Review Summary: Mikael Akerfeldt and company pay tribute to their musical heritage.
It seemed as though Opeth might have found a fair balance between the unique death metal sound for which they’ve become so renowned and the old progressive music frontman Mikael Akerfeldt has so openly expressed his love for on 2008’s Watershed
. The sound of the album is just far enough removed from the heralded Blackwater Park
and Ghost Reveries
to shake criticisms of the band retreading old territory while retaining enough of the group’s hallmark elements to appease some of their more close-minded devotees. But it wasn’t clear whether its follow-up was going to be Watershed Part Two
or something different entirely. When it was announced there wasn’t going to be any death growls at all on the album, the ensuing trepidation was neither surprising nor unreasonable. The progressive death metal band had shaken the “death metal” part before with great success on Damnation
, but could they do it again, and could they do it differently?
A rather jaunty piano tune introduces the album, soon followed by the burst of energy contained in “The Devil’s Orchard”. The song winds and snakes through a variety of different changes, not unlike a more typical Opeth song but boasts a much different overall sound - one that sounds like it might have emerged from a small English studio some four decades ago. The majority of the tracks go through transitions that might seem somewhat awkward or even clumsy at first but reveal themselves as more and more clever on each subsequent revisit. The abrupt jolts coming in the form of instruments dropping off and changed time signatures are precisely what give this album a unique character stacked against the band’s previous albums.
Everything on Heritage
sounds rich and full, mostly thanks to the use of analog recording methods and other old hardware like real mellotrons and Hammond organs. The vintage treatment of Akerfeldt’s signature melodic sensibilities helps to consummate a unique world teaming with the beauty of Scandinavian folk and jazz while exuding the faux-occult aura of some of the seventies’ darker psychedelic acts. His vocal melodies are perhaps the most brilliant he’s ever delivered, perfectly accenting each and every instrumental component. The opening bars of “I Feel the Dark” are confined to the simple interplay between Mikael’s voice and a lovely acoustic guitar line with alternating piano and mellotron and still manage to be more captivatingly mystical than many past efforts put together.
The technicality these Swedish titans are so known for is knocked up yet another notch for their tenth LP. The group’s homage to the late, great Ronnie James Dio, the Rainbow-style hard rocker “Slither”, finds guitarist Frederik Akesson tearing it up before imploding the fretboard entirely for Opeth’s most shred-heavy solo to date. The Martins Axenrot and Mendez deliver career-defining performances on drums and bass, respectively, laying down intricate beats and tight grooves, especially on the unique and jazzy “Haxprocess”. Not to be outdone, Per Wiberg offers nothing short of clinical keyboard work for his final contribution to the band, whether providing understated ambient backdrops or driving runs on organ or piano.
From the Jethro Tull-esque flute in “Famine” to moments recalling acts like King Crimson and Yes, it’s obvious Heritage
draws upon a plethora of classic progressive rock influences. So, then, is it derivative? To an extent. But, more importantly, is it Opeth? Absolutely. While it’s certainly easy to form comparisons to bands sharing names with certain hump-backed mammals, it’s also equally easy to hear traces of the evolution of the twenty year old outfit’s expansive career. The album was destined to cause controversy from conception, but, then again, those with their hearts stuck firmly in the metallic beginnings of the group probably didn’t have much faith left in them anyway. Those with their hearts in the golden age of prog, however, and even those with open minds and hearts entirely, should find plenty to relish in the simultaneously vintage and groundbreaking Heritage