If there’s one way a band can ensure they split their fanbase once and for all, it’s to make an album that goes way beyond whatever they’ve done before.
Opeth fans are among the most rabidly loyal in metal, but when this album leaked it took less time than it takes to even listen to it properly before a deluge of resentment had fallen. Heritage is Opeth finally shedding all vestiges of being a metal band and diverging into completely new territory. And that’s going to be the hardest thing for their fans to accept.
With the exception of Damnation, since Blackwater Park Opeth has developed a framework that, while allowing them to move around freely within it, has nevertheless meant that there’s always been some level of predictability as to what to expect from them. Heritage is nothing like anything they’ve done before. The tracks are noticably shorter, much more experimental and not heavy metal at all. It’s only rarely here that any semblence of metal so much as surfaces. “The Devil’s Orchard” comes out of the piano-based intro track with a riff direct from the TOOL copybook (the two have sounded similar in the past, but this even has Adam Jones’ guitar tone), on “Slither” they simply rock out and precisely halfway through “I Feel the Dark” there’s a big cascading riff, but that’s as heavy as it gets. Instead, Heritage explores ambient structures, jazz and folk motifs in a way they have only really hinted at previously. Unlike Damnation, which was at its core a pop album, Heritage is much more progressive and experimental. There’s a heavier emphasis on organ and Mellotron with Per Wiberg conjuring some classic 70s keyboard pomp throughout every track. Vocally, Mikael Åkerfeldt dispenses completely with his death metal voice. It’s gone. There isn’t even a sinister whisper buried somewhere under one of the noodly jazz passages, instead relying solely on that smooth, melodic croon that occasionally peaks into a warm note.
The prevailing feel of Heritage is that of acoustic jazz rock. Sometimes it just goes on a bit too long, like the minimalist intro section of “Famine”, but later in the same song comes a staggering Opeth riff surrounded by crazy organ, noodly guitar and warbling flutes that defines the direction of the album. Anyone who’s familiar with the maudlin of the Well track “Birth Pains of Astral Projection” will notice similarities in both “Nepenthe” and the extremely ambient intro section of “Häxprocess”. “The Lines in My Hand” has a folk feel that carries over into the slow polka-like opening section of “Folklore”. Opeth manages to pull all this off exceedingly well and as a jazz/ambient/world music album Heritage scores quite highly.
Yet as someone who has followed Opeth since their Katatonia-inspired early days, it’s hard not to feel a measure of disappointment. The beauty of their music in the past was the effortless interplay of light and shade, the careful if occasionally contrived balance between sinister and benign and the seamless way the dark, heavy death metal riffs and Åkerfeldt’s thunderous growl would rise up and swallow the melodies and acoustic interludes like a maw of malevolence. The starkness of the textures and the dark atmosphere it evokes is part of what has pushed Opeth to the fore of the metal world and why they have become so inspirational. Heritage has some delightful moments but lacks virtually all of the band’s hallmarks, instead meandering too long in sections of near silence and barely-audible whispers with nothing to provide counterpoint except more ambience and noodling, and the melodic connection Åkerfeldt had in the past with guitarists Peter Lindgren and Frederick Åkesson has all but been replaced with organ. It’s a very different Opeth, one that doesn’t sound like Opeth at all, that rings with their brilliance but not their usual resonance and that is what will continue to polarise listeners about Heritage for a very long time to come.
2. The Devil’s Orchard
3. I Feel the Dark
8. The Lines in My Hand
10. Marrow of the Earth