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Music Review: Opeth "Heritage"
Published on September 29, 2011 by guest author: J.K. Eisen

After Opeth’s Mikael Akerfeldt recorded two demos for the Swedish band’s latest album, he came to a realization. Though the songs were good, even mining the same musical vein as 2008’s “Watershed,” something wasn’t quite right.

His heart just wasn’t into making another “metal” Opeth album. The singer/guitarist would later recall in an interview for FaceCulture that he had taken that style as far as he could take it. So Akerfeldt deleted the songs from his computer’s hard drive, literally wiping the slate clean before taking the band in a new direction for their 10th album.

The result is “Heritage,” an album showcasing a band that has reached a milestone in its evolution. While Opeth has never been afraid to push musical boundaries, most notably in 2003 when they eschewed death metal growls and distorted guitars to create the haunting songs on “Damnation,” “Heritage” doesn’t have the feel of a momentary musical departure for the band, but a long-standing goal that has been achieved. Akerfeldt has even said it feels like an album he’s been destined to make since he was 19.

“Heritage” features lush, progressive arrangements. There are no death metal growls. And the guitars don’t so much hammer and pummel in a metallic style as swirl, crash and cut through a musical landscape where Mellotrons and acoustic guitars create an otherworldly atmosphere and Akerfeldt’s voice floats and weaves through the arrangements.  The album has even garnered the attention of National Public Radio, which gave “Heritage” a positive review and made the entire album available for streaming online.

The 70’s progressive rock references will be abundant as people try to describe “Heritage.” King Crimson and Yes will be evoked as will Jethro Tull thanks to the use of a flute. But make no mistake, the band is never lost within its influences. It has made a compelling musical statement that is distinctly Opeth.

The title track opens the album with a piano piece, easing the listener into the album before “The Devil’s Orchard” kicks off in propulsive fashion with a twisting guitar riff and the skillful drumming of Martin Axenrot. Akerfeldt’s vocals have an urgent and ethereal quality as he sings: Take the road where devils speak/“God is dead.” In the hands of a lesser vocalist, quoting Nietzsche would seem like a trite gimmick, particularly after Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails masterfully used the same declaration on “Heresy” 17 years earlier. Yet, here, it somehow works.

“Famine” provides an ornate and powerful punch. It not only features the work of Afro-Cuban percussionist Alex Acuna in the song’s intro but flautist Bjorn J:son Lindh accents the most massive, stomping riff of the album with fluttering notes that only seem to add to its heaviness. The crashing guitars of “I Feel the Dark” likewise bring a hard edge to this album.

Yet a loose feel pervades much of “Heritage.” It’s on full display in “Nepenthe” where the song opens with an atmosphere of jazz-like improvisation before a strange, off-kilter keyboard riff crashes the festivities and takes the song in an eclectic direction that allows for a frenetic and squealing guitar solo.

But just in case the jazz fusion and sprawling, progressive soundscapes have left some fans wanting something with a harder sting, there’s “Slither.” Dedicated to the memory of the late Ronnie James Dio and offering a musical nod to the band Rainbow, “Slither” careens along with reckless abandon, almost threatening to go off the rails and come to a crashing end before a frantic guitar solo helps propel the song forward. But when Akerfeldt declares for the last time that “summer’s gone,the clatter ends and a quiet acoustic guitar passage closes the song.

The last proper song on the album is “Folklore,” a standout track that provides an expansive journey. Hypnotic guitar lines and piano work pull the listener into the song before it takes off with a galloping rhythm that’s cinematic in scope. It even features a guitar solo that evokes Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour.

Overall, “Heritage” is multi-layered, dark, soulful and sincere. It rewards the listener with each successive listen. In the 1970s such lush, progressive music would have made this album a definite “headphones album.” In 2011, it should be no surprise that the band has put out a special version of the album in surround sound for listeners wanting to be immersed in the music. While “Heritage” may be a journey too far for Opeth fans looking for something a bit more familiar, those willing to make this journey will find it to be a rewarding one.

J.K. Eisen writes about entertainment and the world around him. He lives in the Deep South.

 

 

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