Release date: September 20, 2011
A sure sign that a band has made a distinct and enduring mark in music is when other artists are compared to that band’s style and sound. In the world of extreme metal, and in particular, progressive metal, perhaps no other artist is more referenced as “sounds like” in recent years as Sweden’s, Opeth.
The band’s founding father, Mikael Åkerfeldt has taken Opeth in bold new directions since the earliest days of its existence. Started in 1990 as a death metal act, by the time of Opeth’s debut 1995 release Orchid, the band had found a far more progressive bent. Orchid came out in the middle of a decade where metal music was languishing on its deathbed in large part due to the popularity of the “grunge” phenomenon. So distinct and complete as a record, Orchid, immediately made Opeth a guiding force in the resurgence of metal as whole.
Over the course of the next eight album’s Åkerfeldt and Opeth continued to build upon its unique style, always expanding and growing, but never so strikingly as to shake its fans’ faith. By the time of Opeth’s ninth studio effort, the appropriately titled, Watershed, Åkerfeldt had successfully brought both his music and Opeth’s legacy to the precipice of something wondrous.
With Opeth’s 10th studio offering, Heritage, Åkerfeldt has created a new evolution in the band’s sound, as seminal as Orchid was upon its debut 16 years ago. Heritage remains, fundamentally, a progressive opus, but any semblance of death metal is stripped away. In fact, this is less a metal record that a straight up prog rock album. Åkerfeldt has taken the progressive elements of his songwriting into a more expansive landscape here.
This record must be taken in as a whole, starting with the Travis Smith artwork for the cover, which while very modern in ways, also evokes concepts of early rock records with its playful tree bearing the fruit of Opeth. Even the black and white photography in the disc art recalls a different era.
The album’s self-titled opening track, is a two-minute piano interlude, that evokes a barren emptiness. It sounds lonely, and there is a stark disquiet to it. While this proved to be Per Wiberg’s last recorded album with the band, it was new keyboardist Joakim Svalberg who played this piece.
Starting with the second track, “The Devil’s Orchard”, the listener is pulled back to the height of the 70’s progressive rock movement. Or even as far back as the 60’s. Grooving bass lines and keyboards that recall the likes of Yes and Emerson Lake and Palmer. This transports me back in time to my teens. While there is no mistaking the modern or “present” quality of the sound, or Opeth‘s signature nuances, this is still a song of the past, re-birthed.
Listen to “The Devil’s Orchard”:
“I Feel The Dark” is another near seven-minute jam. This one begins with a beautiful classic acoustic guitar intro, and Åkerfeldt laying down a sweet melody which drifts into Martin Mendez’s rolling bass line. About midway into the song, everything gets rather surreal and even doomy, with some of the heaviest riffing on the record. At about four-and- -a-half minutes in there is a jam that recalls early Rush. Excellent drum work from Martin Axelrot here, and a stunning vocal performance by Åkerfeldt. So much is going on in this song that it is arguably the best track on the record.
Ronnie James Dio receives homage on “Slither”. The track jumps off with a signature Deep Purple/Rainbow style, infused with memories of Jon Lord’s famous Hammond organ.
“Nepenthe” begins with a very serene vibe that almost lulls the listener into a state of peace, but about 30 seconds in Mendez brings his bass out and the song gets a slightly jazzy feel with Åkerfeldt’s clean vocals almost crooning. Ultimately it’s a somber moody piece.
On “Famine” one almost feels like they are on an auditory acid trip for the first minute and a half, before a somber piano takes over with a sad vocal from Åkerfeldt. Then almost as if we have begun another song, the band jumps into another psychedelic progressive jam.
Bassist Mendez really shines, along with drummer Axenrot, on “The Lines In My Hand”; a very groovy, retro jam, underlaid with nice acoustic work and a shining yet stoic vocal performance by Åkerfeldt. More than halfway through the band picks up the tempo and adds a much more modern flair to it all.
“Folklore” has some of the album’s weightiest moments, before the CD closes out with another instrumental, the acoustic guitar driven, “Marrow of the Earth”
It is difficult to call this an experimental album for Opeth. This feels like a prequel to Opeth. A retrospective journey back to a time when the band members were defining themselves as musicians. In fact, many younger Opeth fans may struggle with this album without a proper musical frame of reference. Then again, history repeats, and this is a chance for those same fans to discover anew those historic inspirations…or, as the title implies, our heritage. Heritage brings Opeth and Åkerfeldt full circle. Where they go from here is wide open.
Heritage has been one of the most anticipated album’s of the year, and it is easy to see a broad spectrum of feedback on this record giving its divergence from extreme metal, which Åkerfeldt has recently called “boring”. The band’s trademark progressiveness abounds here, but many have called the songwriting disjointed, even lazy or sloppy, with poor transitions, and passages that lead nowhere. I can see that argument as well as the flipside that this record is another milestone of Åkerfeldt’s genius. In going forward by looking back, some of the earthy organic nature of the 60’s and 70’s progressive movement was its wide open free-for-all experimentation. That comes through strongly on this record. Perhaps those looking for more structured songwriting here are missing the point.
Bottom line here is Opeth continues to stretch its own boundaries, and fans of rock and metal music should rejoice. For those who are confined to a certain view of how a band must be then Heritage may not fit that window. Then again most Opeth fans fell in love with the band for the simple fact that it sets no limits.