In Defense Of Their Good Name is a column where we rise to the defense of bands or albums that are often criticized in the metal scene.
With the recent announcements regarding Opeth’s next album, I thought it might be timely to take a look at the band’s previous effort: Heritage. Now, Heritage isn’t exactly a heavily maligned album, not like St. Anger anyway. However, the album is more polarizing, having garnered mixed reception in comparison to the rest of the band’s discography. The main reason for said reception is the direction Opeth chose to head in for Heritage i.e. more prog and less death metal. Anytime you make a band’s sound “less brutal” someone in the fan base is going to give it the thumbs down on general principle and say something along the lines of, in this case, “It’s not real Opeth.” This week, I’ll be explaining not only why Heritage is another solid album, but also why the change in direction isn’t much of a change at all and how it is still distinctly Opeth.
Opeth is typically filed under progressive death metal, but limiting them to such a label would be an injustice. The band has incorporated many musical elements before including folk, jazz fusion, and even classical, and those are brought to the forefront on Heritage. The two albums that foreshadowed Heritage’s sound were Damnation and Watershed, both of which contained musical elements leaning away from death metal and more toward progressive rock.
Damnation was the first and only other album apart from Heritage where Mikael Åkerfeldt chose to perform without the growling vocals found on all other Opeth albums. In fact, the album is clean everything from vocals to guitar to mellotron to piano. By all accounts, fans should have been appalled by such a dramatic shift in sound, especially since the album was a follow up to Deliverance, one of the nastiest albums in Opeth’s discography. But guess what? People loved it because Damnation is metal in the same sense that walking through a mist-filled graveyard at midnight is metal, which is exactly the kind of vibe this album gives.
Watershed preceded Heritage, and a lot of sounds and songs from the album are indicative of where the band would head for the next album. Watershed does feature heavy tracks and Åkerfeldt’s signature death growls, but the album doesn’t make it the focus and instead seems to feature equal parts heavy and clean. Case in point, the album opener, “Coil”, which could have been on either Damnation or Heritage given the sound. “Burden” is another given considering it’s similar sound, but even on the heavier tracks like “Porcelain Heart” the band goes from distorted guitar to long, low key acoustic passages accompanied by an oboe. A freakin’ oboe, which is nowhere near metal but Opeth make it work. There’s much and more on Watershed that’s closer to progressive music than death metal, hence the band’s choice of direction for Heritage.
So, now that I’ve explained why Heritage is not the great change in direction some made it out to be, what makes it an unmistakable Opeth album? It’s the fact that the album takes all band’s progressive elements represented on Damnation and Watershed then fuses it with the influence of classic prog of the 60’s and 70’s, turning it into an album that’s a little different, but still distinctly Opeth. From the chanting of “God is dead” in the chorus of “The Devil’s Orchard” to the acoustical outro of “Marrow of Folklore”, there’s nothing here that isn’t Opeth. It’s a healthy dose of prog where the heaviness takes a sight backseat, though much less than on Damnation. “Slither” is hard, driving track and probably the heaviest on the album in terms of guitar and speed. Plus, it’s a tribute to Ronnie James Dio, so that makes it all the better.
Heritage is aptly named as the band took the time to acknowledge their musical heritage, and whereas for other bands that might go wrong, that’s not the case here. It might not have been the album that a more death metal-centric might have wanted, but it is still very much Opeth. If you’re one of those fans hoping that Pale Communion will be a “return to form” for the band, I have news for you: they never left it.