To say that any Opeth release is anticipated is an understatement. Even here in the States where Opeth does not sell as well as in Europe a new album can be quite an event. Especially since Opeth has garnered a slowly built following for quite a few years now. And for good reason. The band or more accurately Mikael Akerfeldt manages every time to release music that isn’t one dimensional death metal or or overblown prog metal but is a dense feast of musical achievement. And so we come to the 10th studio release entitled ‘Heritage’. I will be shocked if by now anyone that reads this has not already heard the album for themselves. Thanks to a significant leak last week and the fact that NPR is streaming the album now the album has probably been listened to by quite a few people. But, I can’t assume everyone has heard it and since it still has a week or so to go before it’s released here in the States I would be doing everyone a disservice if I didn’t talk about it. I will be breaking my new self imposed review format for this release because I believe Opeth is too important of a band in this modern age to not go in depth on any of their releases.
Heritage is a departure of sorts for the band. Months ago when it was announced that an album was being released we were warned that this was going to be unlike any release before. Mikael Akerfeldt stated he was growing tired of the death metal aspect of music and wanted to go a different direction. Now this isn’t the first time an album has been released sans death metal. The critically acclaimed Damnation was also a clean acoustic heavy album to counter Deliverance which was of the heavier material. What we were warned was going to be different was that Heritage was as the name implies be a showcase of 60’s and 70’s prog rock homages to Mikael’s heroes growing up. After listening to this no one lied. Now I am by no means a prog aficionado. I know virtually nothing about King Crimson or Yes but enjoy quiet a bit of Pink Floyd and early Rush. So the fact that 70’s prog was going to be prevalent here left me curious on whether or not I was going to enjoy this. And after multiple listens I can safely say that I do.
You see, Heritage isn’t really that much of a departure if you’re very familiar with Opeth’s back catalog. One aspect of the band that they were renowned for early on was in the midst of death metal passages to intermingle clean vocals but the style of music was always hard to place therefore placed in the prog category. And I can hear hints of this much like in Demon of the Fall from My Arms Your Hearse for example where at the 2 minute and 4 minute point of the song there was some definite mellow prog influence or in Serenity Painted Death off of Still Life where there is some jazz influence halfway through which would have fit perfectly on Heritage. And I’ve read a few reviews where the band is being lambasted for this direction they’re taking. Why? If you’ve payed attention to Opeth overtime you should be familiar with what’s going on here. Let’s break down the tracks shall we?
- The opening track is the title track and is actually a piano instrumental that is haunting in it’s feel and apparently influenced by Swedish folk music.
- The second track is Devil’s Orchard which employs a wierd fuzzbox tone to the bass and the whole song gives off an old Yes vibe with strange reverbs and almost jazz like drumming.The last part of the song is definitely Pat Travers worship which if you’ve heard the bonus track cover of Bridge of Sighs off of Watershed you can pick up on this.
- The song does end abruptly though without a feeling of true closure and then switches gears for the next track I Feel the Dark which has to be my favorite track on the album. It begins with a cool acoustic intro and the whole song would fit in great with Damnation. The second half of the song picks up and has an almost psychedelic feel to it. You stoners would be pretty impressed with this track let me tell you.
- Next up we have Slither which at times has an almost Deep Purple vibe to it with the keys sounding like something off Machinehead even if Mikael doesn’t quite hit the higher registers like Ian Gillan would and the song quietly fades out with an acoustic passage.
- Next we have Nepenthe which is a heavily jazz influenced track. Martin Axenrot shows his versatility here on this track as a drummer with his rolls and fills that sound straight out of an old seedy nightclub. The overall song is an expanded mellow break that you could find on any earlier release. Every musician is on display on this track. Martin Mendez’s bass lines are upfront and powerful.
- Haxprocess is a double sided track that for the first half is very soft and acoustic and then goes into more of the jazz and blues influenced music that has become the theme of the album.
- Famine is a roller coaster ride of mellow passages to prog to probably the heaviest part of the album then back to the mellow passages rinse and repeat.
- The Lines in My Hand is a drum heavy slab of blues influenced music and one of the shortest on the album.
- Folklore is as the title suggests is a long heavy folk rock influenced track that the second half finishes strong with nods to ELO on an epic riff and close out.
- And finally for the last song of the main album(I don’t have the bonus tracks on this) is an instrumental acoustic piece entitled Marrow of the Earth that once again would have done well on Damnation.
The bottom line is this. Heritage without a question is going to be polarizing to many fans. Already I’m hearing people that love it, people that hate it, some find it boring, and some seem to think it’s somehow subpar musically in it’s 70’s prog worship. Opeth fans are rapidly becoming as obnoxious over this band as Dream Theater’s fans were at the height of their powers. I believe it’s essential to have a well rounded music taste to enjoy this album. You absolutely have to. If you don’t like blues, jazz , old school 70’s prog rock, or think your metal has to stay metal at all times you are going to not like this album.Personally I love the blues, I can take some forms of jazz and there is only influence on here and not the pure form itself otherwise I’d probably not like it as much. The breaks I’ve taken from metal over the years in order to listen to other genres has helped in my appreciation for this album. It also helps that the clean side of Opeth has always been what’s endeared me to the band moreso then the heavier death metal style. It actually took me longer to warm up to the first 3 releases then it did the latter only because Mikael Akerfeldt’s growls were rough around the edge and refined over time. But his clean singing has always been the right mix of smooth and range that fits nicely to the music. And make no mistake, this is not a metal album.
That’s not to say this album is perfect either. The track order I think could have been better as the end of one song and beginning of another can seem a bit disjointed and even though none of the songs hits 10 minutes some of the tracks seem to go longer then they need to. This is also mood music and I think you really have to be in the mood to listen to this in one sitting just because of the pacing which is really slow even compared to Damnation. On the flip side of some of these negative quibbles is Steven Wilson(Porcupine Tree) had a huge hand in mixing the album and it shows as every instrument and nuance of said instruments is heard to get a full music impact.
Time will tell if this is the new direction for the band but like every Opeth release you’re probably going to be surprised. All I hope for is the continuation of high quality music in whatever form it may be and Heritage for the most part delivers on this.