Another Watershed Moment
There was a moment on 2008’s Watershed that showed just how much Opeth, a deeply progressive band, had progressed over eight records. The song, entitled “The Lotus Eater,” was mentioned in nearly every review written for the record, and rightfully so. After three minutes of intense blastbeats and one of frontman Mikael Åkerfeldt’s harshest vocals, the song drifts into a quiet, sparse midsection. That midsection ends masterfully with a 30-second jazz fusion interlude that’s so perfectly executed that even for a band whose origins derived in Scandinavian metal, it seemed effortless. Unlike many bands who bear the genre’s name, Opeth is a truly progressive band; Heritage sounds of a band that has truly grown into something much greater than they began. Though the record doesn’t sound miles apart from the band’s debut, 1995’s Orchid, it certainly demonstrates a substantial stylistic departure for the group.
Though Heritage as a whole sounds unlike any other Opeth record, there were signs that this record was bound to come. Opeth has always succeeded in juxtaposing the tranquil with the tumultuous. Ever since their inception with Orchid, the harshest growls and guitars were always counterbalanced with gorgeous acoustic guitars and piano. Folk and prog were always part of the band’s musical formula; though the band has always been a metal band, they weren’t one to always live by the genre’s typical expectations. The band’s skill at musical chiaroscuro is most obvious in their 2002/2003 “double” album, which comprised the heavy Deliverance and the mellow Damnation. Though Opeth’s greatest successes up to that point were in the metal-oriented part of their sonic (such as the title track of their 2001 masterwork Blackwater Park), it was Damnation that proved to be the finer of the two albums. The record remains one of the band’s most memorable efforts; though it doesn’t serve as a demonstration of the totality of their sound, it nonetheless exemplifies many of their strongest qualities. These range from Åkerfeldt’s gorgeous singing voice to drummer Martin Lopez’s smooth, jazz-tinged percussion (though he has since left the band). All of the most successful moments are brought back in full force on Heritage, though this record is in a class all its own.
Like Damnation, Åkerfeldt’s death growls are nowhere present on this album. Given the power of his voice evident on all of the band’s past outings, he absolutely nails it here. His performance is so strong he practically steals songs like “Famine,” which would already be a powerful piece as an instrumental. Though the contrast of his growls and his clean vocals has been a big part of the band’s musical past, here their absence doesn’t detract from the experience. Had they been present, they would have likely sounded out of place; the record still has flourishes of metal, but on the whole the album sounds most akin to classic prog and Swedish folk. This is evident everywhere, from the album’s Deep Purple-referencing artwork to emphasis on certain instruments. In particular, the electric organ plays a substantial role throughout the record, notably on the windy, serpentine “The Devil’s Orchard.” The whole band steps up to the plate in this sonic shift. Drummer Martin Axenrot, whose performance on Watershed was technically proficient but lacking the subtlety of Lopez’s style, knocks it out of the ballpark here, proving himself to be quite skilled at matching the intricacies required for this type of music.
Just as the album is an exemplar of Opeth’s more progressive side, it also shows the band at its most accessible. The album’s longest song is eight and a half minutes, a marked change from their past outings (both Ghost Reveries and Watershed featured 11-minute songs; the classic “Black Rose Immortal” from Morningrise runs over 20). Two songs, “Slither” and “The Lines in My Hand”, both clock in under five minutes. The band has had short songs, but the majority of the time those songs were brief instrumental interludes. These two songs here are fully realized pieces that, in a reasonable world, would get these guys radio play. “Slither” in particular features one of the band’s catchiest guitar riffs.
These moments aside, it’s the longer, more progressive moments that stand out. The jazz flute on “Famine” might elicit comparisons to Jethro Tull, but in the song’s intro it sounds more indebted to classical music than to the British proggers. For a brief moment it sounds eerily like The Moldau, but any similarities end when the flute is reprised later in the song, accompanied by distorted guitar. About halfway into “I Feel the Dark,” a heavy, almost distant saxophone-like sound blares, sounding similar to some of Steven Wilson’s solo work (who is credited as mixer of this record, after having produced three of the band’s records). “Folklore” begins with a scale-like guitar line that leads into the song’s melody, which sounds like the archetypal Opeth guitar sound. Like the legato, jazzy guitar on the album’s closing track, the somber instrumental “Marrow of the Earth,” the band’s guitar style finds Åkerfeldt and guitarist Fredrik Åkesson to be masterful guitarists not by obsessing in overly technical, time-signature-switching theatrics but instead by emphasizing the beautiful tone of the guitar and by playing it well.
Admittedly, there are moments where an especially heavy riff or even a modicum of a growl are desired. Though this isn’t a cold-turkey abandoning of the band’s past style, it is a substantial change, one that takes some time to digest. Heritage isn’t the type of record to blow away one’s mind upon first listen; it takes time to grow in its complexities. This will no doubt be a difficult record for some fans of the band to accept, but given time the album’s consummate art is likely to prevail.
The album’s very interesting cover art is bound to be read into as a grand summation of Opeth’s musical journey up to this point (indeed, even Åkerfeldt himself seems to endorse such analysis). In truth, the music speaks entirely for itself here. Heritage, though it doesn’t feature much of the band’s roots in dark death metal, is an extraordinarily grand record as only Opeth could make it. Instead of trying to re-create the metal style of Ghost Reveries or Watershed, which they no doubt could have done successfully, the band opted to take a new route. That route, though different from albums that are considered their best, is nonetheless completely natural. This sounds very much like an Opeth record, one that the band was always bound to make, no matter how popular they have become for their status as a metal band. The musical vocabulary of progressive rock and folk comes just as easily to the band as the intense, powerful sonics of death metal.
Heritage begins and ends with instrumental pieces. It opens with the title track, a lovely piano prelude. It ends with “Marrow of the Earth”, a melancholy guitar-led piece that sounds like much of the material on Damnation. These stunning songs bookend the record in a way that makes the album feel almost like a story. The richness of the album’s music could bring forth any number of interpretations to that story, but one thing is certainly clear: in a career full of masterful albums, Opeth still continues to make especially phenomenal music and, fortunately for us, the band isn’t showing any signs of becoming stagnant.