I saw this still sitting in the Upcoming Releases section and thought, hey, why the hell not? I'm drunk enough!
It goes without saying that Opeth has carved out one of the more interesting niches in contemporary music. Under the creative control of vocalist/guitarist Mikael Åkerfeldt, Opeth established itself as a diverse and dynamic group who, over the course of nine studio albums, has come to exist in two distinct personalities reflecting its two primary influences: death metal and progressive rock. After the success of 2005's Damnation, which saw the band abandoning their metal elements to further explore their progressive rock side, it should come as no surprise that Opeth would again revisit such territory, especially after following their last two metal-oriented studio albums. Heritage, however, is far from being Damnation 2. What did surprise many fans was Åkerfeldt's plans of making what would essentially be a '70s rock album, complete with vintage production and jazz fusion, let alone the complete absence of death growls and metal riffs. The result is both uneven yet generally rewarding.
Arguably the most eclectic entry in the band's canon, Opeth makes its influences clear throughout Heritage. Opening with the tranquil solo piano of the title track (an homage to jazz pianist Jan Johansson), Heritage kicks off with the "The Devil's Orchard," firmly setting the stage for things undoubtedly to come: complex guitar riffs, jazzy drumming and swirling Hammond organs dominate this King Crimson-inspired foray into classic heavy prog. It's a fantastic track, richly nuanced but not overly challenging, sounding unlike anything Opeth has produced yet, which is exactly its appeal. The Crimson influence carries on through the next track, the spacey "I Feel the Dark," before the album takes a rather jarring stylistic detour with "Slither." Åkerfeldt's tribute to Rainbow and Deep Purple is so unremarkably straightforward that it simply feels out of place with the rest of the album, let alone any Opeth albums. Heritage returns to its mellow slant with the eclectic "Nepenth," which zigzags between a Camel-esque ballad, jazz fusion and ambient effects, and the beautiful "Häxprocess,, a bleakly atmospheric number punctuated by an excellent Genesis-channeling guitar solo, before arriving at the real creative meat of the album.
Starting with the longest and most experimental track on Heritage, "Famine" incorporates further elements of jazz and even African percussion, taking a notable influence from the likes of Gentle Giant and Jethro Tull, right down to some pretty manic flute lines. It's an odd assortment of sounds but Opeth executes them perfectly, shaping them into a fluid track which makes for the most enjoyable (and most abstract) cut on the album. "The Lines in My Hand" returns to the heavier edge of "The Devil's Orchard," driven by hypnotic drum work, excellent singing from Åkerfeldt and some nice synthesizer accompaniment. "Folklore" brings the psychedelic guitars and organs back to the center stage for a dark, doomy and extremely satisfying climax. Heritage then ends as it began, with a serene instrumental piece, featuring dual electric/acoustic guitars which take the album out on a gorgeous high note.
With so many precise and recognizable influences, it's tough to gauge whether Heritage serves as an in-depth tribute or merely Åkerfeldt's self-indulgent attempt in showing off his record collection. Thankfully, Opeth manages to avoid ever sounding derivative on Heritage, retaining a consistent "Opethian" vibe on each track which helps keeps the lines between "homage" and "copy" clearly distinct (and lends the album an overall focus), but the group's obvious pastiches still threaten to overshadow the quality of the original material. While Heritage more than succeeds as an homage, I can't help but feel the more successful project would have been Damnation 2, or at least the members' own personalized take on traditional progressive rock, without the need to have restricted themselves to vintage authenticity or such direct nods to specific artists.
Heritage's best virtue, at least, is its impeccable musicianship; in this regard, the real star of the album is drummer Martin Axenrot. With nary a double bass pattern to be heard, Axenrot gets to stretch out and flaunt his jazz influences, creating some of the most striking and impressive drumming I've heard yet on an Opeth album. Equal praise must be bestowed upon keyboardist Per Wiberg, who, in his final album with the band, plays a crucial role in the album's atmosphere with a variety of rich vintage organ sounds. Martin Mendez also gets his chance to shine for once, creating some excellently fluid bass lines, though his sound unfortunately suffers at the hands of the album's retro recording techniques, often sounding slightly muddy and washed-out (which is really the only issue I have with the vintage production). Åkerfeldt and Fredrik Åkesson's guitars hold up their end of the deal pretty well, but it's really Åkerfeldt himself who proves to be the weakest link in the chain when it comes to his singing. Åkerfeldt broadens his vocal styles quite a bit throughout Heritage, seemingly affecting a different voice with each song, sometimes succeeding but mostly being inconsistent and oftentimes out of pitch, making it all the harder to listen to him deliver an occasionally trite lyric or contrived rhyme ("Feel the pain in your brain / Insane"....indeed).
Heritage is bound to remain perhaps the most polarizing entry in Opeth's oeuvre. Death metal fans have already appeared to disown it, but the absence of metal in favor of jazz fusion shouldn't immediately dissuade anyone from giving this one a spin. While Heritage's greatest flaw is the disproportionate amount of Opeth's original sound to that of their influences, there's still some brilliant moments of music to be found across this disc, and some remarkable musicianship. I admire Åkerfeldt for taking the risk of experimenting with such uncharacteristic material, further broadening Opeth's musical horizons and no doubt opening doors for much more interesting things to be heard on future albums. If there's one thing I consistently like about Opeth, it's the band's audacity to continue reinventing itself with each new record. Now if only we could convince Dream Theater to do the same...