Opeth rejects metal roots for prog rock exploration
Opeth frontman Mikael Åkerfeldt has spoken about his mindset leading into Heritage: I don't think I could have written another metal Opeth record right now. I was done. I had saturated that style. With Watershed and Ghost Reveries, (it) was as good as it gets in that style. It was time to move on. And the new album has proven to be challenging to hardcore Opeth fans.
Heritage is much more keyboard focused than their earlier work and the music seems rooted in retro prog rock/art rock. While many of the songs retain the signature harmonic tension of classic Opeth, the death metal growled vocals are gone. These changes force the listener to decide whether to contrast it with "classic" Opeth or to judge the album on its own terms. While it's not a cultural touchstone like Dylan going electric, Heritage has proven to be Opeth's most polarizing release.
The album opens with the title cut, Heritage. It's a moody piano-centered piece that explores a simple melody. Understated and jazzy, it unwinds slowly, creating a thoughtful reverie. The progression features a nice pause that adds a touch of tension. When it comes around at 1:24, the song just hangs in space, defying gravity. It's a beautiful moment that sets the tone for the rest of the album.
Fitting with the dynamics of the album, Opeth follows this soft moment with something edgier. Rather than diving into metal, though, The Devil's Orchard is anchored in an early King Crimson sound. Steven Wilson's production work shows that he's been immersed in King Crimson's back catalog. The winding riffage and rhythmic drive set off a theatrical vocal. The opening section settles into a dynamic shift into a spooky instrumental segment. Where the older Opeth material would have focused on guitar, the keyboard shines instead. There are still plenty of guitar textures, but they're in a supporting role.
The rest of the album has plenty of interesting explorations, some of which click like I Feel the Dark's journey from thoughtful trippiness to harder edged post rock (some strong Camel moments). Others are less successful, like Famine's sound sculpture start that evolves into a series of shifts. This latter is promising, but the sections don't coalesce. The ambient start is overtaken by a rising percussion that sets a groove, but then the groove is abandoned for a tentative piano line. This in turn is overtaken by a frantic guitar riff that sets up a driving progressive rock groove reminiscent of Yes or Styx. The song continues to run through other changes before returning to the opening sound sculpture sound. Many of the parts sound interesting alone or even in contrast to another section, but the collection feels haphazard and unplanned.
Even if Heritage overreaches, Opeth should be commended for taking the risky step away from everyone's expectations. On it's own terms, the album largely succeeds. I'll leave it to the fanboys to argue about how Heritage fits into Opeth's larger body of work. I'll raise a goblet of smoky chipotle mead in their honor, though.