Almost every band has that album: you know, the critically and/or commercially reviled dud in an otherwise pretty damn good back catalog. In "Justify Your Shitty Taste," a Decibel staffer or special guest will take to the Deciblog to bitch and moan at length as to why everybody’s full of shit and said dud is, in fact, The Shit. Today, Chris Dick gives it up for Opeth's death metal-free Heritage.
Full disclosure: Roadrunner Records funded my trip to Stockholm to hear Heritage and interview frontman Mikael Åkerfeldt and team for Decibel. Fuller disclosure: I’ve been a long-time Opeth fan—OK, let’s settle for fanatic, to be frank. Long-time, as in before Orchid was released. The ‘zine I used to run with Decibel illio-god Mark Rudolph was the very first “magazine” in the U.S. to feature Opeth on the cover in 1995. To that end, I think I’ve much “justified” my shitty taste in adoring Heritage, but I’m pretty sure 66 words isn’t what my editors are looking for when it comes to the polarizing feature called “Justify Your Shitty Taste”. I do, in fact, have—in the eyes and ears of false metal neck-beards and I’m-here-only-for-the-Gorgoroth-demo fixie twerps—shitty taste. But I don’t care. I was likely here before them and I’ll definitely be here after them. That’s my rank pull for the year. And I’ll defend Kamelot, Blind Guardian, Helloween, Moonspell, and, it seems, Opeth, to my last breath.
So, Opeth’s Heritage needs justification, right? When I interviewed Åkerfeldt, he and I agreed it was pretty much a “Fuck You!” record. After 16 years of writing spell-binding progressive death, touring their asses off, and having their personal and creative lives spread wide open for the world to see, read, and comment on, Åkerfeldt had enough. Even Opeth’s sound—a sound cultivated by Åkerfeldt and his record collection—was at risk. Heritage was a reactionary record. In fact, sitting in front of me at Atlantis Studios, he said: “If it’s a reaction, it’s a reaction against the fact that people don’t have the same interest in an album as a format. It’s also a reaction against the state of heavy metal music, which we’ve been a very big part of for many years now. It’s a reaction of the production of heavy metal records. And with that, it’s a reaction to the Internet, the fucking waves of information that everybody seems to need.”
Considering Åkerfeldt scuttled two post-Watershed songs before writing Heritage, Opeth’s 10th is undoubtedly part of the Swede’s lineage. It’s just not a death metal record or a progressive death metal record. It barely borders on metal most of the time (save for the Dio salute “Slither”), but that’s beside the point. Heritage is a dark record. Progressive, yes, as in influenced by Camel, Culpeper’s Orchard, Scott Walker, Rainbow, and a host of ‘60/’70s “others”, but it’s a record that’s more revealing of Åkerfeldt’s personal and observational darkness. “I Feel the Dark”, for example, tells it all. When it hits the 3:00 minute mark, it’s as if Åkerfeldt gives a brief look into his abyss. Whether or not you like it is another matter, but the dissonance borders on “Hatework” harrowing. For me, I love it. Åkerfeldt’s discomfort with strangers and crowds is immediately audible. And somehow relatable.
“Häxprocess” is another matter entirely. The opening montage is positively desperate. The slow, perfectly timed plucks of Åkerfeldt and Fredrik Åkesson’s guitars recall rainy, lonesome days, when reflection of time cruelly passed is the only companion. When “Häxprocess” picks up, it’s straight out of Åkerfeldt’s Still Life repertoire (think “Moonlapse Vertigo”). Åkerfeldt’s backing band—bassist Martin Mendez and drummer Martin Axenrot are particularly fantastic; peerless, really—swing and sway rhythms too cool for rote death metal. The “Orion”-tribute motif is also perfectly timed against the song’s Latimer-inspired solo.
Heritage’s opener, “The Devil’s Orchard”, is again plain and simple Opeth, minus the heretofore unparalleled death vocals of Åkerfeldt. Sure, it’s a little funky in parts, its kaleidoscopic rhythm a bastard to death metal’s rigorous, if staid standard, but at no point does “The Devil’s Orchard” not say anything other than, “Yes, I’m Opeth.” The various mini themes and sub-themes extend all the way back to Orchid, just now they’re sans the death metal warpaint. Actually, I’d go as far as to say from the 5:00 minute mark it’s some of the best Opeth ever. The lead-up and into Åkesson’s fiery solo is stupendous. Åkesson could’ve used another 30 seconds (or more), in fact, before the final, slightly cliché “God is dead” line.
“Marrow of the Earth” is an interesting closer. Again, very Camel-esque (borrowed perhaps thematically from The Snow Goose). It feels like an apprehensive goodbye. The organ/guitar trade-off are magical, a throwback to when Åkerfeldt was more bard-like (white frilly shirts) than comedian (on stage). That it’s Opeth’s first instrumental since, well, Damnation also says a lot. Opeth, without Åkerfeldt, are just as great as with.
True, Heritage meanders tremendously. “Nepenthe”, “Folklore”, and “The Lines in My Hand” are all over the Opeth’s proverbial planet. They’re as schizophrenic as anything off Morningrise and yet they still compel. “Folklore”, for example, pays homage to “Hårgalåten” or, in a broader sense, Svensk Folkmusik. When it kicks in, “Folklore” is cool and nimble. The octave-play between the guitars and keyboards is festively evil (as in The Omen not Dawn of Possession). That Opeth fold in slabs of discord (love the reverse Morbid Angel-isms at 2:35 and 4:13) before going full-on Tangerine Dream (a la Force Majeure or parts of The Keep) is beyond awesome. Of course, no self-respecting death metallers—insecure jock types into Blasphemy, et al.—would never admit to liking, much less openly admiring, permissive discourse of musical discovery. Then again, this is Opeth.
This all being said, I’ve never understood the wide dislike for Heritage. The very thing Opeth fan-boys praised the band for (being different; great musicianship; wide emotional range) on previous albums was aggressively panned on Heritage. It’s as if they didn’t have ears (or brains). Or, suffered severe selective amnesia after Watershed. Objectively speaking, Heritage no less Opeth than Deliverance or Blackwater Park. Though it may not be particularly death metal, the foundation and the tendrils extending outward are definitively from Åkerfeldt’s adept mind. The production, however, could be one reason. It’s neither bright nor dynamic. The mix—at Steven Wilson’s No Man’s Land—isn’t particularly great. Axenrot’s ride cymbal (and bell) is, at times, louder than Åkesson’s guitar solos. Actually, no matter how high the volume Heritage never seems loud enough. But that’s the extent—OK, the underwater vocal effect on “Folklore” is amateurish and “Nepenthe”’s mid-section is unnecessarily gangly—of criticism towards Heritage.
In the end, Heritage is a fantastic record. It’s a journey rarely afforded inside a musician’s mind. And, yes, Heritage is Opeth. If you think otherwise, well, defend your position. Be prepared, however. I'm ready.