Opeth: Heritage – thoughts on their journey to making a full-on prog album

What follows is a post about the discography of Swedish progressive metal band Opeth, along with some thoughts on their new album.  The record, entitled Heritage (released September 14th of this year), is unique amongst its brethren in the Opeth catalogue, in that it is their first straight-up, undiluted progressive record.

I was originally planning on writing a real review of the album, but… I can’t.  I don’t know enough about progressive rock music, other than Rush, Dream Theater, Yes, and a few other groups, to really dissect it.  However, I do give my opinion… at the end of the post.

Some historical background

Opeth released its first album, Orchid, in 1995, and has evolved its sound over seven additional metal records and an “acoustic”/”quiet”/”clean” album.  The first Opeth album that I really enjoyed was Still Life (1999), which has three of my (many) favorites of theirs: Godhead’s Lament, Benighted, and Face of Melinda (click song names for Youtube audio files).

Godhead’s Lament:

This live video doesn’t have the best quality sound, but it demonstrates how “Godhead’s Lament” is one of the many songs that utilize the extreme dynamics the band incorporates: from death metal to clean singing over metal, followed by the transition into what is, on the record, acoustic beauty and vocal harmonies, and then back up to harsh, death metal vocals at the end.  “Benighted” is simply one of their most beautiful songs, as is “Face of Melinda”.

Opeth really broke with 2001’s Blackwater Park, which featured several songs that highlighted the many strengths of the band.  “The Leper Affinity” (metal mastery), Harvest (clean), and The Funeral Portrait (more metal mastery), are songs that I listen to often, and have for a long time.  However, my favorite has to be “The Drapery Falls”, which is also a fan favorite.

The Drapery Falls, from Lamentations: Live at Shepherd’s Bush Empire 2003

This epic begins and ends with the same theme, and I love every second of it.  My favorite part of this live video, which is very high quality, is when they reprise the beginning theme at the end, and frontman Michael Åkerfeldt has a huge grin on his face.  I’m not sure why he’s smiling so, but I like to think it’s a smile of triumph and musical joy.

The Leper Affinity (from the same show) is also awesome:

Opeth followed in 2002 and 2003 with two albums made simultaneously, Deliverance (a “normal Opeth record”) and Damnation, which is the only pre-Heritage record that doesn’t contain any “metal”, so to speak.  Damnation brought some different progressive elements to the table, and had more of a jam vibe, although the songs are precise and very well written.  One of my favorites is Closure, which took some different rhythmic turns when they played it live from the same show as the previous two videos.

Closure

2005 brought us Ghost Reveries, a completely badass record with songs like “Ghost of Perdition”, Baying of the Hounds, Beneath the Mire, and The Grand Conjuration.  I can’t really say too much about this record: it’s just awesome, and I listened to it countless times in the car.

Ghost of Perdition, from The Roundhouse Tapes (2006)

Actually, I do have something to say about this album.  It’s not “the same” as other Opeth albums.  Åkerfeldt obviously likes the 6/8 rhythms in his songs, and has great guitar tone, and vocals ranging from extremely beautiful to harsh and powerful.  However, on this album and its follow-up, he seemed to be playing with different guitar rhythms and tonal colors at times, and for me these gave the songs something that kept me coming back for more listens than usual, particularly to the songs listed above.

Opeth’s most recent album before this year was Watershed (2008), which seem to take the extremities of the band to new extremes – the beautiful was more beautiful, the metal was harsher, the progressive elements were more progressive (Porcelain Heart), the keyboards were more prominent, and the ballads (Burden) were more poignant.  The first track, “Coil”, is a beautiful acoustic number featuring 12-string guitar and vocals by singer Nathalie Lorichs.

Coil, live on Swedish TV4 (song begins at 0:21)

That song was followed on Watershed by Heir Apparent, one of the heaviest songs Opeth has recorded, and “The Lotus Eater,” a song so epic that, when they played it live at Royal Albert Hall in 2010, it killed two guitars!

The Lotus Eater, live at Royal Albert Hall, 2010

~ ~ ~

Heritage

Opeth incorporates many different elements (metal, prog, jazz, folk, etc.) into their music, but with their new album, they seemed to jettison a hefty portion of them – metal in particular – in favor of a straight-up progressive rock record.  This, of course, drew a mixed response from the metal community, with people such as Vince Neilstein at Metal Sucks calling it “top notch” and others calling it “okay to listen to in the background” or “not Opeth”.

I’ve listened to the album several times through so far, but I haven’t really paid much attention to the song titles. However, they did release their first single, entitled The Devil’s Orchard, and you can click the song title to hear it on Roadrunner Records’ Youtube channel.

Comparing this track with others in their catalogue, it sounds right.  It still sounds like Opeth.  By this point, several years on, the prominent use of keyboards throughout the record sounds normal, and the lead guitar tones hearken back to so many other great Opeth songs.  The greater variety of guitar tones and the jazz elements, combined with the lack of guttural vocals and heavy distortion/palm-muting, still fit in with other Opeth albums.

As a lover of great music, I highly recommend Heritage.  One of the great things about Opeth is that they still make albums that are great from beginning to end.  Heritage fits that bill wonderfully.  While the individual songs stand up on their own, the record is best listened to in its entirety.  It’s not metal, and it’s not even another Damnation – it’s a more refined cousin to it.  Opeth made the album that they wanted to make, and they made a very good one.

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