"Passages of beautiful, haunting music, mellow vocals, and lyrics that conjure images of darkness, loss and betrayal": Heritage by Opeth - Album Of The Week Club review

In which Mikael Åkerfeldt ditches his death metal growl and falls under the spell of his collection of rare progressive rock records

Opeth: Heritage album art
(Image: © Roadrunner)

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Opeth: Heritage

Opeth: Heritage album art

(Image credit: Roadrunner)

The Devil's Orchard
I Feel the Dark
The Lines in My Hand
Marrow of the Earth
Face In The Snow

There’s little about Heritage that places it in the realms of heavy metal. Listening to the ethereal, Gentle Giant-coloured Famine or the Jethro Tull-like Folklore, you’d be hard pressed to even connect the Opeth of 2011 with Opeth the Swedish death metal band of even a decade earlier. 

With no death metal vocals, but with distinctly non-metal guitar tones and a very noticeable penchant for wonky jazz, Opeth's 10th studio album Heritage was an album designed to ruffle feathers. 

In truth, songs like perennial live favourite The Devil’s Orchard and the Dio-saluting Slither were very much in keeping with Opeth’s freewheeling ethos, it’s just that extreme metal was no longer an essential part of the band’s sonic make-up. 

An album full of startling moments, not least guitarist Mikael Åkerfeldt’s extraordinary guitar solo at the end of Folklore, Heritage was a fearless leap forward and a hugely important milestone for Stockholm’s finest. This album is progressive rock in all the many usages of the term.

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Other albums released in September 2011

  • Anthrax - Worship Music
  • Dream Theater - A Dramatic Turn Of Events
  • Alice Cooper - Welcome 2 My Nightmare
  • Bush - The Sea Of Memories
  • The Devil Wears Prada - Dead Throne
  • Nick Lowe - The Old Magic
  • Staind - Staind
  • We Came as Romans - Understanding What We've Grown To Be
  • The Waterboys - An Appointment With Mr Yeats
  • Of Monsters and Men - My Head Is An Animal
  • Dead by April - Incomparable
  • Sebastian Bach - Kicking & Screaming
  • Steve Hackett - Beyond The Shrouded Horizon
  • Steven Wilson - Grace For Drowning
  • blink-182 - Neighborhoods
  • Chickenfoot - Chickenfoot III
  • Machine Head - Unto The Locust
  • Mastodon - The Hunter
  • Wilco - The Whole Love


What they said...

"Heritage is easily Opeth's most musically adventurous – and indulgent – recording. Written primarily by vocalist/guitarist Mikael Åkerfeldt, these ten songs are drenched in instrumental interludes, knotty key and chord changes, shifting time signatures, clean vocals, and a keyboard-heavy instrumentation that includes Mellotrons, Rhodes pianos, and Hammond organs." (AllMusic)

"Like most Opeth albums, Heritage moves. Acoustic passages weave throughout songs like the psychedelic I Feel the Dark and the raging barnburner Slither. And, more than ever, Åkerfeldt gets downright croony and jazzy. Nepenthe takes a page from Talk Talk, with nearly Laughing Stock-quiet desperation before a Yes-like groove explodes halfway through." (NPR)

"A brave, melancholic and often beautiful heavy rock record that revels in the warm, analogue tones and shimmering mellotrons of the pre-punk 70s while still exuding a sense of wonder at new ideas. Band leader Mikael Åkerfeldt has confessed to a peevish rejection of the modern metal scene, but there is still plenty of rugged oomph amid the labyrinthine riffing of The Devil's Orchard and the Rainbow-like clatter of Slither." (The Guardian)


What you said...

Alex Hayes: Up here in my little corner of the northwest of England, it's one of those damp, foggy, early Autumn mornings. The thinning trees are shrouded in mist, and the surrounding hillsides are hidden under blankets of low lying cloud. I'm off work, and the conditions are just right for reacquainting myself with Opeth's watershed Heritage album, the point in the band's career where Mikael Åkerfeldt finally fell completely under the influence of his enormous vinyl collection of obscure 70s progressive rock.

The years 1992 and '93 were all about the extreme metal scene for me. Most weekends of that period would find me travelling into Manchester, and picking up numerous death metal albums for dirt cheap from the much missed Power Cuts Records. I can't claim to have been a fan of every single band of that period (Cannibal Corpse bypassed me completely, for example), but, by mid '93, I'd managed to build up an impressive collection, including many of the standout albums of the genre (the likes of Human, Blessed Are The Sick, Testimony Of The Ancients, Cause Of Death, and so on),

I love my memories of those days now, but, by '94, the scene had largely run out of steam, and so had much of my interest in it. It was more a case of my attention moving on to other things though, as opposed to falling out with that particular style of music. Several years later, I was introduced to Opeth via the seminal Blackwater Park album, and it blew me away. The best analogy that I can think of to describe the impact that Blackwater Park had on me at the time is that, if previous death metal albums had represented different types of cars, then Blackwater Park was a top of the range Bugatti Veyron. I'd always appreciated the experimentation present within the genre, and Blackwater Park took that to a whole new level of refinement.

It was probably the involvement of Steven Wilson that first attracted me to Blackwater Park. I was already a Porcupine Tree fan, and Wilson's DNA is all over the record. Here was death metal taken to entirely new realms of sophistication through a dynamic light and shade production, progressive and folk rock influences, superb musicianship and unpredictable song structures. What an album. Deliverance and Damnation followed in 2003, and that was that, I was hooked. Opeth have since become one of my favourite bands of the new millennium, and have thrived during this era.

As further albums came and went (including 2005's Ghost Reveries, still my favourite album from the band), those progressive proclivities became even more pronounced, to the point where it became pretty obvious that this was where the band felt most comfortable and inspired. Akerfeldt's non-guttural, 'clean' vocals became ever more prominent, as did the more reserved instrumental passages, and the death metal elements began to feel more obligatory and 'tagged on' than anything else. Then, with 2011's Heritage album, Åkerfeldt finally took the creative gamble that he'd plainly been itching to take for a long time.

Heritage full on abandons any lingering traces of death metal, and, as previously mentioned, charts a fresh musical path, one hugely indebted to the progressive rock sounds of the 1970s. It has a rich, analogue-hued atmosphere, with plenty of acoustic passages and different organ sounds taking prominence. This was a very brave album to make at the time (there was a heated resistance to this change of gears from the more metal purist elements of Opeth's fan base), but was ultimately too good to ignore. There is a wonderful, natural timbre to the various instruments on display, and the arrangements are still impressively inventive. This is a seriously beautiful album, if a little meandering in places.

Akerfeldt's unique way with words certainly hasn't gone anywhere. I think there's a general ecological theme present here, but the lyrics are as opaque as ever. It's all about the different musical passages here. The song Nepenthe is my favourite, and is flat out gorgeous in texture (especially during it's closing guitar refrain), as is Folklore. The nearest that we get to a conventional track is the Dio-era Rainbow influenced Slither. Heritage is one of those albums where the musical journey you are carried along on is the most important thing, and it's sequels are just as strong (I love both 2014's Pale Communion and 2016's Sorceress).

The modern, non death metal oriented, Opeth are still an awesome band, and I love losing myself in these brilliant, eclectic latter-day releases. For all that though, there is still a little part of me that misses the brutality. Ghost Reveries is still the group's masterpiece for me, and I'm currently listening to the new Abbey Road mix of 1998's third opus My Arms, Your Hearse. It's still utterly brilliant, and has been given an obvious sonic boost. I'm lucky in that I am legitimately a big fan of both sides of the Opeth coin. I can see the earlier Opeth albums as being too much for some members of the Club.

No such worries for that with Heritage though. Imagine finding an old, long forgotten, progressive rock album hidden away up in an eccentric uncle's dusty loft, and being pleasantly surprised to discover, upon whacking it on a turntable for the first time in decades, that you love the music on offer. That's the vibe that the uninitiated will get from Heritage. It's also exactly what Mikael Åkerfeldt was looking to achieve with the sudden shift in musical focus. Superb stuff.

Keith Jenkin: Not one of my favourite albums from the band, not because of the change of sound, but I just don't think the songwriting and the tunes here come close enough to their very best work. Still a keeper, but for me the follow up Pale Communion is a much better Opeth record and a much better example of their recent style.

Gary Claydon: When it comes to the heavier end of the musical spectrum, Opeth are arguably the most important band of the 21st Century. Along with Mastodon, they redefined and reshaped prog metal and helped shift the perception of how heavy metal in general – often one of the more 'conservative' of genres – could progress and to what extent its boundaries could be pushed.

Watching the band's evolution through the late 90s and early 2000s was both fascinating and exhilarating, culminating in some truly benchmark prog-metal. Much of that has been down to the vision and the genius of Mikael Akerfeldt, of course, and it was this that led to the change to 'pure' prog that Opeth undertook for Heritage. As with any change in direction by an established band, this resulted in much wailing and gnashing of teeth among the fanbase but, to be honest, it was a change that you could see coming a mile off. Still, it proved to be somewhat divisive, as is often the case with these things.

I hesitate to call Heritage one of the weaker albums in Opeth's canon. Rather, I'd refer to it as one of their 'least good'. The problem here isn't the change in direction, per se, but the fact that it's a truly transitional album and, as such feels incomplete. The album cover is a reflection of the music it contains, having so many elements crammed in that it becomes difficult to work out what the main thrust of the heavy symbolism actually is.

Whatever your thoughts on the vocals, the removal of the gutteral 'death-metal growl' also meant the loss of a dynamic that had made much of their earlier work so special, that startling juxtaposition of sheer brutality against the melodic, at times almost delicate passages that makes for such a thrilling sonic cocktail. In its place was a throwback to 70s prog, aided and abetted by Steven Wilson's determinedly analogue sounding production (no doubt achieved using state-of-the-art digital equipment) which gives it a pleasingly warm feel. The musicianship is, as you'd expect, superb, and Akerfeldt's lyrics are as engaging as ever.

Heritage contains plenty of excellent moments but they don't necessarily translate to a collection of excellent songs. Like the album cover, it seems as if too much was being crammed in, a concerted effort to map out a new direction that ultimately feels a little directionless, a little unfinished. Opeth would go on to put that right in their subsequent 'prog' albums, particularly Pale Communion. Which is exactly what you'd expect from a band that is continually shifting and evolving. Long may it continue.

Martin Smith: There was talk at the time especially by some of their fans that they had sold out. But in truth it was a big risk for them and it far from a commercial album. But the risk certainly paid off. The Devil's Orchard was the track that got me into them.

Greg Schwepe: So, turns out I’m kind of a liar after all about the music I will listen to. My general comment to people is “Oh, I like all kinds of rock music, all across the spectrum.” But in truth, any band with a Nordic sounding name (with or without an umlaut), Cookie Monster vocals, and 300 BPM double kick drums I generally stay away from. When I saw this week’s album choice by Opeth, it gave me a little pause. Knowing a little about bands, genres, and the like, I had always seen Opeth lumped in lists of Death Metal bands. “Hmmm…maybe I’ll take a review break this week…”

But this, my Classic Rock Album of The Week Club friends, is why you listen to the album! Surprise, I really liked it! Maybe more Nordic sounding named bands are in my future.

Not having heard any Opeth before and reading the little blurb in the album announcement post, I got to wondering if this was “Regular Opeth”? Or “The Album Where Opeth Went Really Different” because I had no frame of reference.

And right away on the title track Heritage, we hear piano… and more piano. Whoa…not expecting that. And up next is The Devil’s Orchard and I hear Opeth getting their prog on! Smack me with a 2 x 4, not expecting this and…well, I had eight more tracks to explore yet.

Slither finds Opeth finally cutting loose a little. The album kept pulling me in. See? You thought you wouldn’t like this, and you’re still listening.

To be honest, the rest of the album sounded kind of similar with the keyboards, bass, and drums. And I was alright with that. It all kind of morphed together in a gradual mood change from track to track. And as I’ve mentioned on other reviews, nothing here that made me want to skip over a song or end it all together.

I was surprised how much I liked this, each track kept my attention until the end. Biggest “a ha!” moment were the vocals. Expecting Cookie Monster vocals, I got smooth and somewhat calming vocals. Am I going to go 'Favourite' all of Opeth’s catalogue on Spotify? Probably not. But I will venture more into their catalogue. 8 out of 10 on this one for me.

Evan Sanders: Opeth is another band I had not heard of, so I was happy to be introduced to them. I admit that death metal is not my thing, so it was good that this album was a departure. The melodies and production style reminded me a little of early Black Sabbath, with a sense of foreboding throughout all the songs. Opeth will still not likely be on my regular playlists, but glad for the chance to listen this week.

Anthony Coad: It's not one of their better albums but still pretty damn good. Still Life, Blackwater Park and Watershed are top of my list.

John Davidson: I used to listen to the odd Opeth track (are there any other kinds?) but was always put off their albums by the death metal growl vocals that they periodically deployed.

Following an increasing use of clean vocals and the introduction of more progressive and folky instrumentation on previous albums, Heritage sees the band embrace these concepts fully and abandon their death metal roots completely.

I suspect a lot of people won’t like this and I can understand why. There are few riffs and there aren’t really any recognisable songs on the album. There’s nothing to sing a long to and only rare moments where you can tap your feet far less dance. In that regard it goes further out than the heyday of the Yes or Genesis- style prog that inspired it though there are hints at Rainbow in places too. Instead we get passages of beautiful, haunting music, mellow vocals, and lyrics that conjure images of darkness, loss and betrayal.

It’s not an album you can just dip into or select a few songs to add to your playlist, but if you are prepared to invest the time and just immerse yourself in it it’s immensely rewarding.

Heritage, and it’s three successors : Pale Communion, Sorceress and In Caude Venenum offer a rare treat for fans of intricate, melancholy music.

I’d rate Pale Communion and In Caude ahead of Heritage as the better examples of this phase of Opeth but Heritage deserves attention if only for the bravery of Mikael Åkerfeldt (and his band) who never stand still and always seem wiling to follow their creativity into unexpected directions

Brian Carr: I’ve been largely out of step with the Club in recent months, with my time and attention heading in other directions most weeks. On this Sunday afternoon, it was almost on a whim that I opened Facebook, saw the thumbnail and decided to give Opeth a listen.

I guess I need to stop my slacking because Heritage is a pretty excellent album. The piano solo opener and multiple nylon string guitar excursions gave me fond memories of my college-level musical studies now more than 20 years past. The electric guitar work also impresses, though it does make me wish there was more of it. The vocals to my ear are reminiscent of dug Pinnick from King’s X.

The longer tracks did meander slightly, but there was enough here that I liked to add Heritage to my iTunes library for further listening.

Jim Black: Not their best album, but I do applaud them for stepping outside their comfort zone.

Mark Herrington: The 2000s onwards have been one of the richest eras for Progressive Metal. Bands like Opeth, Tool, Mastodon, Gojira, Baroness, Dream Theater and many others have been producing some epic albums. I’ve never been a fan of solely death growl vocals in any artist, but don’t mind the odd interlude where they are used as an emphasis point.

So, this shift by Opeth was an interesting move, although they had done it before with their 2003 wonderful album Damnation.

I like this album, but don’t love it as it doesn’t quite nail it for me. It’s a good echo of the classic rock giants of old, but the songs are not memorable enough and drift a bit. Their subsequent releases are far better, as they get to grips with this style of playing, such as In Cauda Venenum.

My favourite song on here is Slither, their tribute to Dio, who died the year before Heritage was released. Overall, not bad, but they have done far better.

Paul Cropper: Some of the tracks sound like Mark II Deep Purple which has to be a good thing.

Chris Elliott: I really don't know what I think. It's not what I expected on the whole - the tortured guitar bits are everything I feared but they're not the dominating factor. Not certain I've really found the time/space to listen properly. It's definitely interesting.

Tim Leese: Took me a while to get into this album but it's now in my top five Opeth albums. Steven Wilson's 5.1 surround mix of the album is excellent.

Markus Schley: One of those bands who really are developing and full of surprises.

Chris Downie: It is no secret 70s prog-rock is an ever-present key influence on the avant garde side of the extreme metal spectrum, from the complex structures of early trendsetters Death, Atheist, Pestilence and Cynic, or the majestic, sweeping soundscapes of Emperor. With this in mind, Sweden's Opeth were destined to take the mantle with their 1994 debut Orchid, where they displayed a forward-thinking and intelligent approach that, despite being rough around the edges, had potential far beyond the extreme metal underground.

To most discerning listeners, their 1999 masterpiece Still Life saw them realise this enormous potential and its equally brilliant successor Blackwater Park in 2001 (with Porcupine Tree mainman Steven Wilson at the helm) saw them hit the metal mainstream, deservedly so. The marriage of (often obscure) classic prog-rock influences of bands like Camel with the classic death metal of Floridian legends Morbid Angel was the bringing together of two disparate but equally compelling worlds, to create an exciting, cutting edge sound which saw Opeth receive countless plaudits in the first decade of the millennium. Until 2011's Heritage landed.

In truth, this was not the radical departure some have painted it as, for their experimental Deliverance/Damnation double set saw them effectively separate the two main components of their sound into prog-death and mellow prog sets respectively. What was perhaps more of a contributory factor to the backlash was the band seemingly distancing themselves from their heavier roots and indicating this was in fact a new direction, shorn of the extreme metal roots that formed such a crucial element.

While many lament the shedding of their death metal components here and thereafter, there is no denying the quality of songwriting on show, particularly the Ronnie Dio tribute Slither and late album highlight Folklore. With their subsequent repositioning in the modern prog-rock scene alongside Porcupine Tree and Pineapple Thief, history shows it is a pivotal moment in their evolution, for better or worse. 7.5/10.


Final score: 7.31 (54 votes cast, total score 395)

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