September 21, 2011 by Dan Swinhoe
Is it possible to talk about a prog-rock album without mentioning Jethro Tull, Wishbone Ash or Rush? Maybe, but probably not.
And with Opeth’s tenth outing, ‘Heritage’, everything has to be likened to men with beards and valve amps. To get the obvious out the way, anyone who follows the band will know there is no growling, no distortion, no death metal of any sorts. In other words, this isn’t a metal album at all, and to try to review the music as such would be pointless.
What’s left is an album steeped in worship of the days of analogue, vinyl, and not really caring if the music on offer fits into any sort of expectation. As the guys over the New Review said, today’s idea of progressive can just mean bands often do what they want just for the sake of it. But frontman/songwriter Mikeal Åkerfeld has always done what he wanted and the fans followed him unquestioningly.
And the good news this is still undeniably an Opeth album. The time changes, musical passages and savvy guitar work are all still in place. It doesn’t feel like massively new ground, you could easily see parts of these songs woven into the earlier albums, albeit as the quieter, introspective moments. Some might jump to make comparisons with the acoustic album ‘Damnation’, but that album was stripped, acoustic and (for Opeth) simple. Here, even the shortest song has around four different parts, ‘The Lines On My Hand’ starting as a mid-tempo number with spanish guitars before Mellotrons and solos fly at you.
Åkerfeld hinted before the release that he was tired of being a metal band. ‘The Throat of Winter’, the song written for the ‘God of War’ ep , along with claims that his side project with ‘Heritage’ producer and Porcupine Tree frontman Steve Wilson was not going to feature drums were early indicators that things were going to change. One look a the artwork, a tree with a base of skulls and hellish roots, bearing fruit in the shape of the band all feel reminiscent of the chemical induced covers of the seventies.
No one can deny Mikeal is a talented singer. His confidence has grown through the years and his voice fits the eery mood of the record. He announces God is dead on ‘The Devil’s Orchard’ and croons over ‘I Feel The Dark’. And while the music isn’t heavy with distortion or blast beats in the way earlier albums were, this has a heaviness of its own. The music has a dark energy that closes in throughout, the quiet moments luring you in before an explosive jazzy riff takes you away on a tangent.
But, being a prog album means there were always going to be some parts that are over the top. Sometimes the songs can wander off and lose focus, but when it snaps back in, the results are glorious. The guitar work is as good as it’s ever been. But the Jethro Tull (damn, so close) pan pipes on ‘Famine’ distract from the gloomy atmosphere that’s otherwise so well layered and slowly built upon through the song’s eight minutes. ‘Folklore’ too comes off as over indulgent in places, but the watery-vocalled intro eventually moves into probably the most epic and climatic part of the album.
The biggest danger with ‘Heritage’ is that it may be a step too far for many existing fans, and prog fans won’t find enough to hook them in (many true proggers are afraid of the idea of progressive metal). Though on repeated listens it grows on you, and stands well on its own as an interesting left-turn from a band that have never stuck to the rules.