02. The Devil’s Orchard
03. I Feel The Dark
08. The Lines In My Hand
10. Marrow of the Earth
It was bound to happen sooner or later. All the pieces were in place, and the Swedish progressive maestros have shown shades of this sort of thing throughout their illustrious career. Indeed, Heritage lives true to its name, and sees the full exploration of Opeth‘s lighter influences. They say you need to look into the past to prepare for the future, and Akerfeldt & Co practice this philosophy in a manner that is refreshingly organic, unlike many who have attempted similar revisits to previous trend—hell, just look at the so-called ‘Re-Thrash’ scene and its many missteps. No, Opeth certainly know what they are doing, and to say that this album is a divisive one is putting it lightly.
Heritage is surely to be a controversial album among fans of Opeth, with Akerfeldt wiping the slate clean of the death metal sound that the band formed itself on. This comes as no surprise, as the clean progressive rock aspect of the band has been increasingly visible as the years went on. They even dropped their heavy act entirely on Damnation, so it’s not like this is some sudden jump that could not have been foreseen. Heritage seems to maintain a dynamic balance between aggression, experimentation, and moody introspection. There is nary a trace of death metal or harsh vocals, but that doesn’t stop the album from sounding like a dark and gloomy throwback to classic prog and proto-metal that came alive during the 70s.
As the title implies, Heritage explores all the little niche areas that make Opeth tick from a progressive standpoint. There are hints of folk, blues, jazz, progressive rock flourishes, and even lumbering doom. On first listen, it’s easy to make comparisons to bands like Yes, King Crimson, Black Sabbath, Jethro Tull, and whatever other names you could come across on any classic-rock station that’s actually worth listening to. What makes these sounds work in a contemporary context is Opeth’s ability to incorporate these vintage tones in a way that actually sounds like Opeth. The production helps as well, as they didn’t sacrifice pristine quality for authenticity, or vice versa. Heritage—thanks to producer Steven Wilson of Porcupine Tree, no doubt—somehow manages to sound both modern and vintage, polished yet organic. This is a quality that can’t be taken for granted, and it’s clear that great care and attention to detail were top priority.
You’ve still got bouts of heaviness that keeps Opeth’s foot in the door of the realm of metal. “Slither” and “The Lines In My Hand” offer fast paced riffage and soulful singing, feeling like a prime example of proto/early metal, and “Famine“‘s marching doom outro feels quite huge, complete with haunting wind instrumentation that flutters about in an almost sinister fashion. “The Devil’s Orchard” is also decidedly metal with its almost sinister mood and “God is dead!” lyrics. The overall dark tone of Heritage feels comfortably metal as well, further tying the collection of tracks.
More often than not however, there are bouts of sparse atmosphere where a single instrument is given spotlight to play a bluesy dirge or set forth a theme or mood for the full band to explore. From the opening piano-oriented “Heritage” to the solemn folky outro “Marrow of the Earth,” there’s plenty of downtime, and just about every track experiences this sort of thing, save for the bulk of the aforementioned “heavy” tracks.
It may go without saying, but every instrument flourishes remarkably on Heritage. Akerfeldt’s voice is as amazing as ever as well. Without the inclusion of death growls it may leave some old-school fans more to be desired, but it seems to be commonly accepted by fans of the genre that Akerfeldt has one of the best singing voices in metal, and that’s an opinion that I certainly hold. His smooth and soulful voice is one of the highlights of Heritage, for sure. His versatile guitar playing can easily fit into whatever context when needed and the leads and solos absolutely make the songs they appear in.
The rhythm section is absolutely stunning, being a definite driving force in Heritage. There are huge drum breaks and fills take often take the forefront, and the groove that Axenrot carries is phenomenal when he’s given the space to go for it. Marten Mendez’s bass is also more standout than usual in Heritage thanks to the blues and jazz orientation that many sections take. There are plenty of basslines that take importance over the guitar work, which is something that could definitely be seen more of in rock and metal given the right bassist. The interplay between bass and percussion is tight and naturally fitting—not surprisingly due to the fact that drums and bass were simultaneously tracked in the same room, a practice which should, once again, find itself in more common use.
The synth and keys are also as important (if not moreso) than ever. Delicate piano pieces and epic soundscapes emanate from now ex-key player Per Wilberg’s fingertips. It’s a shame that he’s no longer a part of the group; you almost can’t tell he wasn’t fully into the recording process, because his performance is as convincing as possible from a synth player on a prog metal album.
The record is not without faults, though. Some of the songwriting and structure is downright baffling, even for a progressive band. “Haxprocess,” despite being one of the album’s highlights, fizzles out in an obligatory fashion rather than having any sort of ending that lives up to the haunting passages preceding it, leaving MUCH more to be desired from that track. “Famine” doesn’t flow well at all despite having many good parts; the transitions are either nonexistent (tribal drums suddenly drop out without warning or buildup to make way for an unfitting delicate piano track, for instance) or just sloppy in general. Opeth can certainly structure songs in a more logical and efficient manner than this, I’m sure. They do get it right sometimes though, as in the album’s highlight “Folklore,” which builds up to a fantastic climax. It may be one of Opeth’s best moments.
Honestly though, Heritage contains some of Opeth’s best work since Blackwater Park. I love where they’re heading with this sound, and given some improvements in songwriting and structure, Opeth are onto something fantastic and special here with the vintage vibes. Hopefully next time we can see a continuation on this sound in future installments that sees some better execution. They’ve got it in them, and they’re on the verge of something even more spectacular.