On September 20th, 2011, Opeth unleashed its tenth studio album on the world, titled Heritage. Nearly every (legitimate) sub-genre of heavy metal under the sun has been attached to Opeth at some point or another, but with Heritage none could be found for the long-time head bangers can really no longer be called a metal band. Make no mistake, Heritage will be and is a divisive album for Opeth fans and the metal community. In the short time it has been available here in the US, most of the reactions to the album have been extreme in one direction or another. Some fans feel its progressive rock sounds are brilliant and the birth of something new and exciting for the band while others feel its absence of traditional metal is both misleading and a poor choice. For me, the truth lies somewhere in the middle, though I’m leaning more towards the “brilliant” crowd.
Truly, the album is an exercise of confidence for Opeth. Confidence in each other, confidence in their ability, and confidence in the music itself. For a band that’s been around for over 20 years to so drastically change things up is both admirable and frightening. On the surface, this sounds like no other Opeth that came before it, including the other absence of metal record Damnation from 2003. Look closer though and some traditional Opeth sounds can be found. The lead track and early crowd pleaser “The Devil’s Orchard,” is quite close to a traditional Opeth track but without the heavier elements of the band’s past. The obvious jazz elements present on the album are what really distinguish it from past works. The lead guitar work is often frenetic and engaging, and bassist Martin Mendez is given a lot of room to breath on this record and the results are quite excellent. Where the album really abandons the past is with the more abstract titles like “Famine” and the jazz-fusion mid-section of “Nepenthe.” And seemingly to add a completely different sound to the album there’s “Slither,” the Dio tribute track that’s the closest thing to pure rock Opeth has ever recorded.
While the album is indeed good, it’s hard not to argue that a certain aspect of the band has been lost along the way. Yes, Opeth has always dabbled in prog rock and their music has often contained complex rhythms and time changes but it was still always heavy metal, Damnation aside. Heritage is truly a progressive rock album, and judging it on that basis alone it’s good, but not earth shattering. Opeth will not be confused for King Crimson. Comparing it with past releases, and it’s actually quite similar to the more progressive moments on Watershed, the band’s previous album. If this sound is the future for Opeth (and lead singer and principal composer Mikael Åkerfeldt left open the possibility of bringing back the death metal component) then I find myself with some mixed emotions. The defining aspect for Opeth, to me, has always been the duality between the light and dark, heavy and serene.
I’d be less concerned if I didn’t think the direction for Heritage would carry over to the live show, but one look at the Worcester, MA set list from the first night of the tour is quite a thing to ponder. For those not interested in checking the link, the only songs played were those devoid of Opeth’s heavier side. Songs from the new album were joined by older songs such as “A Fair Judgement” and “Credence” with nothing even remotely metal finding its way into the set. I was in attendance for the show and it was quite interesting to feel the tension in the air. The crowd was fairly receptive to the band but the air was charged as people were just waiting for something big and heavy to release that tension but it never came. The new tracks did work really well live, which I expected as there’s a very natural and organic sound to the record, and most of the older tracks sounded quite good as well. It still would have been nice to hear “The Lotus Eater” or “Deliverance” as a final song or encore. This new approach even prompted a sort-of apology from Mikael as he kind of thanked the crowd for dealing with the difficulty of being an Opeth fan.
Heritage leaves Opeth in a curious position. No one, not even the band, seems to know where this is going to lead. Opeth has a reputation and a fan base that won’t let its popularity be diminished much, if at all, by this new direction. It’s even possible the band could attract new fans, those who always liked the band’s mellow side but not the death metal aspect. I won’t even try to speculate but I will continue to look forward to and consume everything this band releases. Opeth is an extraordinarily talented outfit that never fails to put out engaging, thought-provoking, music and in that Heritage is just like all of their previous observations.
Some technical thoughts on the collector’s edition release:
The bonus tracks, “Pyre” and “Face in the Snow,” are quite good but also sound as if they were left off the album for a reason. “Face in the Snow” is the better of the two and sounds like it could have easily fit onto the Damnation record. It kind of ends abruptly though and I wish some more thought had been put into that part of the song. The two tracks, like the bonus tracks on Watershed, are annoyingly included on the DVD portion of the release and not the CD. There’s a widget on the Opeth facebook page that’s supposed to let users download the tracks by inserting the DVD into their PC/Mac, but it wouldn’t work for me. I contacted customer service for Push Entertainment, the company responsible for the widget, and they just suggested I clear my cache which solved the problem.
The DVD also includes a 5.1 mix of the album, so if you have a killer set up it might be worthwhile to give it a listen. The real attraction, for me, is the included “Making of Heritage” documentary directed by Mikael himself. It’s very similar to the one included on Watershed and goes in depth into the recording process of the album. Mikael talks a lot about how Heritage was conceived and explains why it sounds the way it does, which considering the album’s drastic change in direction, is quite enlightening. I am a terrible musician myself so I always enjoy and am fascinated by those opposite. Watching the more mundane sections of the documentary are extremely interesting to me, they may not be for some.
The deluxe version of the album also contains a 7″ for the two bonus tracks, so at least owners of that can listen to them on something other than a television. Each track has its own side, so no cool back-side artwork like the Throat of Winter single. The deluxe version also contains the album on 180 gram vinyl and spans two records. This version of the LP has a lenticular cover which is pretty cool. There’s an oversized artbook and lyrics insert, as well as a print of the cover on sturdy paper. I’d love to frame the print but it’s hard to find a quality 12×12 frame at stores. The whole thing is housed in a hard slipcase with the cover art on the front and normal back cover design as well. It’s quite pricey, but cool for the collector. There’s still some available at the label’s webstore.
- The Devil’s Orchard