This one is sure to piss some people off. Opeth have been around the block quite a few times. As one of the driving forces behind the progressive metal movement, their sound has morphed and transcended so many genres it’s hard to keep count. What’s always made them stand out is their unsurpassable talent and songwriting. Guitarist/Vocalist/Main Songwriter Mikael Akerfeldt is a musical prodigy, crafting some of the most heartfelt and deeply woven melodies the rock and metal world has seen in the past 15 years. He has also done something that so few metal bands do; branched out and found an audience outside of the metal community. I’ve met roughly the same number of nose-to-the-air metal elitists and non-metal fans who are completely taken by this band and that’s refreshing. But time and again, even though their sound has strayed further from the death metal they were once known for, they’ve always kept one foot firmly planted in the metal scene. Well kiddies, those days are over and I can’t wait to see the unbelievable uproar that is sure to follow the release of their new album Heritage.
Let’s get this out of the way right from the start: Heritage is NOT a metal album. Not even a little bit. There isn’t one ounce of shredding, one single guttural growl, or one flurry of double bass anywhere on this album. It is, for lack of a better description, a vintage rock opus that dips its hand in funk, blues, jazz, waltzes, and even a little baroque. It sounds like a record King Crimson would have released back in the ’70s, and I for one absolutely dig it. I’ve been a pretty big fan of these guys since I heard Blackwater Park years back and have loved just about everything they’ve done since. Let it be known that I’m also a huge Bloodbath fan and (used to) think Akerfeldt had one of the most palpable growls the world of metal had ever seen. But things have changed. It should be no surprise to anyone who’s been following along that Akerfeldt is no longer “feeling the metal” like he used to. His growl has lost its “oomph” and his musical output has been leaning a lot more toward the softer side of metal/rock for the past couple of years. Even their last album, Watershed‘s ratio of rock to metal was leaning way more toward the rock edge. But hey, you’ll get no argument from me there. If he continues to put out albums as stellar as Heritage for the rest of his career I will be a happy man.
The album starts off with a slow moving piano lullaby that pretty well sets the tone for what’s to come on this rest of the record. The first official song, “The Devil’s Orchard” is a funky rock tune that would fit right in on a Yes album, bursting with synthesizer and swung rhythms that get your feet tapping before the song even gets off the ground. “I Feel The Dark” starts off with a brooding acoustic line reminiscent of a track off of King Crimson‘s The Court Of The Crimson King, incorporating subtle drum patterns and even some vibraphone to add to the undercut eeriness of the track. Even in the middle of the song, when it breaks into one of the “heaviest” parts of the record, it still retains an air of ambience that allows it to teeter perfectly on that blurred edge of genre. The next track, “Slither”, is by far the most rockin’ tune on the record. It reminds me a lot of early Motorhead, and the inclusion of rock organ gives it a refreshingly antiquated feel. I know that sounds like a contradiction, but the band has really found a way to traverse the abyss of failure with just the right mix of new and creative ideas packaged in an antique way (hence the album title).
“Nepenthe” is a very low key and atmospheric song that is so subtle it requires your full attention to entirely grasp. That is until about 3 minutes in when it bursts into one of the tastiest grooves on the album, driven by tube powered distortion and a fat bass line. Akerfeldt’s playing really shines through on this song, pronouncing his discipline yet showing just how far he can go with six strings. “Haxprocess” stays afloat with a beautiful conversation between piano and vocals, broken up by legato acoustic lines that remind me of a cool summer night. Possibly the most ambitious song on the record, “Famine”, starts off with a flutter of a flute followed by the undertones of a tribal drum beat before branching off into an etude of piano and vocals. That is until the weaving guitar creeps up from the shadows and bursts into a jazz-funk rhythm with a furious tom roll and the energy of a herd of buffalo.
One of my favorites aspects of the album is the vintage production. Not only is the music very nostalgic in its own way, but the mixing and production sounds straight out of the late ’60s/early ’70s. The muffled drums and tube amps give it a very warm feel, like it was recorded in a basement in the middle of a storm. Akerfeldt’s vocals are rife with reverb that echoes off the walls in an almost haunting manner. Couple all of this with the infusion of organ, flute, mallets, tribal drums, etc. and you get a pleasant throwback perfect for a quiet night under the stars. I know it sounds cheesy but this record makes me want to grab a Blue Moon and kick it in a hammock while reading some Hemmingway on a summer night.
All in all Heritage is definitely not what I was expecting from these pioneers of progressive death, but I for one am not afraid of change, especially when it works so well as it does on this album. The dudes in Opeth definitely had a vision and they didn’t stop until it was fully realized. This is exactly what the music world needs right now and I’m only too happy that Opeth were the ones to bring it. Like I said earlier, I’m sure this album will receive quite a bit of backlash from the “die hard” fans, but I implore you to really give it a few listens; let it sink in and overtake you and let yourself feel the music. I know, cheesy, but I can’t see any fan of rock music not at least finding something to love about this record. It’s definitely one of the most ambitious I’ve heard in quite a while and I sure am glad it exists.
Heritage comes out September 20th on Roadrunner Records. Pre-order your copy here.
Heritage – 9.2/10
2. The Devil’s Orchard
3. I Feel The Dark
8. The Lines In My Hand
10. Marrow Of The Earth
Favorite Song: Famine