September 14, 2011; Roadrunner
[Long and rambling review ahead, get comfortable.]
This reviewer admits a special attachment to Opeth, as they were one of the bands that helped rehabilitate my increasingly shitty opinion of the metal genre going into the early '00s. By that point nu-metal held an absolute death grip on the airwaves, and off the airwaves was a neverending and deadening flood of testosterone-addled hardcore and a horde of brainless, atonal death metal bands all cloned from the same Deicide/Morbid Angel/Cannibal Corpse DNA--or so I thought. Black metal and Gothenburg were both relatively new and alien to me, and as a teen with interest in relatively old-school thrash and doom/stoner metal (Pantera was probably the most recent band I would even countenance listening to at the time--yeah, I know) among other things a lot of good shit was flying under my radar while I was waiting in vain for the next Master of Puppets to show up.
My first listen to a friend's battered import copy of Morningrise was a real revelation for me. Here was a band that embraced both beauty and fury, with a sepulchral atmosphere, epic and constantly shifting songwriting and lots of acoustic and electric instrumental shading that I'd never heard in the genre (or anywhere else) before. And the riffs, oh damn. Being a staunch hater of extreme vox at the time, I still occasionally struggled with Mikael Akerfeldt's blackened growl on that album but once the taste had been acquired the quest for more Opeth continued at a fast pace. I quickly counted them among my favorite bands, devouring everything from their masterpiece My Arms, Your Hearse (my current favorite) to the growl-free folk/fusion/prog outing of Damnation with relish. Opeth also introduced me to another future staple, the excellent neo-prog band Porcupine Tree fronted by producer/musician/songwriter Steven Wilson who had contributed both instrumentation and production to several Opeth albums. Without getting too sycophantic, I can honestly say that I owe a lot of my omnivorous musical perspective and tastes to Opeth.
Now with all this goodwill in mind, let me tell you why Heritage is an album best left on the shelf.
The biggest controversy over this album is the complete rejection of any and all metal elements. Akerfeldt is on record stating that death metal is "over" and reflecting a disdain in being pigeonholed as such. That's both fair and not unexpected, as the band's classical prog influences were always just as prominent in their work as the metal ones were and previous effort Watershed generally pushed full-on headbanging aggression to the back burner (save for "Heir Apparent," the only all-metal song they've released to date). The band has also seen a number of lineup changes since signing up to the Roadrunner label in 2005, such as the inclusion of a full-time keyboardist (Per Wilberg, who left the band right after Heritage) and the departure of long-time members Peter Lindgren and Martin Lopez who both contributed a lot to the band's overall sound, if not to its songwriting. They have since been replaced by Martin Axenrot and Fredrik Akesson on drums and guitar respectively, who while not untalented seem slightly less subtle in their playing and overall feel than their predecessors.
But ultimately these surface changes are relatively unimportant to Heritage. What does matter, however, is how fucking boring the result is.
It's not that the music is overtly bad. The band is playing more or less up to par, channeling the odd meters, wild syncopation and organ blasts of prime '70s prog heroes such as Mk I-IV King Crimson and Van Der Graaf Generator perfectly on pre-release "The Devil's Orchard" and "Nepenthe." The medieval melodies of "Folklore" could pass for Gentle Giant or early Genesis , and there's mellotron all over the place on the moodier "I Feel The Dark." The bizzare, psychedelic "Famine" drops in some exotic instrumentation, including Afro-Cuban flavored percussion from Weather Report alumnus Alex Acuna and even a goddamn flute solo that gave me very unwelcome Jethro Tull flashbacks. All this coupled to a warm production quality with deliciously smooth low-end worlds away from the common sterile and overcompressed digital sound of new releases lends this album a very retro, analog feel.
That's the problem, really--Heritage rarely rises above more than mere homage to Mikael's musical idols, and even when that vision is executed competently it has little else to say. At best, this could be the work of an anonymous neo-prog band; and at worst, like in "Famine" and "Nepenthe" it feels like a disjointed jam session. The only track that I find entirely successful and not a stale rehash is "The Lines In My Hand": a surprisingly concise, driving and well-executed song that comes in a tidy 3:48, features some nice Spanish guitar alongside great throbbing basslines and would've made a superb single if Opeth was inclined to do such plebeian things. Most of the old transitions and shading, Opeth's biggest selling point, are gone and in its place is a steady undynamic flatline. They try to hide this fault with eclecticism and snazzier playing, but after listening to something as passionately stormy and foreboding as "Demon of The Fall," "Moonlapse Vertigo," or "By the Pain I See in Others" it becomes glaringly obvious.
Then there are the lyrics, which have notably degraded as Mikael's voice has gotten ever better. Since Ghost Reveries I'd noticed an uptick in their use of explicit Satanic references, a rather silly device that they never really resorted to in past albums. Most of that is fortunately gone in Heritage, but some truly hackneyed lines remain. Hearing Mikael drop clunkers like "God is dead!" in the chorus of "The Devil's Orchard" or "Feel the pain in your brain, insane" on "Folklore" in that newly scrubbed angelic intonation is just cringeworthy. It makes you wish for a dose of that insidious and darkly majestic growl to purge it from memory.
The saddest thing is that Opeth has already released a far, far superior prog album that's over seven years old and still sounds like Opeth--that album would be Damnation, and for all the spontaneous menstruation that release produced within the metalhead fraternity it remains a more emotive and convincing listen that anything Heritage has to offer. So while ultimately I respect Akerfeldt's vision and what he was trying to do here, if this is the vein that Mikael wants to pursue he needn't have dragged the name of his current band into it. Go start that joint Steven Wilson project I'm sure you've been waiting to do forever Mikael--maybe you'll stir ol' Steve out of his post-The Incident malaise. Or, y'know, fold Opeth and go solo like many brave metal vocalists that have gone before, abandoning the old expectations entirely.
But Heritage, from the doofy cover art (seriously, look at it) to the light and inconsequential music, remains one thing my inner fanboy wishes I'd never have to call an Opeth album--a misfire.