posted on 9/2011 By:
It baffles me that purist types beg for vinyl this and analog that, but when a reputable and well-loved band releases a throwback album, many of those aforementioned people pitch a goddamn fit. Typically, these are also the individuals who argue that Orchid and Morningrise are Opeth’s best albums, and who will heatedly refer to the band’s later work as “selling out”. I will save us all the rant on this for now, but with an album that has caused so much disagreement between followers, I believe it’s important to acknowledge that a great deal of anger towards the new album is coming from this variety of fan. On the other hand, much of the gushing praise directed towards this latest effort stems from consumers who impart the notion that the more enigmatic something sounds, the “better” it is. Of course, these are extreme and opposing ends of the spectrum, and there are many opinions that fall somewhere in between, including my own.
Opeth’s Heritage is not a masterpiece, but it’s a good record. Does it measure up to the band’s previous work? That’s more of a debate, and one in which my position is a firm ‘no’, but when evaluated as an entity separate from the rest of their catalog, the album is a solid yet somewhat forgettable release with a few moments of pure excellence. When all’s said and done, Opeth has made a progressive rock album that many will rebel against, but more than a few will love.
When I first saw the album art for Heritage, I’ll admit it gave me pause. The crimson-themed Byzantine vibe is unequivocally out of character, but still a pretty interesting concept. The blatant symbolism with the heads and skulls comes across as slightly tongue-in-cheek, which I can also appreciate. Some people thought the album cover might be a publicity stunt, but I never quite bought into that theory. After all, Mikael Åkerfeldt does not give a damn what any of us think, and he’s one of the few people left that still makes the music he wants to create, as opposed to remaining formulaic in order to appease fans.
The title track is a jazz-inspired introduction to the album, and consists of a simple and dark melodic piano passage reminiscent of sections present on Damnation. It’s not anything to write home about (although here I am, writing about it), but certainly no cause for alarm. The first full tune on the album, “The Devil’s Orchard” is the whirling and keyboard-heavy earworm of Heritage. After hearing it once, Akerfeldt’s repeated “God is dead” line has continually and often randomly lodged itself in my brain.
Up next is “I Feel the Dark”, which sounds like a Damnation track that didn’t make the cut. It’s smooth and inoffensive, but not particularly good. It’s undeniably an Opeth tune though, which will hopefully subdue the rabid fans that have been panicking ever since Mikael announced he was taking a different direction with the band’s sound. This is one of the more “retro” sounding prog tracks on the album, both instrumentally and lyrically. Unlike Damnation, which never really seemed to call for them, Heritage has heavier moments that could have really benefitted from a growl or two. Even so, masterful death metal vocals wouldn't be able to save “Slither”, which clocks in at four minutes and bludgeons the listener with the same riff and drumming pattern over and over again. If Mikael’s voice wasn’t so distinctive, I wouldn’t really connect this track with the band at all, save for the guitar solo toward the end.
“Nepenthe” has jazz-infused, loose drumming and gentle guitar work, with plenty of space for the music to breathe. It gets pretty progressive about halfway through, with more frenetic riffing coupled with a palpable 70’s sound before relaxing back into a contemplative feel. This jarring back and forth occurs a few times, but it’s a necessary move considering the dreamy, sluggish, pace of the calmer sections.
“Häxprocess” contains some beautiful clean vocals from Åkerfeldt, and some well-executed mellotron, but other than that it’s a listless track that lacks Opeth’s signature compositional quality. Things improve tremendously with “Famine”, which opens up with a performance from Afro-Cuban percussion master Alex Acuña and includes what can only be described as a brutal and bizarre flute performance. There’s a multitude of things going on during this eight-minute track, and it possesses most of the best moments on the record (which is great for the track, but does not bode well for the album). “The Lines in My Hand” is bland and unobtrusive, but “Folklore” approaches the ridiculous. It’s as though Opeth has taken their every prog influence and bundled them together into a crooning piece bordering on a parody. It’s not a bad track, just a bit silly.
Heritage slows things down with the unadorned closing tune, “Marrow of the Earth”. It’s incredibly mellow, and consists of quiet nylon string guitar that is eventually joined by the sound of reverberating organ, serving as the quintessential prog-rock outro. In the end, Opeth should be respected for taking such a substantial creative risk, even if the resulting material leaves something to be desired. Those who are still fuming should keep in mind that there are nine other studio albums in the Opeth discography, and they can enlist their favorites to provide them with solace until the next record.
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