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Thursday, September 29, 2011

Album Review: Opeth - Heritage

Opeth - Heritage
2011 Roadrunner Records
Ray Van Horn, Jr.

You have to feel maybe a hair sorry for Opeth. After scoring huge with the metal public on Ghost Reveries, the lords of Goth have been forced by attrition to keep up with their own hype. Not that Opeth are overtly concerned about hype, per se, but when you're reputed as one of the most articulate dark metal acts on the planet, well, it's difficult to top the stream of excellence ranging from Damnation to Blackwater Park to the breakout sensation that was Ghost Reveries.

It's been three years since Opeth released Watershed, an album that was well-received by the press and metal fans alike, however, it was clear that the ethereal mojo of Blackwater Park and Ghost Reveries had disippated. Instead, Watershed embarked Opeth upon a new path of rock and prog-driven exploration that allowed for hammering organs and the diving crunch chords of Deep Purple and early years Pink Floyd. In other words, hype be damned, Opeth is doing what they want--get on board if you're of like mind.

On their tenth "observation" (as Opeth likes to refer to their records) Heritage, the same motifs are embraced, only this time Opeth really goes for the gusto by hailing some Jethro Tull into their arcane music world. The rowdy flutes akin to Tull's Ian Anderson play a heavy hand in the later songs amidst Opeth's acoustic-laden, Mellotron-splashed and growl-removed Heritage. Hard to consider them death metal or even Goth metal, at least for this round. Instead, Opeth re-emerges with their classical training doing them much service along with their King Crimson affinities to create a hybrid of whispery prog-gloom that still reverberates. Opeth's reknowned signature swaps of the past are less the story on Heritage as the emphasis is more on modified textures and candlelit mood scapes.

Exchanging their thunderclapped climaxes for a more sensual attack to their songwriting on Heritage, Opeth proves yet again they're fearless artisans. The quietus woven by the piano-led intro piece, "Heritage" carries a subliminal jazz splash ala Vince Guaraldi, even in the midst of its melancholic crawl. You already know by instinct Opeth is branching for something beyond even their own studious capabilities. Though Opeth shakes out their limbs on "The Devil's Orchard" straight from "Heritage's" haunting apoplexy, stand ready for dips into Mellotron atmospherics and King Crimson progression in "The Devil's Orchard's" final stanza.

The thing with this album even more than any Opeth has written is that there is a commanding sway into classic prog ala King Crimson, Jethro Tull, Yes, Pink Floyd, ELP, Spock's Beard and of course, the more elaborate hoists of Deep Purple. Opeth more or less summons the subvert power of their acoustic dementia splayed out on Damnation and they accent, accent, accent all over Heritage. They climax in spurts, opting more for canvassing their Swedish fugue with the might of slow-rolling titania, but only after extensive periods of decorative sedation.

"I Feel the Dark" rides on a large caress of acoustics and Moogs while Mikael Akerfeldt courageously relies on the oomph of his clean vocals here and throughout the entire album. "Slither" afterwards merges its devil-may-care gust with a wildly-appropriate Deep Purple thrum, complete with rockout organs from Per Wiberg (who strangely left the band after recording this album) and guitar riffs that unabashedly attempt to mirror Ritchie Blackmore. All the juicier Opeth closes "Slither" with a Renaissance-flavored outro that even Blackmore himself would smirk at. At 4:03, "Slither" is a quickly-realized foray into pattern variance which feels complete yet strangely barren at the end.

Said barrenness is retained in the ghostly "Nepenthe," where the acoustics and keys are barely audible, creating a paranoid expectancy swirling lightly in a tempered jazz-rock mode ala Steely Dan. The pace abruptly shifts to quick outbursts of King Crimson prog detonations before settling again, resuming this methodology a few bars until wandering back into the ether from which the track began.

Hence, Heritage does require more patience and understanding for what Opeth is trying to achieve. This album is even more territorial than anything Opeth has recorded in the past and Akerfeldt's gutsy decision to throw out all demonic ralphs even in an album dedicated to the telling of good and evil will alienate a few people. The strength of his cleans, however, make Heritage more of a forceful enterprise, considering the vibe is well-stripped and luxuriant. The alluring details on "Haxprocess" would be cheated if Akerfeldt began chuffing at the expected pauses and tone shifts. Instead, "Haxprocess" relies more on reserved tapestries of acoustic, synth and reeled-in distortion to make a bold statement.

The same can be said of the lengthier "Famine," which at least booms periodically and channels through winding progression and maniacal fluting, all carried to rhythmic perfection on the sucessive shorter track "The Lines In My Hand." The latter song is where Heritage as an album climaxes and it's a loud and busy payoff for all the note-bled treading beforehand. A method to the madness, as the saying goes.

Thus the sweeping passages in the final two minutes of "Folklore" are maddeningly gorgeous. How could a band carry us through so many pastures of volume to crest on a stunning breeze we've expected all the way and yet never see coming in "Folklore?" As brilliant as the acoustic, electric, Moog and organ-hushed finale, "Marrow of the Earth," ending this venture on a jagged beauty even Mike Oldfield would be proud of.

Heritage has been described by a few as a creeper album since it makes the listener work as hard as Opeth themselves did to create it. When all is said and done, however, Heritage is the musical embodiment of a Heironymous Bosch painting where perpetual purgatory reigns with the uncertainty of salvation or perdition.

Heritage is a reflection of human fear and a cautious tread towards the banks of evil. Opeth has never been more seductive in their work and this is one of the most seductive bands in the world. Instead of clouting and routing their audience this time, they strive for high art in the vein of their cherished audile old masters. You may crave more explosions from Heritage, but when they come, you will feel more than elated. The rest of it, you'll be amazed by Opeth's daring craftsmanship, even more than you were the first time you heard Blackwater Park or Orchid long beforehand.

Rating: ****

1 comment:

Bruce Walters said...

A brillant review of an exceptional album. Two years on, it continues to grow on me. One differentiation: I can hear the influence of Beethoven in Jethro Tull; very little classical music in Opeth.