Some people may well have been alarmed at Opeth’s decision to move away from the progressive death metal which they originated, in favour of exploring even folkier and more traditional proggier influences. Vocalist Mikael Åkerfeldt had long stated previously that ‘Heritage‘ would be far removed from Opeth’s previous works, stating a boredom with extreme metal and that he felt the band had outgrown its roots. He’s certainly not wrong there – ‘Heritage‘ is a progressive rock album, with none of Åkerfeldt’s trademark death growls to be found anywhere.
Initially, all is good. We’re already familiar with ‘The Devil’s Orchard’, which was released to the public seemingly ages ago now. The incorporation of King Crimson, Yes, etc. references is already apparent here, as the song metamorphoses during the final third. Prior to that, some satisfying vocal work from Åkerfeldt, particularly the delivery of the line ‘God is dead!‘. The good work continues through ‘ Opeth then unleash a cracker in ‘Slither’, which Åkerfeldt dedicated to Ronnie James Dio, and with good reason – the first three minutes seem very much in awe of the great man and while its unusual for Opeth to simply be rocking out like this, its a damn good tune.
From that point, the album starts to meander a little too quietly for my liking. And by quiet, I don’t mean not heavy. I mean it actually feels like very little is happening. ‘Heritage‘ really enters its dark and gloomy phase as ‘Nepenthe’ literally creeps into view, occasionally ebbing into life as the band breaks into a jam punctuated some crazy soloing from Fredik Akesson. This occurs a couple of times within the song, which doesn’t do much else besides. This quiet patch stretches all the way through ‘Haxprocess’, which really does very little for me, right through to ‘Famine’, which itself opens with a flute solo and some ominous bellows and tribal percussion, which all of a sudden stops with a section consisting solely of piano and the vocals of Åkerfeldt. It finally livens up as a lively technical riff comes to prominence, and the song rocks up a bit. It later finishes with a Moog-driven heavy breakdown. As welcoming as that is, this is ‘Heritage‘ also falls down. Put simply, not everything they’re striving for gels together very well, and ‘Famine’ is a prime example of that – lots of interesting ideas, just not ones that should have featured in the same song.
Where I feel ‘Heritage‘ does excel is when it comes to life. The earlier songs manage to hold the interest, and there’s moments later on when the Opeth magic is there to see. ‘The Line in my Hand’ is another of Opeth’s shorter songs but still fantastic, picking up pace throughout and bounding away in still unusual, but definitely excellent fashion, and there’s moments in ‘Folklore’, particularly Åkerfeldt’s vocal of ‘and you will see what you mean to me‘, which are truly majestic.
‘Heritage‘ is unquestionably Opeth’s most adventurous work yet, and I for one couldn’t be happier that they tried. It doesn’t entirely work, but its certainly a grower and one I feel will take several repeats listens to fully appreciate. The Jethro Tull, King Crimson, Yes, etc. influences loom large over the whole thing, but I wish Opeth had just been a little more themselves, to allow room for those influences to bloom within successive releases.I don’t for one minute miss the death growls, although they really do complete a lot of classic Opeth songs. In the context of this album, they wouldn’t work. But that said, I wouldn’t have minded just a little more beef. Some more prog metal sections. At times, particularly in the middle, it’s borderline coffee shop than jazz lounge, and that’s not something I’d ever seen myself saying about any metal record, let alone an Opeth record. Hence, it feels as though they splurged them all over
Alas, Opeth’s vision was to leave their past behind, and leave it behind they have. Where they go from here is the next question, possibly even further away from the metal element. The album artwork itself is indicative of that – the sun represents their future, the current band members sitting in the tree, which represents ‘the present’. The faces in the tree represent the current line-up, with ex-keyboardist Per Wiberg’s head shown falling off the tree to symbolise his departure from the band. The roots represent the band’s death metal history, “going down to hell”. Deep indeed, and you have to suspect that Åkerfeldt and Opeth are on this road for good.
For now, ‘Heritage’ is a curious work. Not a bad album at all, and one that may mature like a fine wine over time. But at this point in time, I’m still scratching my head about it, whether I like it, or whether it’ll be the last in line when I decide which Opeth album I’m in the mood for.