Opeth came of age this year. I mean this in the accepted sense of the phrase – the Swedish band does indeed turn twenty one this year. You thought I was talking about them in musical terms, didn’t you? Making a clever claim for them on the release of their new album, Heritage, as being the one that brought all the various disperate threads of their career together to provide a definitive Opeth statement, right?
Wrong. Because Heritage doesn’t do that at all. If it did, there would be swathes of thunderous death metal rolling across the album’s vista as far as the eye could see – there aren’t. So Heritage isn’t the career defining album many people are suggesting it might be, because it doesn’t provide a single quintessential Opeth song within its grooves. Rather – and I’m going to labour the ‘attaining majority’ motif for a little longer here – it’s the album that sees this always-intrigueing band stretching out and reflecting on what waits for them in adulthood. And that’s an exciting prospect for them and us.
Opening with a reflective piano instrumental (the title track) lets you know immediately that this is not going to be a comfortable ride for all those looking for some sort of progressive death metal bacchanal. Despite its title, following track The Devils Orchard is also low on metallic pleasure, though it does feature a beautiful closing guitasr solo that is heavily redolent of Blue Oyster Cult’s Donald ‘Buck Dharma’ Roeser. It’s a marvellous way to close out what can only be described otherwise as a seventies-informed psyche-rock wigout that’ll blow minds in both a good and, dare I say it, bad way too.
I Feel the Dark features more moody reflection, and is another song with a marked absence of overdriven guitars. Heavy metal fans, already twitching nervously and waiting for some deliverance, will therefore welcome Slither with open arms. It’s the sort of track that Deep Purple might have opened an album with in 1972, an uptempo rocker of the sort you just don’t hear made anymore by musicians under the age of fifty. It’s also as close to an all-out metal assault as you’ll hear on Heritage.
Nepenthe is next up, opening as a snoozy, jazzed-out moodfest (with weird hints of Hymn by Scottish synth goons Ultravox) before erupting into a bizarre King Crimson-meets-Primus funk workout that’s at once expansive yet claustrophobic, if such a thing is possible. Nepenthe bleeds into next track Haxprocess seamlessly – you’ll be guilty of thinking it’s the same track if you’re not concentrating properly, and Haxprocess oozes away before you know it, taking some nice Gilmouresque axe noodling with it. Famine is perhaps this reviewers favourite track on the album, if only because everything the band seem to be striving for comes together spectacularly on this track. Mikael Akerfeldt sings like a bird here, whilst the assembled musicians come together in splendid style for some uplifting instrumental sections which really do honour the glorious dead of seventies prog rock. Honestly, it’s like Kansas, King Crimson and Jethro Tull are all in your lounge room at once – Famine is that good.
The Lines in My Hand takes Famine’s conceit even further into the realms of prog, propelled by some marvellously fluid basswork from Martin Mendez which is excellently accompanied by Per Wilberg’s Mellotron washes. It’s a driving, relentless rocker in the final washup, and probably the most complete piece of work on the album. Penultimate track Folklore is pure, unadulterated Jethro Tull, with Akerfeldt even managing to sound like chief Tull protagonist Ian Anderson come vocal time, his earnest reading of the song accompanied by some punishing chord work that’ll have you deciding to go and investigate Tull’s Aqualung after you’ve finished with Heritage. That’ll be a while though, for, once closing instrumental Marrow of the Earth has drifted off into the ether you’ll be wanting to go back to the start and listen to the whole thing again, And then again.
Of course this, for all its lack of sturm und drang Heritage isn’t that different an Opeth album. The band has never been scared to throw in a clean vocal or a piano if it feels the song requires it, even from its inception, and Heritage is merely an extension of that enlightened attitude. Perhaps the best thing about Opeth, and in particular the band’s leading light Mikael Akerfeldt, is that the phrase ‘never say never’ applies at all times. Heritage proves that the band is able to succeed in whatever musical milieu it desires, and so opens up whole new vistas for the band to explore. But it doesn’t mean there will be no more heavy metal, or indeed any other style of music, which is why this band is among the most exciting of its generation. And that generation, with this release, has really come of age, in all senses of the phrase.