Sunday, October 9, 2011

Opeth's Heritage puts focus on thinking man's gothic folk

Whenever your favorite band opts for a major change of direction, the results usually aren't pretty..

I've seen it happen countless times; bands that I was adored morphed into something totally unrecognizable. They lose touch with what made them great, usually for reasons no more noble than a simple cash grab.

They always have their defenders: those who claim they're naturally evolving or changing, and that the old school fans need to get over it. But who are we kidding? It's not coincidence that this supposed "evolution" is always toward a vastly more commercial direction.

But every once in a blue moon, a band elects to make a considerable shift in sound or philosophy and it actually works. Such is the case with Opeth's latest record, Heritage. Leading up the release, apprehensions were culled over the revelation that Heritage would eschew death metal vocals, which had been a key element in the band's music heretofore.

But that's not that only major change taking place in this most recent observation of Opeth; most of the fundamental metal elements are gone as well. Rather, Heritage is much more of a gothic folk record. The unbridled elements of 70s prog and folk that Opeth has mixed in with its metal on previous records takes center stage here.

Metal purists will be disappointed, but anyone who was able to appreciate both halves of Opeth's dual pronged attack should be pleased with the results.

When I first heard the lead single, "The Devil's Orchard," I was unimpressed. My main misgivings were over how thin the guitars sounded, and after repeated listens I still hold this as a legitimate complaint. But I'm more interested in the way they have been able to make something fresh and new while still infusing it with their signature sound.

Other highlights include "I Feel the Dark," which opens with a slinky acoustic riff and sticks to folk territory for the most part. But there is a great heavy section that will leave you in awe. In ancient folklore, "Nepenthe" was mythical drink that had the power to cause you to forget your hardships. Hearing the ethereal guitar work that opens said track might have a similar effect on the listener, but if it doesn't then Martin Mendez's jazzy bass groove should do the trick.

Then you have "Slither," a rollicking rocker dedicated to the memory of Ronnie James Dio, which Akerdeldt says is custom designed to sound like a Rainbow song. It sounds nothing like Opeth has ever done, but the sound suits them so well I wouldn't blame them if they penned a few more tracks like this in the future.

"Famine" has a breakdown with sludgy guitar and a demented flute solo which sounds like a deranged combination between Black Sabbath and Jethro Tull. "The Lines in My Hand" is a short 3 1/2 minute burst of groovy bass, and energetic guitar leads packaged in between a pair of longer epics. "Haxprocess" strikes an ominous mood, while closer "Marrow of the Earth" is essentially an extended suite of a track like "For Absent Friends" or "Patterns in the Ivy."

The first half of the album is easily more accessible, with tracks like "The Devil's Orchard," "I Feel the Dark," and "Slither," which are instantly recognizable classics. The second half is slightly more difficult, but reward repeated listens.  Heritage may not be up there with gold standards like Blackwater Park or Deliverance, but it is still a solid entry into Opeth's catalog, and provides a vibe that only they can pull off.

Score: 87/100

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