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Opeth – Heritage

Label: Roadrunner
Format: CD
Released: 2011
Reviewed By: Jack Mangan
Rating: 9/ 10


Opeth, aka the Mikael Akerfeldt Experience, have been among my most highly-revered bands, since discovering them in 2006. Mikael's shown an unparalleled ability to sculpt raw power into beauty, while intertwining passages of pure beauty infused with soul-gripping power. Add to this a genius-level determination to eschew formulaic and familiar riffs and structures, to prioritize creativity, originality, and design inspiration, and you end up with one of the most important voices in all of songwriting, regardless of genre. Their albums of the 2000s decade reveal a legacy of progressive ascension and evolution, culminating with their best album: 2008's "Watershed", a brilliant fusion of the prog-rock, folk, death metal, metal, classic rock, and classical music genres that transcends them all. Enter "Heritage", their 2011 follow-up album.

 

I'm posting this review a few weeks after release, so I'm privy to a lot of the disappointed reactions from the Opeth faithful. I feel your pain, brothers and sisters; this is also not the Opeth album I was waiting for. I was expecting a shoe-in for album of the year, but as of November, I think Devin Townsend Project's "Deconstruction" still safely holds that title. That said, there's still *plenty* to admire and like and respect on "Heritage". Let's break down what it is, and what it is not, along with other points of interest, both good and meh:

It is not: A death metal album. It is a metal album, but just barely. Akerfeldt's vocal growls are entirely absent (which is fine), leaving only his clear singing voice. Crunchy distortion and dissonant riffage are also mostly locked out, in favor of clean piano, prominent bass, mellotron, acoustic and tube-ish guitars, with the electrics often switched to their neck pickups. These sounds aren't necessarily new to Opeth, but the implementation feels very new and different.

It is: a tribute to prog-rock, with a strong nod to 70s guitar rock/proto-metal. Akerfeldt reportedly listened to a lot of early Alice Cooper records while writing "Heritage". I don't hear that so much; I do hear the Deep Purple, Camel, Ozzy Black Sabbath, Dio Black Sabbath, Dio Rainbow, Led Zeppelin, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Jethro Tull, King Crimson, Porcupine Tree, and recent Opeth influence, however. All fantastic influences - - don't panic, "Heritage" loves the 70s, but it still isn't "Freedom Rock". (Hey man, is that Freedom Rock? Well turn it up, man!)

Points of interest: -Remember the "Damnation" album, which was also featured softer guitar tones and no death metal growls throughout all of its moody, quiet ballads? "Heritage" is not "Damnation II", but it's still very reminiscent. If you loved that album, then you'll like this one - - maybe just as much.

-In classic Opeth fashion, most of the songs are parade-like processions of varying segments. Unlike the best examples from Opeth's past, however ("Blackwater Park", ‘Windowpane’, ‘The Moor’, ‘Ghosts of Perdition’, ‘The Lotus Eaters’), the transitions between segments on "Heritage" are often the opposite of smooth, with song tempos often grinding to a halt, frustrating the listener and snapping them out of the song's reverie.

-There are many, many wonderful and hauntingly, beautifully eerie or contemplative passages throughout, including the piano/bass instrumental of the opener and title track, plus the closing segment of the otherwise bland rocker, ‘Slither’.

-Mikael's vocals are all clean, as mentioned before. He's never sounded better. His emotional range on "Heritage" is incredible.

The album's weakest moments are ‘Nepenthe’ and ‘Haxprocess’, bunched together at the album's dead center, which dive at times into self-indulgent (for lack of a better word) jams, even throwing in the rockinest flutes since ‘Locomotive Breath’. ‘Nepenthe’ somehow simultaneously reminds me of Isaac Hayes ‘Shaft’, Chris Isaak's ‘Wicked Game’, Vernon Reid, Jim Croce/Gordon Lightfoot, and episodes of Sesame Street from my childhood. It's as fascinating as it sounds, but unfortunately, not a satisfying end result.

The strongest moments: The beautiful title track, for one. ‘The Devil's Orchard’ is another. Hypnotically looping guitars and an unforgettable, infectious vocal melody. Its brilliance requires a few listens to fully ensnare you. The first section of ‘I Hear the Dark’ is "Damnation"-era wonderful, and nicely recalled later in the album. I'd also list ‘Folklore’, the second-to-last track. The arrangement is a bit awkward, but the grandeur of its climactic finish cannot be denied.

In closing: It's not their best, it's frustrating at times, it's not as awe-inspiring as "Watershed", but "Heritage" is still full of challenges and rewards for the discerning listener. I recommend that you explore its labyrinthine passages, and that when you're done, you give it some time, then go back through a few more times. Don't be discouraged if at first it doesn't work for you, or because it's not as amazing as some previous Opeth records. It does improve with familiarity, and it is still an ambitious, genuine success.

 
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