"I love the music, but I can't get past the vocals". How many times have I heard people say that about Opeth? Most even say it with a bit of regret; they WANT to like it, even love it, but that one element of their sound ruins it for them. Guys... this album is for you!
If you've been an Opeth fan for the last ten years or longer then you had to see this coming. Mikael has been dabbling with clean vocals more and more over the years. They even released 'Damnation', which was all clean and mostly acoustic, but it was paired with 'Deliverance' in all its heavy brutality so everyone was happy. 'Heritage' definitely marks a stylistic change for Opeth, though one may argue just how dramatic that shift is.
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'Heritage' opens with the somber title track, a solo piano piece played by Joakim Svalberg. The melody is based in Swedish folk music and wouldn't have been out of place on any past Opeth album. So far so good.
'The Devil's Orchard' hits right away with the heavy guitar riffs and Hammond organ that have become commonplace recently. The track settles down with a laid back drum and keyboard section that builds tension that you might expect to be broken by one of Mike's Satanic howls, but no. Instead of release the mood shifts to an almost 70s Jazz Funk feel with some incredible bass work by Martin Mendez.
There is what seems like a longer than normal pause before 'I Feel The Dark' and that will become a theme on 'Heritage', silence and if not total silence a sparse soundscape. Acoustic guitars and vocals along with 'Mellotron' open and each instrument lives in its own space, nothing really competes for attention and everything can be heard.
The recording quality is astounding and this might actually be where the shift in style is most apparent. Not going for a band sound as much as showcasing musicianship and the sound each instrument makes on its own.
'Slither' is a straight ahead rocker that would fit on a Deep Purple or Iron Maiden album which is made more understandable when we see that it was recorded as a tribute to the late Ronnie James Dio. This might be Mikael's most impressive vocal performance as he's not screaming or whispering or creating a mood, he's just... singing. The acoustic outro seems a little long to me, but given what comes next I can see the need for a transition.
Here's that dramatic shift we've been expecting. The first half of 'Nepenthe' is very quiet and again the drum and bass work is the most impressive thing here. The middle section kicks into another Jazz Fusion jam with a ripping guitar solo. In between these seemingly disparate parts you can almost see the band members smiling at each other in the studio and taking in the moment. I feel like they found their stride in these silences. It's the silence that makes you listen.
One of the things that makes Opeth great is the juxtaposition of quiet intensity and explosive intensity. 'Heritage' has the same moments but the quiet parts are almost silent and the explosive parts are more about big bass lines and heavy-handed Hammond organ.
It might be an interesting exercise to see just how much of 'Heritage' features only one band member playing at a time. 'Haxprocess' continues in the same vein as 'Nepenthe' and as each song progresses you really start to see where Mike was headed when he made that choice early on in the writing process to move away from the 'Watershed' type songs he'd already finished.
'Famine' comes across as their version of 'Powerslave' and feels like a soundtrack for being trapped inside a pyramid overnight. If you noticed the percussion and thought it sounded a little outside of Axe's scope of knowledge, then you'd be right... that's none other than Jazz legend Alex Acuna (Weather Report).
This track features some of the heaviest Hammond organ work by Per Wiberg who left the band after finishing the record, hence his head falling off the tree on the cover. It even has some Ian Anderson style flutes! Clocking in at over eight minutes it's also one of the longer pieces on the album.
Since I just mentioned Per's head on the cover, it may be worth pointing out some of the symbolism in Travis Smith's gorgeous artwork. The band/tree has its roots in Hell, but has grown. Band members have gone, but remain close to the roots. People congregate at the tree, even line up for it and the city in the distance is burning…read into that what you will.
'The Lines In My Hand' has the best bass line I've heard in a long time. It's Maidenesque in the way it carries the melody more like a lead guitar than a rhythm instrument. Bass players are going to love this. This may be the shortest song Opeth has ever recorded if you don't count the various intros, outros and interludes.
'Folklore' ventures a little close to Spinal Tap at first, but soon becomes more of a Pink Floyd thing. The band sounds comfortable, almost relieved to have taken things down a notch. I hate to make the comparison because it's not entirely accurate, but Metallica said part of the reason they wrote the Black Album was that the 'Justice...' songs were too long and hard to be fun live. Where Metallica could be seen to have dumbed down their songs, Opeth have opened theirs up and allowed more light and space into them.
This brings up the question of lyrics. In the past Mikael has been known to refer to his lyrics as "pure Black Metal nonsense" and let's be honest, you couldn't really understand them anyway. Now everything has been laid bare, there's no hiding behind the growl. You have to wonder how much more thought goes into the lyrics now.
'Folklore' winds down in a perfect way to end an album, but we're treated with an additional instrumental passage, 'Marrow Of The Spirit.' to close things out.
'Heritage' rewards repeated listenings in different settings. Try it on headphones, in the car and on the stereo. Each time I promise you'll hear something new.
If you like it the first time, you'll love it the more you hear it. If you don't like it, give it some time and you may come to understand it. I'd like to think that Opeth still has some Death Metal in their future, but the more I listen to 'Heritage' the less sure I am. I think they've really hit on something here that they should be proud of.
This will no doubt be the most polarizing record of their career. It will surely win them some new fans while alienating some longtime fans.
The question has even been raised as to whether those fans were ever really Opeth fans or just generic Death Metal fans as a 'real' fan of the band would appreciate the natural growth and progression of such a talented group of musicians.