Issue 2011-041: Opeth - Heritage - Round Table Review
Round Table Review
Tracklist: Heritage (2:05), The Devil's Orchard (6:40), I Feel The Dark (6:40), Slither (4:03), Nepenthe (5:40), Häxprocess (6:57), Famine (8:32), The Lines In My Hand (3:48), Folklore (8:19), Marrow Of The Earth (4:18)
Tom De Val's Review
Opeth have become such a big name in the progressive rock and metal world that anything they put out these days is an event, but with the imminent release of Heritage, their tenth ‘observation’, the chatter on the internet and elsewhere went in to overdrive. Out would go the death metal vocals and indeed much of the metal per se, whilst main man Mikael Åkerfeldt’s often-professed love for 70’s prog, folk and psyche would be given free rein. Well, although this is a simplification of the new record, to quite an extent these things have come to pass, and with it the expected barrage of criticism – that the band’s identity has been lost; that the songs are not as well structured in the past and seem bolted together, with no real ebb and flow; that lyrically and vocally it’s a pale shadow at the band at their peak. Even the cover has generated heated debate (I like it, for what it’s worth). Had I written a review of this album after a couple of listens, then I too would probably have levelled many of these criticisms. However, experience has taught me that Opeth albums usually reveal their qualities over many listens, and sure enough after plenty of listening time (particularly on headphones) the album has grown on me a great deal. I’m still not sure where it stands in the pecking order of Opeth albums, and I still have a number of issues with the album, but it is far from the train wreck or snooze-fest that some have written it off as.
The album opens with the title piece, a beautifully simple and eloquent instrumental played entirely on grand piano. This is the one contribution on the album from new keyboard player Joakim Svalberg; the rest of the keyboards were recorded by Per Wiberg, who left the band soon afterwards, and Åkerfeldt himself. Following this is The Devil’s Orchard, the first track released from the album and probably the one that follows closest from the style the band have developed over their last two studio albums. A typically ominous build up majors on grandiose organ and intertwining riffs, with Åkerfeldt’s vocals as urgent as they get on the album. The ‘God is Dead’ refrain on what passes as a chorus is effective and sticks in the head. In what turns out to be a trait of the album, the song abruptly strips back and changes course, with waves of mellotron and fender Rhodes washing over the listener. Whether the song ever gets back its initial momentum is debatable, but it maintains a strong atmosphere, and there’s a classy guitar solo reeled off towards the end.
I Feel The Dark opens gently, with Åkerfeldt singing in a range that seems a little too high for him. There’s definitely a Damnation feel to this section of the song, with its loping bass lines, chilled acoustic guitar work and mellotron. Halfway through, there’s a rather uneasy transition to darker territories, with walls of guitar and keyboards through which Åkerfeldt’s clean singing voice struggles to penetrate. The song fluctuates between these two distinct sections, without truly making its mark.
Slither shows Åkerfeldt’s often-professed love of Deep Purple, the song barrelling along on a hard rock riff backed with strong Hammond organ work. Soon this bleeds into a jam, with some good (if rather muddy) guitar solos. The last minute or so of the song is the complete antithesis to the raucous nature of what has come before, just consisting of simple, folksy acoustic guitar playing.
Nepenthe is a strongly atmospheric piece, with an almost ambient feel to it. It’s all about mood rather than structure, with acoustic guitars, brushed drums, jazzy bass and Åkerfeldt’s warm, deep vocals all given room to breathe. Some Fender Rhodes work from Wiberg serves as a transition to a more upbeat phase, featuring some sparkling guitar playing, before the song chills out again. The bass and drum work are particularly notable on this fine cut, which really does work best on headphones. Häxprocess is perhaps a companion piece in terms of style, with the space between notes seeming as important at times as what is being played. There’s more urgency here when the pace picks up, but for me it’s the calmer, more tranquil sections which work the best.
Famine opens with a burst of flute, before some bongo-led percussion, layered over an ominous sonic backdrop, leads us in to the song, which starts with gentle piano and voice before a catchy riff kicks in and moves things forward. Åkerfeldt employs some spacey effects on his vocals here, which make them sound like they are in some way separate from the music. The musical highlight here comes in the form of a lively flute solo, played over some crunching, Hammond-backed guitar riffs worthy of Uriah Heep in their pomp.
The Lines In My Hand opens with an interesting drum pattern, which manages to be simultaneously tight but loose, over which Åkerfeldt delivers the lyrics in an almost scat-like manner. Gradually the track shifts gears, with some great guitar interplay and driving rhythms, and a strong chorus. It seems a pity though that just as it is getting going, the song ends abruptly.
The next track, Folklore, is one of the strongest pieces on the record, in my opinion. It starts with some rather meandering, jazzy guitar work which gradually comes together. Åkerfeldt’s vocals again feel rather detached, presumably a deliberate ploy. They are more urgent on the short chorus, which once again sees the Hammond organ right up in the mix. A short solo piano piece leads the song down another path, with the rhythm section fading in and out of the mix, and the effective employment of celestial choirs, assumingly conjured up from the mellotron. Towards the end of the song there is also one of the strongest guitar solo’s on the record, a soaring effort which I would have been happy to see extended. Although the mood of the song changes as it progresses, it definitely shows Åkerfeldt’s love of early 70’s psyche-folk. Following this is Marrow Of The Earth, a bookend to the opening instrumental piece, only this time utilising acoustic guitar instead of piano. The full band comes in briefly towards the end to play the album out.
So there you have it. I must admit, this has not been the easiest album to review, as (as indicated earlier) my impressions of it keep changing with each successive listen (usually, but not always, for the better). I can totally understand why some fans, even those who have really given the album a chance, will not like this album. On the other side of the coin, I can imagine that numerous progressive rock fans who’ve been intrigued by Opeth before but put off by the more extreme metal elements will find much to enjoy here. In conclusion, I think I will give the album a recommendation, but it is a slightly cautious one; this is a far from perfect album, but it is enjoyable and I think works well, if you are in the right mood. It will be interesting to see in which direction Opeth go from here.
Jon Bradshaw's Review
First of all, I’ve only had this album for two days, during which time I’ve listened to it 12 times. At approximately an hour long, that means 25% of the last two days has been occupied listening to this. If you include the two spins I’ve given it today and the spin I’m giving it right now that’s 15 hours. This means I have spent 0.003% of my entire life listening to Opeth’s new album, so I feel I’m qualified to say something about it, on the proviso that you understand these are very much my first impressions.
Secondly, yes, I’m a fanboy. I love Opeth and everything about their work so I was looking forward to this release immensely. However, I shall apply my objective critical mind to the task before me, just as I would any other review.
My first thoughts were about the overall sound. The guitars sound entirely different to anything else they have ever released. They are cleaner, though still distorted, but overdriven rather than crunched up and well, just different. There’s a generous sprinkling of single coil guitars used throughout the album, especially in Slither. This track is an homage, a tribute to Ronnie James Dio and it definitely flicks my switches. Opeth sounding like Rainbow and Fredrik Åkesson sounding for all the world like Ritchie Blackmore in a scintillating solo that ends, peculiarly, rather scruffily. Well, that’s odd isn’t it? Opeth sounding like Rainbow? This is just in this one track, but it sets a keynote for my overall impression. The rest of the album is unmistakeably Opeth. Mikael Åkerfeldt’s inimitable sandy voice, compositional shape-shifting and sense of melody colours everything, but this is an avowedly different Opeth. There are no eviscerating death screams. At all. All of the singing is clean. Musically it’s heavy (it’s definitely heavy), but it’s not what I would call ‘Metal’. It’s also peppered with serene songs and passages where classical acoustics form the spine of delicate arrangements; sylvan moments of breathless repose and gloriously aching melodies at which Åkerfeldt is a particular adept.
I’ve always been a big fan of Opeth’s quieter moments. The awesome Face Of Melinda and Benighted from Still Life. Harvest from Blackwater Park and In My Time Of Need and the monumental opulence of the shifting (and ultimately terrifying) The Drapery Falls from Damnation. Reverie/Harlequin Forest from Ghost Reveries and Coil from Watershed. Heritage evolves these moments of quietude and divine melody from their career into a masterstroke. They sound refined, restrained and mature, combining stunning beauty and a haunting charge with driven, multi dimensional, towering, dark, palatial compositions. Sounds like Opeth to me, but this is an adaptation and a divergence.
Åkerfeldt has been talking about it for a good while, certainly since Ghost Reveries and even perhaps as far back as Damnation – the need to evolve as a musician, to explore new territories and mine new creative lodes; to slough their outgrown skin, to scrap the metal, that particular sound of hard, compressed, angular guitars. It is, he says, saturated. Heritage is a much more granular and earthy proposition. You can hear what I mean in the opening track. This is a beautiful piano study accompanied by Martin Mendez, for me one of the best bassists around, on Upright Bass and authentically recorded – you can hear the dampers moving with Joachim Svalberg’s (the new keyboard player) pedal action. It’s active and unadulterated. This idea follows through the whole recording, engineering and mixing process. There is finesse and touch to everything, even when things get heated and the music sears, you can still hear every nuance of the playing. Martin Axenrot’s hyperbole-defying drumming is vivid in this regard, even using brushes in the opening clauses and extended sections of Nepenthe, which, were I wishing to find a word to describe it, and I am, I would call it, ‘Jazzy’. Serious jazzheads would scoff at my presumption, but this is Opeth, and I’m applying the word ‘Jazzy’! Listen also to the opening bars of Hexprocess and tell me it’s not Jazzy too. I think this arises, in both cases, not only from the musical structure, the arrangement and the playing, but also from the actual recording. The studio itself lends a rich depth of character to the sound. Perhaps this is why the booklet has 10 pages of shots taken in the studio during the recording process, it has become a part of what Opeth are doing. There’s something magical, something of a ‘moment in time’, something so inherently necessary to the spirit of the musician that has been captured here. The recording is suffused with a kind of love and attention to detail that comes from inspirational spaces and times. Perhaps this why Åkerfeldt says in the ‘Making Of’ DVD that accompanies the Collector’s Edition (do try and get this version – the 5.1 Surround mix is sublime) that he wasn’t drained by the process as he normally is; that he actually wanted to keep going.
Next, you’re going to encounter Famine and tell me that Opeth aren’t heavy and scary but in totally original, inventive ways. Listen out also for the fantastic contribution on flute by Bjorn J:son bludh (sic) in this one. The Lines In My Hand dashes by in choleric desperation and frustration. Folklore is quintessentially Swedish to my ears: slightly madcap, uniquely quirky, melancholy and proud of it. The dulcet Marrow Of The Earth comes straight from sometime in the ‘60s on guitars that sound like sunlight on water to bring a rhapsodic and wistful conclusion to the album.
And so to the beginning. The Devil’s Orchard is everything you might expect from an Opeth song and it’s as good as anything they’ve ever written and recorded. It tightens its grip on me with each repetition and I genuinely love it, but it’s a bridge between the Opeth of before and the Opeth of now. The Opeth of now are inviting in a new audience, amongst whom there will surely be some prog fans. Few artists in the ‘Metal’ world can lay claim to the invention and drama of Opeth’s oeuvre. Few artists, especially in the ‘Meta’l world, can claim to be as genuinely ‘progressive’ as Opeth prove to be here. Heritage is a potentially risky move but it places them into another realm altogether as they embark upon an adventurously new and previously unimaginable direction. They want us all, old fans and new to come with them; to put aside convention, sit or stand still and listen to the music.
Raffaella Berry's Review
Without any doubt, Opeth are one of the most divisive acts on the current progressive rock scene. While their mainman Mikael Åkerfeld has never hidden his love of vintage Seventies prog, and the influence of the genre on Opeth's music is hard to miss in most of their albums, they have also been subjected to virulent put-downs on the part of prog purists - the use of death growls (also known as "cookie monster vocals") being the main, though not the only, culprit. Even a mellow, growl-free album like their full-fledged "classic prog" effort Damnation (released in 2003, and clearly showing the influence of bands like Camel and Pink Floyd) has attracted its share of flak, though not as vitriolic as their other releases, in which the band's extreme metal roots were in much more evident display. Even though DPRP has always shown a welcoming stance towards progressive metal, on other sites I have chanced upon reviews that involved the use of very unprofessional terms such as "junk" to define the band's work. This is also due to the common misconception that anything related to extreme metal is for kids, and people who were already alive during the original prog era are not supposed to like what their children do.
The Swedish band's previous album, released three years ago, bore the revealing title of Watershed, which was meant to emphasize its transitional nature, hinting at interesting developments in the band's future output. Over the past year or so, rumours about the new Opeth album also pointed to a so-called "fully prog" effort, devoid of the controversial growls, and finally embracing the band's love of all things Seventies. When the album artwork was finally revealed, the reaction of the prog community was quite ecstatic, as it looked like something out of the late Sixties, with its bright colours and endearingly naif style, very much in contrast with the gloomy but sophisticated black-and-white or sepia-toned photography of the band's previous releases.
And now for the burning question... Is Heritage (whose title is also quite revealing in its own right) Damnation Pt. 2, or does it mark something new in the career of a band that, in spite of the naysayers, has managed to establish itself as one of the most important (and influential) modern prog acts? First of all, it is necessary to disabuse anyone who was expecting a repeat of Damnation, because, besides the absence of those controversial growls, there is very little similarity between the two albums. In fact, while Heritage does not completely shun the harder-edged tones of Opeth's more "conventional" output, it also takes a more experimental approach even when paying homage to the golden age of prog. While Damnation was a distinctly low-key effort with a more modern feel - comparable to part of Porcupine Tree's output (no surprise, seen Steven Wilson's involvement as producer) - and infused with that sense of exquisite melancholy so characteristic of Scandinavian prog, Heritage is at the same time heavier and more retro-oriented, as well as more varied. Watershed's jagged complexity is here superimposed on a structure where the unmistakable references to various vintage progressive acts are worked into the fabric of the trademark Opeth sound. While Damnation had a soothing (or depressing, depending on points of view) effect, and the songs tended to sound somewhat alike, Heritage keeps listeners on their toes, almost daring them to "expect the unexpected".
Though prog fans of a more conservative persuasion will appreciate the absence of the loathed growls, for some odd reason I found myself missing them while listening to Heritage. Indeed, while Åkerfeldt possesses an excellent "clean" singing voice, I find that the alternation of those two vastly different styles adds interest and drama to the musical texture. Åkerfeldt's growling style, though clearly an acquired taste, is superbly expressive, while the slightly plaintive quality of his normal voice gets a bit tiresome after while. I wish I could say that the musical aspect makes up for any supposed shortcomings in the vocal department, but - in spite of repeated listens - I felt that something was missing. While some of the influences that emerge while listening to Heritage are positively surprising (like the nod to Peter Gabriel's solo output in the rarefied first half of Famine), they feel somewhat tentative, as if the band were experimenting with a sort of sonic collage, but without fleshing things out in a fully satisfactory way. While a lot of ideas have been brought to bear in the making of the album, I cannot shrug off a sense of incompleteness - intensified by a rather idiosyncratic production that pushes Martin Axenrot's drumming to the forefront, but leaves other, equally important elements (such as Åkerfeldt's guitar) in the shadow.
Heritage is also Per Wiberg's "swan song" as a member of Opeth, and his impressive keyboard contributions range from the powerful, Eastern-tinged Hammond organ runs in the Deep Purple-influenced Slither (whose gentle acoustic guitar coda feels a bit like an afterthought) to the atmospheric washes in the sparse, faintly discordant Nepenthe. The organ, together with the drums, is perhaps the most distinctive element on the album, frequently upstaging Åkerfeldt's guitar, which very rarely appears as a protagonist, but more as a structural element. The prevalence of pauses and quiet-loud dynamics gives the album a fragmented quality, and often makes listening vaguely frustrating - unlike the depressing but basically flowing Damnation. Heritage is bookended by two acoustic pieces sharing the same melancholy, autumnal quality - the piano-based title-track, and the longer Marrow Of The Earth, in which Åkerfeldt's gentle acoustic guitar is later joined by keyboards. References to Opeth's previous incarnation as a melodic death metal band are few and far between, the dense riffing that was one of the most evident features of their previous albums cropping up only in rare occasions - such as the energetic The Lines In My Hand, by far the heaviest number of the album, and also the most straightforward in compositional terms, or the middle section of the riveting, somewhat sinister I Feel The Dark, where the heaviness is nicely offset by delicate acoustic guitar and stately keyboards. Häxprocess and the above-mentioned Famine explore rarefied, ambient-like territories, with riveting ebbs and flows of sound and a nice contrast of electric and acoustic elements; while the opening strains of the single The Devil's Orchard reference vintage Yes, though the choppy pacing of the song is quite reminiscent of parts of Watershed.
On the whole, Heritage impressed me as more of a transitional album than Watershed. Indeed, while striving to appeal to the "mainstream prog" crowd (who, for the most part, worship anything Seventies-related and abhor extreme metal), Opeth still seem to be looking for a clear-cut direction. The result is an undeniably eclectic effort that fails to fully exploit the many interesting ideas scattered through its tracks. Ultimately, though the band deserve kudos for taking risks instead of playing it safe, the album comes across as somewhat half-baked. I am not too sure that Opeth will manage to convert the naysayers with this disc, though they might disappoint some of their hardcore supporters who would like them to stay true (at least in part) to their metal roots. This is not to say that Heritage is not an intriguing experiment: often fascinating, occasionally even riveting, it is the kind of album that may very well turn out to be a grower, even if not yet the prog masterpiece that some might have expected.
Dries Dokter's Review
When it comes to Heritage, Opeth´s 11th studio album, one thing is certain: this is not an easy album. It is not easy to categorize, not easy to describe, not easy to understand after only a few listens and certainly not a “standard” Opeth album. But listening to all Opeth has done so far it should not come as a complete surprise. None of the 10 previous albums could be described as the “standard” Opeth album, anyway. Although until now, that description would always be given to the one last released.
Opeth has proven to be a very competent band, able to combine and incorporate different musical styles. This can be heard on each separate track of this album. It is however more difficult to understand from this album what the new direction is that Opeth has taken. It most certainly is one of more progrock, less metal. This album, like Damnation, does not contain any growls/grunts. This album is certainly influenced by the music of the 70’s and at some points to a very great extent. The most notable being the use of mellotron and Hammond organ, keyboards play a prominent role on this album. That is not to say that there are no guitars on this album, but even here, the most notable guitars riffs are delivered by acoustic guitars, comparable to those on the Damnation album. More surprising than the 70’s influence is the jazz influence on this album, leaning toward fusion at some points.
Opeth has been applauded for their ability to merge metal into progrock by merging the harsh, dark and heavy of metal into the melodical, complicated and technical of prog. There is still some of that in this album, although on this album Opeth’s metal history is mostly recognised in the atmosphere of the tracks, not because the music itself would be described as metal.
Bands that keep producing albums based on a proven success factor will eventually fade out and become bad copies of themselves. So a band willing to explore and discover like Opeth does on this new album certainly has my support. Standing still is a bad thing but then again: change because of change is not a good thing either. This album shows Opeth is not standing still exploring the boundaries of their influences and creativity, reinventing their own music.
This exploration has greatly worked out, some of the tracks on this album belong to the best that Opeth has ever made. The Devil´s Orchard being a good example of that, mainly because of the haunting Hammond organ sound and chasing bass about 1:30 before the end. I Feel The Dark because of the Spanish guitars of the introduction, Åkerfeldt amazing voice and the bombastic build up of the song. Nepenthe because of the jazzy rhythms in both bass and percussion. And Marrow Of The Earth because of the quiet, melodical and soothing acoustic guitar lines.
If you expect another Watershed, Ghost Reveries or even Damnation, you will be disappointed. Opeth has moved on. If you expect another quality album by one of the best bands in the world, you are in for a treat. And then, while taking the journey and discovering this album, you will learn it does contain elements of Opeth´s previous work. Along with the psychedelic, melodic, bombastic and jazzy elements of (70s) prog rock, like Caravan, Genesis, Jethro Tull, King Crimson and here and then it even compares to Pallas and Spock´s Beard.
Heritage is not an easy album but this brilliant album is well worth the time to get familiar with!