- Raising the 70's back from the dead
Opeth, Opeth, Opeth. Has any band done more to increase it’s fanatically ardent cult following in the past decade than Sweden’s premier progressive metal export? No. Furthermore, has any band currently making music done more to thwart my obsessive need for consistent genre labels on iTunes? Again, no. Before this year, Opeth… well, more accurately Mikael Åkerfeldt… had produced nine fantastic, genre-bending albums, ranging from “black metal” to “death metal” to “extreme progressive metal” to “dark alternative” to “I-have-no-f***ing-clue-what’s-going-on,” all while weaving in that signature “Opeth sound.” And then… Opeth released Heritage, their 10th album, and for some reason a huge segment of their fanatically ardent cult got their collective panties in a gargantuan bunch. Progulator’s own Matt pointed me toward the following YouTube video:
The scene is actually from the German film “Der Untergang,” and was probably considered an extremely powerful scene before everybody and their uncle made it the subject of countless hilarious parody videos. Leave it to Mikael, Opeth’s leader and a man who has seemingly never given in to expectations for his music, to be the brunt of such criticism. He’d probably just laugh if he ever saw the video, and good for him; the world needs musicians that care more about writing what moves them rather than writing what sells.
That two-paragraph lead in is probably just begging to be capped off with a resounding “but… really, this album isn’t that good,” but it won’t. Heritage represents a stylistic transition from that signature “Opeth” sound, true, but that doesn’t mean it deviates from the band’s tradition of quality songwriting and excellent production. And that’s fine. About six or so minutes into the documentary that accompanies the Special Edition of the album, Mikael admits that he had written a few 10-minute tracks that were very classic, heavy Opeth-type material. Bass player Martin Mendez then recounts listening to the new material and expressing to Åkerfeldt that if this was to be the direction of the new Opeth release, he would be disappointed. Mikael then says that he deleted the tracks and, feeling a sense of relief, began to write the songs that would eventually become the new album.
Now THAT is what I want to hear from a successful and innovative band that’s been around for more than two decades. What that tells me is that they still love music, and still care about the thrill of composition. It also means that, barring a sudden dearth of ideas and talent, something amazing is about to be produced.
I’m not going to take the album song by song, but I will share a few notes and favorite tracks. The album is best described as the intersection of early 70’s progressive rock and dark jazz, but the hints of early heavy metal and use of ethnic percussion (which we first heard on “The Throat of Winter”) make the genre hard to pin down, as always. The opening track, also the title track on the album, is literally a dark jazz piece. The first few measures are punctuated by a really sick chord that seems to be some variant of an F Minor 6 add 9 (I’m probably a little off). Great opening track, really sets the mood…
And leads in perfectly to The Devil’s Orchard, an uptempo and incredibly proggy track that almost sounds like it could belong on Watershed, but is probably a little closer to ending up on an early 70’s British prog tribute album. In this track as well as in later tracks such as Häxprocess and Famine, listeners will notice a similar practice of drastic changes between song sections that Opeth hadn’t really done until Watershed. The band has always been dynamically interesting, but songs like Porcelain Heart introduced us to a whole new animal, with Mikael changing the direction on songs without any notice. It’s a really interesting songwriting technique that you’ll hear in Heritage.
And speaking of Famine, Opeth has finally joined their fellow Swedish prog brethren and embraced the majestic flute. A Swedish flautist with a crazy middle name (Björn J:son Lindh) provides it for us on the track, with a manic and memorable performance in the middle of the song that will immediately make you think of Ian Anderson. The result is perfect, and with the percussive elements it hearkens back to the interesting things going on the “The Throat of Winter.” Remember when that track was released as part of the “God of War III” soundtrack and Mikael warned us to expect more of the same on the upcoming album? We should have listened.
Just because I didn’t mention the other tracks on the album doesn’t mean they aren’t good, because they are. There isn’t a weak song on the entire album, typical with an Opeth release. As usually, the lyrics are deep, thought provoking, and utilize a level of English diction that should make 99% of Americans ashamed of themselves. The production is incredible and has a very organic sound to it, and Steven Wilson’s mixing is spot on. Overall, I would highly recommend this album to anyone, not just Opeth fans. The lack of harsh vocals (that’s right, just like Damnation) make the album accessible to a wide range of progressive music lovers, and I think they will all be pleased.