Opeth is a band that is famous for turning metalheads into prog rock fans. It was the other way for me; these Swedish titans introduced me to the world of extreme metal, a sound that I found myself averse to at first, but have since come to embrace as a realm where some of rock music’s most visionary talents dwell. Although ‘Morningrise’ and ‘Ghost Reveries’ in particular have since engrained an indelible etch on my heart though, the past year saw my appreciation for this band has waned, virtually leading me to renounce my Opeth fandom; while brilliant at first, their style wore thin for me, perhaps from one too many listens to the now painfully familar soft-heavy dynamic. With that being said, let it be known that this reviewer may have had a slight bias against this band’s work now. Hopefully however, my fatigue of Opeth hasn’t stopped me from judging their latest album ‘Heritage’ on its merits.
While Opeth is best known for epic progressive death metal with strong acoustic elements and melancholic atmosphere, they are also known to deviate from that course, albeit only once in a while. The first shift away from metal was heard on 2003’s ‘Damnation’, a mellow and depressing interlude between the heaviness of ‘Deliverance’, and the refined mastery of ‘Ghost Reveries’. Although this was certainly a step away from what the band was used to doing, there was still the distinct Opeth-y vibe to it; the riffs were definitely the creation of Opeth main man Mikael Akerfeldt, and the feeling of the music remained relatively unchanged from the band’s earlier incarnations. After 2008’s ‘Watershed’, it was clear to many fans that Opeth was on the brink of another change- after all, only three of that album’s seven tracks featured any death growls at all. Let me cut to the point; it came as little surprise that Opeth was now going to do something different with their sound. I loved what they did with ‘Damnation’, but as far as hearing that Opeth was planning on doing a ’70s retro rock album, I was disappointed, even months before the album came out. All too many bands already in prog were looking back to the 1970’s for their sound, and I was not enthralled by the news that Opeth was following suit.
After hearing ‘Heritage’ finally, I have a lot of things to say about it, and simultaneously I am both impressed, yet immensely disappointed. I am impressed for the fact that Opeth has been able to make a new style here while maintaining many of their trademark sounds, and the music here does not sound nearly as ’70s derived as I feared it would be. On the less positive note, I have been immensely disappointed by the fact that- above and beyond, this is the most unbalanced thing that Opeth has ever done, and hopefully ever will do. I cannot see myself ever having the same appreciation for this record as I do for anything else that Opeth has done. Even still, amidst all of the confusion and disappointment that this record has created for me, there are still things that pleasantly surprised me along the way.
As far as their style goes, we still hear the interplay between acoustic parts and heavier moments, but the big change here is that all traces of death metal have been extracted out of the formula. Unlike ‘Damnation’, Opeth can still be heavy here, but it is heaviness in the same way that a band like Uriah Heep was heavy; gritty and over the top, with all the bombast but lacking the extremity. It is clear that- true to the reports- Opeth aims for a vintage proggy hard rock style, with pros and cons included. Even by looking at the cover of this album, it looks to me that Mikael Akerfeldt is giving a tongue-in-cheek tribute to his prog rock idols with this one, and it is reflected in the music as well; bluesy rock riffs, jazzy drumming, and plenty of keyboard textures. All the same, Opeth is clever enough here to lean towards a certain sound, without necessarily copying it note for note.
While I was pleasantly intrigued by the fresh take on the ’70s prog style that Opeth crafted here, the songwriting that presents this style was another matter entirely. Even devoting several intent listens to the music on ‘Heritage’, I cannot describe the compositions here as anything but lackluster, underwhelming, aimless, synonyms, synonyms. The songs felt like a continental breakfast buffet at some second-rate chain hotel; there’s plenty of variety to choose from, but they don’t provide half of the equipment to cook the damned stuff. Much of these ideas felt like gimmicks rather than heartfelt musical observations, with a few moments making me wonder if Akerfeldt’s only goal here was to sound strange or obscure to his fans. With a band of this talent, there’s definitely aspects to the sound that score, but ‘Heritage’ is filled with a lot more misses than otherwise. Highlights of this album included the eerie title-track introduction, ‘Nepenthe’, parts of ‘Famine’, and the rather enjoyable climax ‘Folklore’. While I might even say that each track on ‘Heritage’ has at least one interesting aspect about it, none of these songs stand much against the true greats that Opeth has churned out in earlier years.
Like most of this album, the performances and production here is given a largely mixed result. The first thing I really noticed about ‘Heritage’ that impressed me was actually the drumming, provided here by Martin Axenrot. While drums are usually something that takes me several listens before I start really listening in on it, I was immediately struck by both Axenrot’s incredible jazz-tinged performance, and the richly organic way the drums sounded. I would even say that this is the best drumwork I have yet heard on an Opeth record. Coming in as my other favourite aspect of ‘Heritage’ is the keyboard wizardry of Per Wiberg, who doesn’t necessarily wow audiences with technical skills here, but instead makes his mark by using a wide variety of vintage key sounds (think Mellotron, or Hammond organ) and using them tastefully. This gives a nice layer over the otherwise disappointing, grimy, and dull-sounding guitar riffs, which- once again- are among the worst that I have yet heard on an Opeth album. With Per’s keyboard performance here being so vivid, it’s a real shame that this is the last we’ll hear of him with the band.
As I’ve said, the guitar riffs here are boring for the most part, and whatever pleasant aspects of ‘Heritage’ there are, are usually left to keyboards, drums, or other less expected instruments, like the flute. Lastly is Mikael Akerfeldt’s voice on ‘Heritage’, as well as the lyrics. I’m beginning to sense a pattern in my disappointment here; Akerfeldt’s performance here is mixed, with some moments benefiting from his warm tenor, and others feeling more like he’s forcing himself to sound like some obscure hard rock singer than making a necessary artistic choice. And the lyrics; while I considered Mikael Akerfeldt to be something of a death metal poet with opuses ‘Still Life’ and all else, I cringed once or twice with the contrived rhymes that Mikael was trying to pass here; take a look at some of the lyrics on ‘The Lines In My Hand’ and you might see what I mean.
So there you have it; with another year comes another Opeth album, and for the first time in my life, I’ve been really let down by them, the band I once thought could do no wrong. There are plenty of interesting ideas on ‘Heritage’, but while listening to this, I get the recurring image of sifting through Trail Mix when I was a kid; having to rummage through the nuts and berries to get the chocolate crisps. Opeth can certainly be hailed for trying something new with their sound, but as far as experiments go, I would consider this as lukewarm, rather than the dazzling masterpiece some may have hoped it to be.