When Opeth dropped Damnation back in 2003, they took what the industry calls a leap of faith: they released an album with no double-kick violence, no head-banging metal riffs, and most disconcertingly no death-growls at all. Opeth had always been a band of extreme dynamics, of classical flourishes sunk deep within the tropes of death metal and unified by prog-rock composition and the twin virtuosic voices of singer Mikael Åkerfeldt. On Damnation the setting-aside of Åkerfeldt’s growl was the elephant in the room, Opeth’s usual ferocity instead supplanted by mellotron grooves and jazz-fusion drumming (frequently with brushes). The response was overwhelmingly positive: Opeth had released their first ‘clean’ album – an oddity they had already offset with its sister piece, the previous year’s super-heavy Deliverance. Since then, each of their albums has increasingly embraced their softer aspects, and on Heritage Åkerfeldt finally cements that their ‘clean’ albums need no longer be treated with scepticism (nor apologetic companion albums): his band has matured into a genre-blending juggernaut just as capable of eliciting a reaction with organs and brush-drumming as with death metal bravado.
Longtime fans are going to be split over this one: anything resembling death metal has again been given a wide berth, songs are meandering exploration of Åkerfeldt’s progressive and psychedelic influences, and all of the vocals are clean – but for that Heritage abandons none of the band’s typical gothic appeal. Heritage embraces the intertwining history of folk music and metal, meandering from the heaviness of Sabbath and Zeppelin-level distortion and riffage to honest and open King Crimson homage. “The Devil’s Orchard” runs a killer baseline under psychedelic guitar solos interspersed with Nietzsche references and Rush drumming. “Nepenthe” comes in somewhere between acoustic folk and jazz fusion, littered with references to isolation and given to spontaneous outbursts of prog-funk noodling (not unlike a comprehensible Mars Volta track). “Slither” is likely the most disconcertingly closely Opeth will ever flirt with pop… the list of oddities goes on and on. This album is nothing if not a trip.
Heritage is everything Opeth fans know and love, run through the kaleidoscope of Åkerfeldt’s obsession with his influences and the nuanced history of metal, and it couldn’t be better for it. For it’s kind, this might just be album of the year: a supremely atmospheric work honouring where metal has been, while simultaneously making room for Opeth to carve their own space in the continuum.
Originally published in The Peak, September 2011.