Opeth
Heritage

As a longtime Opeth fan (my favorite band for almost 14 years), I can’t say I was that surprised when Mikael Akerfeldt announced that the new album would be a completely prog rock affair. No growls, no thick, distorted guitars, no death metal at all. Yet it’s a natural transition for a band that, from the very beginning, has melded progressive rock and death metal like no other band before, and has become the inspirational blueprint for countless bands since. And once the initial shock wore off that we wouldn’t be hearing that cavernous, expressive roar for awhile (perhaps a long while), I began to get excited and curious about what a fully unleashed progressive rock Opeth might sound like. Fans know that Mikael Akerfeldt is a huge collector and connoisseur of obscure 60s and 70s prog and folk, so this new evolution would most likely be a direct conduit into that obsession.

Well, Heritage is finally here, and what a long, strange trip it is.

First off, there’s no mistaking that it’s Opeth: the intricately layered, call-and-response compositions; the fluid, coiling guitars; the jazzy drumming; and of course, Mikael’s silky-clean croons. All of that is still here. The recording is warm, organic, nakedly honest, and the musicianship, as always, is exquisite. And yet, this definitely sounds… different.

Lead single “The Devil’s Orchard” opens as a groovy, serpentine jam with snappy drumming and shock-occult lyrics – “God is dead,” Mikael chants, the first time we’ve ever heard anything this overtly anti-religion from Opeth. After that, the song floats off into a creepy dirge of warbling organs (picture a Satanic ritual aboard the Yellow Submarine, while lost in the Sea of Monsters) before unexpectedly brightening once more. Follow-up “I Feel the Dark” (one of my favorites here) wraps its first half around a gorgeous, nimble guitar lick and bassline heartbeat, but then, strangely, veers into a massive doom-lurch of organs in its second half. Listen closer, though, and you’ll realize that the organs are playing the same minor-key mellotron melody used in the second segment. And two songs later, “Nepenthe,” which starts with a similarly low-key ballad, explodes into a peculiar, staccato jazz freak-out that’s unlike anything we’ve ever heard from the guys (except maybe the really weird off-time lurch in the center of “The Drapery Falls”). And “Famine,” perhaps the strangest and most patchwork song on the album, traipses through an eerie dreamworld of folk, prog and doom, and features a guest performance by Afro-Cuban percussionist Alex Acuña and a terrifying flute solo by Bjorn Json Lindh.

These, plus other tracks like the soft and soothing “Haxprocess” (which means ‘witch trial’) and the two lovely bonus tracks, “Pyre” (the only track co-written with a band member, in this case guitarist Fredrik Akesson) and “Face in the Snow,” are mostly mid-tempo, moody affairs. However, there are a couple of up-tempo numbers as well, like the swaggering, Zeppelin-esque “Slither.” It’s the most straightforward thing on Heritage (aside from the beautiful intro and outro tracks, “Heritage” and “Marrow of the Earth”), and perhaps one of the most traditional ‘rock’ songs that the band has ever written. Akerfeldt also says that it’s dedicated to Ronnie James Dio (and as stated in the liner notes, the entire album is as well).

“The Lines in My Hand,” towards the end of the album, is peppier and more diverse. It starts off like a late-summer Grateful Dead jam that blends jumpy drums, playful bass, delicate flamenco-influenced guitars, pulsing keys and harmonized vocals, then breaks out into a rollicking Cream homage in its second half. Interestingly enough, this was the first track that Akerfeldt wrote for the new album (after two more traditional death-prog tracks which failed to heat his blood). It must have been hugely exciting for him to really unleash himself on the rest of the album after this first success.

Yet despite all of that colorful musical expression and experimentation, Heritage is a fairly sedate album, steeped in mystery and melancholy. Not a big surprise for Opeth of course – they’ve always evoked that mood, all the way back to Orchid and Morningrise. Still, I would have loved at least one or two more groovy, shambling monster jams like “The Devil’s Orchard” to give it some more life. A few more big peaks or climaxes wouldn’t have hurt either. This is probably compounded by the fact that while “I Feel the Dark,” “Nepenthe,” “Haxprocess,” “Famine” and “Folklore” all travel to some interesting places, they also all begin with a soft, soothing ballad. That bifurcated structure in each song starts creating a repetitive flow in the album overall, despite all the weirdness packed within. Of course, the balladry is all really lovely, but I’d have preferred even more unhinged dynamics and variety throughout Heritage.

All that said, “Folklore” wraps things up on a satisfying note. As I mentioned above, it also adopts the bifurcated song structure, but somehow its flow seems more natural and builds to an exciting peak. In a way, I think it would make the perfect model for Opeth’s new direction. It’s drenched in 70s mystique and nostalgia, but it also nails the cresting dynamics which have made past tracks like “Demon of the Fall,” “Blackwater Park” and “Burden” such triumphs; it proves that you don’t need death roars and crushing guitars to quicken the pulse.

As you can probably tell, Heritage is not an album with quick and easy rewards. Even without the transition from galloping prog-death into gauzy 70s prog, it’s still very odd and haunting, and a bit more sedate than expected. Still, I find myself drawn back to it again and again, soaking in more details and making new connections – and that makes Heritage as much a true Opeth album as any of their other works. And it’s only the first step in the band’s new journey – I really look forward to hearing the explorations on the next release.

 

[Visit the band's website]
Written by Jordan Itkowitz
September 19th, 2011

Comments

  1. Commented by: Jeff

    Excellent review…I too feel like this was a natural progression for them, but that maybe they tried a little too hard to be Proggy. They should have just done what come naturally to them.

    This album also rewards many listens in many ways…headphones, car and full blown stereo action. Each time you hear something different and understand it a little better.


  2. Commented by: Nick Taxidermy

    I’ve liked the stuff I heard off this more than anything I’ve heard from them in years.


  3. Commented by: Jono

    I agree with most of this. The only bit I would add is that some of the riffs and vibes do borrow from past Opeth material. There is a familiarity in the songs (i.e. almost self-plagiarism from previous albums – even if it is produced differently) that I have not detected in Mike’s songwriting before. Also, most Opeth albums are outright awesome and engaging all the way through (and often save the best till last) whereas this one was not quite so consistent.

    However, as a stand alone piece of work (if you never heard of Opeth) it is pretty cool. It teaches us that amps don’t necessarily have to be turned to 11 to be heavy.

    I suspect that because Opeth fans are probably fairly open-minded, Heritage is not going to be crucified on the alter of failed experiments (like Morbid Angel, ha); but it is not going to completely blow people away either, even if it is skillfully executed.


  4. Commented by: legumbrera

    Excellent review, Opeth is also my favorite band and this album is a strange voyageç. as many of the bands records, you really need time to fully understand what Mikael and company are trying to say here.


  5. Commented by: bast

    I haven´t fully heard this one yet until my copy gets here, but what worries me is that Opeth allways used to blow your mind big time. Watershed was very good but not great and from what I´ve read thus far this one is a notch down too. I hope it isn´t.
    And I really miss Martin Lopez on drums.


  6. Commented by: Stiffy

    I really enjoy the album. Persoanlly, I haven’t cared for much of their stuff since Still Life so this is a breath of fresh air. Their sound was becoming somewhat boring. This keeps me coming back though.


  7. Commented by: Cynicgods

    I’ve heard this about 12 times now. It still doesn’t feel right to me. Something about the delivery feels forced even though it’s executed flawlessly. Maybe it’s a stepping stone towards something far greater but I bet this will be the red-headed stepchild in their discography on years to come.


  8. Commented by: Jesse Wolf

    Oh my god I have to hear this now. Great review bro


  9. Commented by: Staylow

    I can’t get into this. Of course though, I’ve never been a huge Opeth fan, but I own and like quite a bit of their stuff. This just does nothing for me except put me to sleep.


  10. Commented by: Dimaension X

    Love this album – I think the introductory paragraph is inaccurate, since there are PLENTY of distorted guitars. To me, the only thing missing on the album are the “growls”, and that’s perfectly fine by me. This is a great album which shows true progression and maturity of a band that has developed and grown over time.


  11. Commented by: Stiffy

    Yeah and it the most natural thing I think they have produced. Feels complete. I don’t get where some of you think it sounds forced or missing something. Strange. I knew this would be a divided album but Im shocked at some of the responses to this. Especially you Cynny! Come on man!


  12. Commented by: Clauricaune

    Never been a huge Opeth fan either, but I’ve given this one several listens and the 10th feels just like the 1st. A pretty, well-written album, but very shallow IMO, like it was only some aesthetic exercise without much substance. I think I’ll just stay with their 90s era.


  13. Commented by: Jeff

    Yeah I think there’s a certain amount or ‘forced’ sound here too. They should have just relaxed and written what they write best and not try so hard to NOT be heavy.

    It’s worth noting that in the liner notes ‘Slither’ is dedicated to Ronnie James Dio.

    I know it’s too soon to ask, but I can’t help but wonder what lies ahead for them style-wise…


  14. Commented by: elguerosinfe

    Massive Opeth fan; LOVE every previous album. But I have to force myself to listen to this. Losing the death stuff subtracts the contrast and crescendo that they achieved by mixing styles. This seems one-dimensional in comparison.


  15. Commented by: gordeth

    I haven’t formed an opinion of this album yet, but the set list for their current tour proves that they’re definitely trying to not be heavy anymore…

    The Devil’s Orchard
    I Feel the Dark
    Face of Melinda
    Porcelain Heart
    Free Fallin’ (Tom Petty cover)
    Nepenthe
    The Throat of Winter
    Credence
    Patterns in the Ivy II
    Closure
    Slither
    A Fair Judgement
    Hex Omega
    Folklore


  16. Commented by: gabaghoul

    looking fwd to that; I saw them on the Damnation tour with PT, they played Damnation all the way through and then a bunch of older stuff as well.

    No ‘To Rid the Disease’? bummer. would also love to see ‘Burden’ and ‘Windowpane’ live again, surprised they’re not on there. maybe they’re tired of them?


  17. Commented by: Shane

    Gordeth you need to drive to my house and we will spin the vinyl before you pass judgement


  18. Commented by: gordeth

    @Shane – Sounds like a good idea. Seeing it in that box set would probably help too.

    @Gaba – I wish they would include To Bid You Farewell. That wouldn’t be out of place on that list and then I’d get to hear at least one track from one of my favorite albums of all time.


  19. Commented by: Biff_Tannen

    They should just play “Face of Melinda” 9 times in a row. Then I would definitely go see them again for the first time in nearly a decade. It was great when they played that song on the Porcupine Tree tour.


  20. Commented by: gabaghoul

    That song is about your mom


  21. Commented by: Shane
  22. Commented by: Blackwater Park

    This album is a HUGE disappointment. The worst album in their discography hands down. I’m a huge fan of all forms of Metal, so I’m not dismissing this just because their are no Death Metal vocals. Opeth is one of my all time favorite bands, and I expected to love this… but after 20 listens, its just not doing it for me. It seems uninspired and trying way too hard to break the mold.

    EPIC FAIL!!!


  23. Commented by: Cynicgods

    @Shane: I dunno, man, I’m still giving it the benefit of the doubt. Hope I get an “EUREKA! I GET IT NOW!” moment (TM) soon but somehow I don’t think it’ll happen. Mastodon’s newest one isn’t clicking with me as well. Back to some Blut Aus Nord and Rwake then (those two are both top 10 material).


  24. Commented by: Gabaghoul

    Which Blut Aus Nord? Desanctification out yet? 777 Sects didn’t do much for me…


  25. Commented by: bast

    Finally got my collectors edition copy! I don´t understand the hate for this, it is so organic, and a fresh start as Akerfield states… Yes I hope the death metal returns eventually… But for now this Opeth and it sounds great!!! Can´t stop playing it.


  26. Commented by: faust

    Well written review as always. The album, however, is teh suck.


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