I should perhaps start off by saying that I was never a terribly huge fan of Opeth’s music. I found Still Life and Damnation enjoyable, and Morningrise had its moments, but I did not think them worthy of the heaps of flowers thrown upon their feet. Then along came Watershed, out of nowhere, and blew me away. The musicianship was astonishing, the production crispy and clear, and most importantly, Akerfeldt had transitioned from the somewhat choppy riff-based songwriting of his past into full-blown organic composition, showing he had a world of potential.
Thus we reach Heritage. Creating controversy even before its release because of its lack of extreme metal elements, this album expands even further upon the progress made in Watershed, and demonstrates that said album was not just a stroke of luck.
From the outset, Akerfeldt shows us that he’s taking this “no metal” thing seriously, a Debussyian intro (perfectly in synch with the impressionistic air of the album as a whole,) is followed by the serpentine main riff of “The Devil’s Orchard.” Right off the bat this isn’t the same Opeth we know, not even from Watershed. The production is warmer and less dense, and though it might hold the heavy riffs back a bit, it greatly benefits the album’s predominantly clean guitar tones, and sounds more dynamic overall. Accentuating this general feel is an increased use of keyboard ambience, the now departed Per Wiberg has been placed higher in the mix than in Watershed, and the timbres of his various organs and keyboards are now fully audible, adding a textural depth to the work unprecedented in the Opeth catalogue.
The band is also on top form, with drummer/band octopus Martin Axenrot deserving a special mention; he is as creative as he is technical and intelligent, always leaving enough space for the music, especially for the somber magic of Martin Mendez’s smooth counterpoint. As with Watershed, the guitar solos are always highlights, with the exception of the rather lackluster shredding on “Slither”. I honestly don’t know who plays which guitar solos, but they are truly gorgeous, check out the song-stopping lead on “Häxprocess” to see what I mean.
The star however is, of course, Mr. Opeth himself, Mikael Akerfeldt. As a composer he has developed far beyond his riff-piling roots. His work is now exquisitely textured and arranged, flute, congas, piano, mellotron, every layer and color he chooses to add into his music fits into it seamlessly, I imagine partly because of Steven Wilson’s help at the sound board. His vocals are better than ever, and the vocals melodies are some of his most adventurous, and they are perhaps the clearest evidence of the fact that he is no longer thinking in any way like a mere writer of rock tunes, allowing his clear and strong voice to drift into, out of, and through riffs like a passing cloud.
However, this is not where the man truly shines, but rather in composition itself, the element that finally drives this band forward and away from the rut of its roots. Mikael Akerfeldt has finally come around to developing motifs instead of simply following chaining riffs, and he does so in wonderful and often extremely creative ways, not only through rhythmic and tonal variations, but through changing dynamics, or moving a melody from one instrument to another. His songs are episodic as ever, as the abrupt ending of the intro to “Famine” surely demonstrates, yet somehow they seem more coherent, as if the inorganic transitions are now justifiable because Akerfeldt has shown us that he knows how to make perfectly organic ones as well. His characteristic on-the-dime drops are less subtle than ever, but now it is perfectly clear that this is their intention, and one gets a better picture of Akerfeldt’s strange vision.
Perhaps this dark, twisted and brilliant music has always been inside him yet he has not been able to properly channel it. Now however, Akerfeldt’s, and Opeth’s, skills are undoubted, as showcased beautifully on the dark, cinematic prog-rock of Heritage, particularly in its second half. The first half, which perhaps tellingly bears most of the album’s heavier material, somehow seems like it is holding back, like it is afraid to fully branch out, though it is certainly far from lackluster. This is not to say Opeth only shine on their soft tunes, the elephantine groove they discovered on Watershed’s mighty “Heir Apparent” makes a few appearances, and it is downright pummeling.
Overall, Heritage is a marvelous progressive rock record; a record that is at its best when it chooses to calm down and let itself evolve slowly, yet does not lag behind when it chooses to rock, or on some of its more abrasive and dissonant prog passages. Opeth have upped the ante for themselves in every aspect on Heritage, musicianship, songwriting, even texturing, and if they keep evolving they way they are doing now; they just might have a masterpiece in them.