Opeth Still Heavy Despite Lack of Death Metal on "Heritage"
Band Photo: Opeth (?)
Update: For the opposing view of this Op/Ed, head over to this location.
“Heritage” is the slowest album in Opeth’s discography, but that doesn’t make it a bad album. Opeth has never made a bad album, and every Opeth album contains slow parts. This time the group just decided to make that the focus of the recording. I’m not turned off by a band playing slowly. In fact, some of my favorite artists are known for playing slowly. These bands carry the “doom metal” modifier. While nobody with the knowledge of descriptive metal tags would categorize Opeth as a doom artist, they take a similar approach, especially mood-wise, to their music.
Opeth has established itself as a moody or atmospheric band since debut full-length “Orchid” and follow up “Morningrise." The group got its career in the mid-‘90s on Century Media Records—a label that understood the beauty in darkness motif (see Tiamat “Wildhoney” and Moonspell “Wolfheart”). Said recordings used acoustic guitar and folk melodies to convey somber and serene feelings, connecting their music with the depictions of nature adorning their covers. As the group progressed, prog rock melodies took the place of folk harmonies, but the approach remained the same, marrying dark with light and heavy with soft.
Starting with “Damnation,” the group made keyboards a prominent part of the music. Keyboards helped envision the evil vibe of “Ghost Reveries.” When we make the leap from that album to “Heritage,” we still see keyboards playing a major role in Opeth’s atmosphere. Whether joining dynamically rising and falling rhythms or being used as a solo instrument, keys definitely help shape the album’s mood. Take the title track as an example. Piano notes move too slowly and ring out too long to relate any feelings of joy or happiness. Keys create a dreamy transition on “Folklore,” and bring another layer to “Häxprocess.” On the latter-named track, Per Wiberg even produces a flute-like sound that brings back the woodsiness of their older material.
Starting with their tour with Porcupine Tree in 2003, Opeth has added more and more elements of ‘70s progressive rock, which is exemplified by Per Wiberg’s playing of the Hammond Organ on “Heritage.” The organ is a major component of “Slither.” I’m not fond of the Hammond Organ sound. I find myself wanting to sing “Let’s Go Out to the Ballgame.” However, I’ve come to like the track because Mikael Åkerfeldt wrote it as a tribute to Ronnie James Dio’s time in Rainbow. Now, when I hear the organ, I imagine Rainbow playing this song. Åkerfeldt’s singing surely would have impressed the man who gave us the horned-hand salute!
Other than no death metal vocals on this album, I can’t think of Åkerfeldt’s voice ever receiving criticism in a review. “Heritage” is no different. He has a beautiful voice, regardless of genre or style. The album seems to have fewer choral parts than some of the group’s other albums, but expect “The Devil’s Orchard” to become a live staple. The group perfectly outlined the song’s catchy hook “God is dead!” Also of note is the deliberate phrasing on “Nepenthe," a technique recalling "In My Time Of Need" from the "Damnation" album.
Composition and melody are other facets that make “Heritage” worthy of being listed in Opeth’s catalog. Åkerfeldt meshes the tones of his acoustic guitar so brilliantly on “I Feel the Dark” that two instruments seemingly become one. Of course, the group doesn’t ride this one rhythm to the end, the song goes through multiple twists and turns. The softness and simplicity of these opening acoustic notes transform into a loud orchestra of electric guitar, bass, drums and organ. “Famine” features many lull points that enhances the heaviness and volume of a trudging, doom-filled passage. “Heritage” works like any other Opeth recording, constructing and deconstructing rhythms.
With “Heritage,” Opeth dove deeper into prog rock sounds, while taking away Åkerfeldt’s death metal growls. I enjoy Åkerfeldt’s hollow tones, but as drummer Martin Axenrot told me in a recent interview, growling vocals don’t necessarily make a song darker or heavier. I agree with this statement. Opeth is still loud where it needs to be loud, riffs are still meaty and gloomy atmospheres still persist. I have always preferred Åkerfeldt’s singing voice to his extreme vocals. Although I think his harsh tones do create a better contrast to his singing, I’m not going to give up on the band for this reason. I’ll remain a fan as long as Opeth remains heavy, dark and melodic like “Heritage.”
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