Engaging In "Ghost Reveries:" A Fan's Look At Missing Opeth's True "Heritage"
Band Photo: Opeth (?)
Our “Sunday Old School” column covering the legendary Swedish progressive death metal act Opeth is just on the horizon, and we’ve decided to take this opportunity to look more in-depth at the band’s latest album “Heritage,” which has divided the fanbase. While I personally find the album disappointing, other members of the MetalUnderground.com staff hold differing opinions. If you don’t fancy my take on the album, Rex_84’s opposing look at “Heritage” may be more to your tastes.
Before the album was released I made of point to avoid listening to any advance tracks, wanting to hear the upcoming masterpiece in its entirety with no preconceived notions of what I was going to be experiencing. Although I gave it a 3.5 out of 5 in the final review, I have to confess my opinion of the album lessens every time I listen to it. With the exception of “The Devil’s Orchard,” I’m at a point where I almost hate this album.
I should reveal up front that I’m one of those people that would easily get labeled an Opeth fanboy on any given Internet discussion. If you’ve ever complained about how fans of the Swedish outfit are “pretentious” or “snobby,” you were probably talking about me. My CD case isn’t arranged alphabetically or even by genre – it’s arranged in order of bands I listen to most frequently to bands I listen to least often. “Orchid” through “Watershed” occupy the first nine spots in that case.
The first time I ever heard Opeth was on my 14th birthday, and it’s a tale I enjoy sharing whenever metal stories come up in conversation. Being raised in a very Christian home, under no circumstances was I ever to be listening to something with loud guitars and indiscernible vocals. Jars of Clay and Rebecca St. James were the order of the day, and Audio Adrenaline was the heaviest thing going on. With my family gathered around for the birthday bash, my older brother passed me a computer game as a gift, and this was back when PC software came in those ridiculously oversized boxes. Peaking inside the box, I see a copy of “My Arms, Your Hearse” had been covertly placed underneath the game manual, safely out of parental view.
My exposure to so-called “real” metal was actually fairly limited at that point. Sure, I’d heard Metallica and whatnot on MTV, but as far as actual honest-to-Lucifer extreme metal, my experiences were essentially limited to a Destiny’s End album and one Samael EP, so I had no idea what to expect when popping that CD into the player. I certainly didn’t think the album would be starting with the sounds of rain and piano notes before the metal hit, and then suddenly my world exploded. That shit on the radio everyone was listening to? That wasn’t music anymore. THIS was music.
Hearing that album, I never would have guessed one day I’d be shaking front man Mikael Akerfeldt’s hand or talking metal with him in the Opeth tour bus, but almost a decade later my first-ever interview for Metalunderground.com happened to be on the 2008 Prog Nation tour. Honestly I must have been a blathering, star-eyed idiot for that whole conversation, because the love affair that started on my 14th birthday had only grown since then into a full blown obsession.
But that extreme adoration is why the flop of latest album “Heritage” has had such a big impact for many die-hard fans such as myself. In my review, I mentioned how I had worshipped at the altar of Opeth for a good long time, but “Heritage” had officially shaken my faith with its subpar execution of a previously stellar formula. Now before anyone cries foul and attacks my elitism and unwillingness to listen to something that isn’t extreme metal, let me get something out of the way: the lack of death growls is not what kills “Heritage.” Opeth’s all clean foray with “Damnation” is one of the band’s best albums – it’s moody, dark, and still has all the unique song structures you’d expect based on the clean songs on any other Opeth release. But unfortunately “Heritage” isn’t on equal footing with “Damnation,” and individual tracks from “Heritage” can’t even stand up to the less-heavy songs on pretty much any of the earlier albums.
For instance, compare “Haxprocess” to “Burden,” the softest offering on previous album “Watershed.” The opening to “Haxprocess” is almost intriguing, and probably could have been amazing had it wove the themes of a witch trial into Opeth’s normally amazing heavy/soft dichotomy, but the song immediately goes limp, and stays that way.
At under seven minutes, it’s fairly short for an Opeth song, but a mere three minutes in and it’s already overstayed its welcome with long stretches of repetitive nothingness. And – oh look! – drummer Martin Axenrot even gets to tap his cymbals every now and again (probably asleep with his hand on auto-pilot). Somewhere around four minutes of essentially nothing, especially toward the second half of the song, could have been cut out and resulted in a track that was actually worth listening through.
“Famine” is an even worse offender in this category, ending up essentially being an interlude track composed of interlude snippets. While individual parts may be interesting or worthwhile, the whole thing doesn’t even come close to stacking up against the softer or piano-driven tracks on other albums. Normally I love non-metal instruments showing up in metal albums (like the fiddle in Hardingrock, the saxophone on Ihsahn’s solo albums, or any given orchestral Therion track), but I can’t help but laugh and think of Ron Burgundy talking about “baby making music” when the track’s ridiculous flute solo shows up about five minutes in.
To hear the contrast more strongly, play “Famine,” then listen to “A Fair Judgment” from the “Deliverance” album. The former sounds like four or five interludes that couldn’t be effectively placed on other songs, and is only occasionally engaging. The latter is interesting the whole way through while still using only clean singing and utilizing several piano and acoustic guitars segments. Adding insult to injury, “A Fair Judgment” is a full three minutes longer, and it still holds up interest better than the shorter and more succinct “Famine.”
Likewise from my previous comparison, “Burden” off the “Watershed” disc sounds like an actual song, crafted and composed specifically to be a track that didn’t happen to include growling. “Haxprocess” on the other hand, like most of “Heritage,” sounds like the rejected intros, outros, and interludes that hit the cutting room floor and never made it on to the past Opeth albums. Even if the bizarre guitar de-tuning at the end of the “Burden” is a turn off, it’s still only limited to the end of the song, instead of filling the whole album.
The disparity only becomes more readily apparent if we use other Opeth songs without growls, such as “Porcelain Heart,” which has only clean vocals, but at least still has instances of heavier guitar work. That entire dimension of Opeth – the thing that once prompted the band members to say they “exist in a genre of one” – is almost entirely gone from “Heritage.”
It’s no secret that Opeth is Mikael Akerfeldt’s machine, especially after the loss of two long-time members in previous years, but frankly it seems like both drummer Martin Axenrot and guitarist Frederick Akesson are completely wasted in the band’s “Heritage” era. Both are skilled in the more extreme arts, and the fact that they don’t even use drums in “Storm Corrosion,” the new non-metal collaboration between Mikael and Porcupine Tree’s Steve Wilson, doesn’t bode well for what role Axe will play in future Opeth releases. When you’ve got guys who have played with Arch Enemy and Witchery, what’s the point in having them perform largely uninspired rock?
I recently spoke with Katatonia’s Jonas Renkse, who has been friends with Mikael for decades, and during our chat he revealed he saw the changes that would end up in “Heritage” coming for years. Renkse commented on the album, “I thought it was different, but it was kind of expected for me. I’m good friends with Mike and we try to hang out as much as possible between tours. We always try to listen to music and he’s always playing new albums he’s found from the ‘70s and his tastes are always getting more and more obscure as the years go by. What he’s been showing me the last couple of years since the “Watershed” album, he’s very much into this style, which is pretty much the style that went into the “Heritage” album, so I was seeing it coming.”
Perhaps the fanbase should have seen this coming as well, as “Watershed” went much more into prog and lowered the amount of death metal overall, although it was still a balancing act that was overall very satisfying. It would be a pure guess on my part to speculate on what might motivate someone to change gears musically - perhaps from feeling stifled by a particular label or even a simple desire to go in a different direction after playing music for so long. It’s hard not to think, however, that the change wasn’t influenced in some way by events in the band’s history, such as the departure of Peter Lindgren and Martin Lopez, and the brutal toll that screaming on stage for years can take on a voice.
In interviews between the “Watershed” and “Heritage” cycles, Mikael talked about losing that sort of dream metal band experience of performing music from your youth with your best mates forever. Coupled with the recent announcement that he’s also left Bloodbath, the only other project where he utilizes death growls, it seems like the Opeth we knew and the death metal icon we adored is essentially gone for good.
But who knows, maybe Mikael has had his downtime and will eventually decide he needs a more aggressive or more interesting outlet again, and we’ll end up with another Opeth masterpiece a few years down the road. Unfortunately for this fan, that doesn’t seem to be a likely turn of events. In a bizarre instance of unintentional foreshadowing, it seems we may have to be content to engage in “Ghost Reveries” with the amazing albums already released, because it appears the Opeth I fell in love with all those years ago has faded away.
How do you feel about Opeth’s latest, and where do you think the band is going in the future?
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