I’ve never been able to understand why musical evolution is largely frowned upon in extreme metal circles. It’s as if something went horribly awry back when rock music begat heavy metal and then heavy metal begat death metal, black metal, thrash, etc. That essential aspect of rock ‘n’ roll’s spirit which calls for constant change was almost completely stamped out in favor of a stunted “different is bad” philosophy that continues to permeate the scene today. Granted, “different” doesn’t always equal “good” either, but in order for any artistic or cultural movement to survive it must continually progress through trial and error, or risk degenerating into irrelevance and ultimately dying out. Yet somehow, metal’s more extreme genres have managed to remain in stasis for nearly three decades. Of course there are many exceptions, but for every one innovator there are literally hundreds of bands that have progressed their sound little (if at all) over the course of numerous albums, lineup changes, etc. Pillars of the various extreme metal subgenres, such as Transilvanian Hunger, Heartwork, Left Hand Path, Rust in Peace, etc are all around the two decade old mark, and yet bands are still contently copying them, and acting like they’ve achieved something of note on their own in doing so. When metal went extreme, it forgot that the bands from which it spawned, the Black Sabbaths and Led Zeppelins and Deep Purples of the world, never released two albums alike or even two songs alike. Production values may improve, bands may become more technically proficient (and in some cases even these two will cause severe backlash), but stepping outside the imaginary, self-imposed boundaries of a chosen metal subgenre is largely verboten.
Unlike many of their peers, Sweden’s Opeth were never one to tread water artistically… at least, not until recently. With 2005’s Ghost Reveries and 2008’s Watershed, it seemed as if the band’s melding of death metal and progressive rock stylings had at last run its course. After nearly twenty years of pushing boundaries, vocalist/guitarist Mikael Akerfeldt’s vision had stagnated, and while the two albums in question were by no means bad, they weren’t the genre-defining masterpieces that earlier Opeth efforts such as Blackwater Park and My Arms, Your Hearse were either. The band was in danger of becoming complacent, mired in what it had initially sought to transcend.
Which brings us to Heritage, Opeth’s tenth album and the next step in the quintet’s musical evolution. This album has already seen its share of backlash due to Opeth’s total abandonment of extreme metal elements in favor of full-on King Crimson/Jethro Tull/Rainbow-esque progressive proto-metal. I have a hard time believing that any Opeth fan worth their salt didn’t see this coming, as Akerfeldt has long professed his love for all things prog in interviews, and the band has often embraced these more mellow tendencies on prior releases. The new direction is not only logical, it’s also welcome. In listening to Heritage, it’s clear that Opeth chose to challenge themselves and follow their hearts instead of vomiting out another half-assed slab of death/prog just to please others, and for this they should be applauded.
At this point you’re probably thinking, why is it okay to for Opeth to rip off Aqualung and In the Court of the Crimson King, but not okay for some fifth wave black metal band to rip off Transilvanian Hunger? There is a difference between shamelessly ripping off and using an established style to create something brand new within its framework. Opeth might have borrowed some style from the prog gods of old on Heritage, but they have injected it with their own substance. In spite of the supposed “left turn” the band has taken in the eyes of many, this is still an Opeth album through and through. Sometimes, one must look to the past in order to move forward.
Of course, all this highfalutin talk of evolution and progression would be nothing more than pretentious bullshit if Heritage didn’t have songs. Opeth haven’t sacrificed any of their trademark craftsmanship, if anything they’ve become more focused and concise than ever before. Tracks such as “The Devil’s Orchard” and “Slither” are among the catchiest, most streamlined and flat-out rocking pieces of music Akerfeldt has ever composed, yet they still possess the intricate musicianship and emotional gravitas that Opeth has become known for. Progged-out, spider-fingered riff-workouts intermingle with ’60s psych-style keyboards, acoustic folk and soothing, jazzy passages; standout track “Famine” even features some freaky flute-work from Bjorn Lindh and percussion from former Weather Report drummer Alex Acuña. It’s all wrapped in a warm, earthy production scheme that never comes off as forced or retro and perfectly suits Heritage‘s heady brew of styles and sounds.
To me, Heritage sounds like Summer dissolving into Fall. It could have something to do with Travis Smith’s sultry, psychedelic cover art, or perhaps the “Summer’s gone and love has withered” line from “Slither”. There are also several references to Winter on the album, but in spite of this, Heritage is definitely the music of sticky, stifling days giving way to cool, breezy Samhain nights, all burning leaves and pink-orange sunsets. Something sinister lurks under the album’s surface, an ethereal, seductive darkness that Opeth’s previous works only hinted at. Think of it as the musical equivalent of Rosemary’s Baby, with a prevailing sense of dread and the forbidden behind its seemingly quiet, pretty exterior. Indeed, the Devil’s orchard is a place of eternal damnation as well as earthly delights, and Opeth’s occult prog is enticing in it’s exquisite subtleties.
With Heritage, Opeth have taken a much needed step forward. By shedding the excess baggage of death metal and diving ever deeper into the realms of airy yet insidious prog, psych, jazz and folk, Mikael Akerfeldt and co. have crafted a bold declaration of total artistic independence, flinging open wide the doors of musical possibility. I noted earlier that the album felt like the changing of the seasons, but it also feels like a jumping off point, or like the beginning of a meandering, hallucinatory journey into parts both familiar and unknown. I look forward to accompanying them on the long, strange trip to come.