story that is uniquely personal and human.
The latter portion of their career has seen Pain Of Salvation become increasingly introspective, but Panther might just be their most personal album to date. It’s a brave and unexpected treatment of a real issue facing many children and adults today and certainly not your typical prog concept. While 2004’s BE tackled the lofty subject of the existence of God and humankind, and their contentious Scarsick in 2007 took a more metallic route indebted to nu metal sounds, their latest outing has grounded the sense of displacement in a more tangible and human concept.
Asked if Panther is Gildenlöw’s ‘coming out’ album, he chuckles. “I have so many of those! But I see your point.” He continues: “It derives from Full Throttle Tribe on In The Passing Light Of Day, which looked at different scenes and different issues of my life as objectively as I could. The longer I live, the more I will learn about myself and my strengths and weaknesses. I can also understand better why we are the way we are and why we act the way we act in certain situations.”
Gildenlöw glides over the last few years of his life while omitting one major point. In the Passing Light Of Day – released in 2017 – was conceived when he contracted necrotising fasciitis, a horrific and life-threatening flesh-eating bacteria that put him in hospital for six months. So when Gildenlöw talks about issues and weaknesses, he means it. Oddly enough, though, there’s a selfless edge to this self-reflecting frontman. While his lyrics are philosophical and self-exploratory they aren’t self-pitying. The opening line of Accelerator, Panther’s first track, is one example where a sympathetic Gildenlöw sings: ‘I know what you’re thinking, I must be the problem here’ to the misunderstood cohort, like a supportive parent or an understanding teacher.
“Today I see so many kids that are brilliant and quick who get diagnosed in third grade and start to look at themselves as dysfunctional,” he observes. “So we’re treating them with more love than before but we’re defining them so much sooner.”
Like those third graders, Panther has already been defined as “different” by fans and critics. A continuation of In The Passing Light Of Day, it harks back to the early years of Pain Of Salvation with a level of heaviness that eluded albums like Falling Home but it also has electronic elements that are already throwing people off the usual Pain Of Salvation scent.
“A lot of people will not hear this as a guitar-based album but I’ve always tried my best not to give into fear about how the album or the songs will be received,” he explains. “Having a Mesa Boogie Dual Rectifier sound… I grew tired of that so quickly. It was really cool for two years and then you have to move on.”
Panther might not have obvious guitars but it feels heavy and the scattergun rap-style vocals on Restless Boy and the jaunty rhythms on Accelerator make for a visceral, if not sometimes unnerving, listen. Intentional or not, these jerky and jarring off-time elements draw synergy with the obsessive-compulsive and attention-deficient dysfunctions that Gildenlöw has been describing but they’re also influenced by music from the 70s, albeit via a source readers might not expect.
“When I was a kid, the music that was in children’s TV in Sweden was really complicated, but you would never think about it,” Gildenlöw recalls. “It was very jazz orientated and symphonically arranged and you had really good musicians back then who were devoting time to making music for kids. I’m really lucky to have grown up during that era.”
Gildenlöw might hanker for the heyday of jazz-fuelled kids’ TV but he’s also lucky to be living at a time where the distribution of his own complex sounds can be enjoyed by the internet generation.
“With any Pain Of Salvation album I just hope that people will listen to it in the first place,” he says. “After that the music will work on its own.”
This article originally appeared in issue 115 of Prog Magazine.