Opeth snub their noses at death on ‘Heritage’

Sometimes something so obvious practically stares you right in the face, pokes you in the chest and screams at you, yet you don’t realize it. I’m guilty of that quite often. I try to find some deeper meaning or reason why a path broke off and headed in another direction that occasionally I can’t see the warning signs. I’d be a horrible first responder.

When I first heard the rumblings about Opeth’s 10th record “Heritage” and the fact that it doesn’t include even a second of growling or death metal intensity, I was concerned. I’m pretty sure I’m not the only person who felt that way. Yes, they did the “Damnation” record in 2003, but it was more of a compliment to “Deliverance,” which was recorded at the same time but released five months earlier. So you got the dose of Opeth’s prog-death first and then got the curveball. But after three years with no new music from the Swedish stalwarts – their last was 2008’s “Watershed” – it seemed daring for them to run away from the sound for which they were known in order to go for a warmer, more progressive rock sound. Would their fanbase accept a new record devoid of all signs of death metal?

Then I heard the record, went back and listened again, took a break, and revisited it multiple times this past week. Something then hit me: This was where Opeth were headed all along. I remember the first few times listening to “Watershed” that it surprised me how melodic it was, how much more singing frontman/guitarist Mikael Åkerfeldt was doing, how much bluesy groove was being injected into their music, and how it seemed to be pulling away from the death metal pattern. Åkerfeldt growled, sure, and the music did have some heavy, aggressive parts, but it seemed like the beginning of an evolution. “Heritage” seems to prove that. If only I had my eyes and ears truly open all along. I just hope they haven’t closed the door on death altogether.

Before I jump totally into the songs on the record, let me comment on the production. It’s crazy warm, very ’70s feeling, and it’s going to sound great on vinyl. In fact, I’m going to seek that out, because I really want to hear this emanating from my turntable. Åkerfeldt, who produced the album, has a huge affinity for vinyl and the ’70s folk and prog movement, and it’s clear from this record that his and the band’s approach was designed to capture that same sonic quality.

Now for the music. If you’re only into Opeth because they’re a death metal band or for that aspect of their music, you might not like this. In fact, you might consider this record an atrocity similar to what Metallica regurgitated in the mid-1990s. That would be a silly point to make, however, because there’s no comparison of quality (Opeth’s new one is better by miles), but maybe you’ll be offended in the same way. If you prefer Opeth’s deathier stuff but have an open mind about them, by all means sit down with this. If you are an Opeth disciple through and through, my guess is it’ll be dork-out time, and what the hell is wrong with that? These 10 tracks sound great, and their decision to scrap the death template and indulge their (or Åkerfeldt’s) prog-rock fetish isn’t a disaster at all. Simply put, Opeth are a really good band made up of excellent players, and to think anything else would be possible would be ignorant. I admit that I shared in some of that because I was more than a little worried.

After a quiet, piano-led, title cut intro, we jump right into “The Devil’s Orchard,” one of the album’s punchier songs, with a nice jazz-fusion sound pumped in and their trademark lush keys playing a role. The only songs that match the sonic style of “The Devil’s Orchard” are “Slither,” another blues-laden song with an outpouring or organ and strong, tasty soloing, and “The Lines in My Hand,” that has an outer space vibe and is probably the most aggressive thing on here. Yet, calling it a metal track would be pushing it. Doesn’t matter. It’s a damn good song. The rest of the material is heavy in folk passages, eerie ambiance, and razor-sharp musicianship, with Åkerfeldt clearly demonstrating he’s never been more comfortable as a singer. “Nepenthe” and “Famine” have similar skeletal structures, as both open quietly, yet emotionally, and both have a spastic prog jam section that bursts out in the middle, before they go back to their original tones. “Haxprocess” is the slowest track on here, rising barely above a hush at times, and standing as the moodiest track. “Folklore,” the second-to-last cut (only instrumental “Marrow of the Earth” follows), is my personal favorite track. It’s also the longest, at 8:19, which would be a normal running length for a typical Opeth song on any of their other records, but here it’s the epic. Here is where you can hear the acoustic squeaks the most, the changing of frets on a dime, the hissing. Also, there’s a flush of goth keyboard courtesy of Per Wiberg (who has since left the band) that rises up out of nowhere, and from there the guitar interplay of Åkerfeldt and Fredrik Åkesson come alive, and Martin Mendez’s bass gallops through the opening.

I still think the album art is a little silly, but having read more about the meaning of the piece, I get it. The roots going to hell signal their death metal past, Wiberg’s head falling from the tree indicates his departure, the skulls beneath the tree symbolize the band’s past members,  the people picking fruit means Opeth’s flesh tastes good. Uh, I made up that one. I can give credit where it’s due in that it’s different and eye-catching, so there you go. Job done. As for the music, it took me a while to get into it, but now I like it. It’s not my favorite Opeth record, and I do hope their death metal days aren’t entirely behind them. But it’s a well-intentioned project, and from what Åkerfeldt said in interviews, had they just gone and done another typical Opeth record it may not have come out sounding very good, and it could have killed his interest in the band. I kind of wonder if that’s entirely true or just how he felt at the time, but Åkerfeldt and Opeth made the record they feel that had to, and it works on a lot of levels. Now it’s up to listeners to decide how they feel. I expect the response will be mixed.

For more on the band, go here: http://www.opeth.com/home/

To buy “Heritage,” go here: http://store.roadrunnerrecords.com/artists/Opeth_2

For more on the label, go here: http://www.roadrunnerrecords.com/