Sunday, 25 September 2011

Opeth - Heritage

Opeth are a band I once wanted to like, and indeed I have tried to in the past, but one thing kept putting me off - barbed-wire gargling, growling, cookie monster vocals, call it what you will. In my mind although this expression of aggression can and indeed does have its place, especially within the context of what I believe is risibly termed "death metal", when an album's entire vocals consist of unintelligible grunting, it comes across to me as pure laziness. Do these death metal bands have lyrics in their songs? If so why go to all the effort involved in the creative process only to have the "singer", and I use the term loosely, destroy any veneer of comprehension by growling and grunting all over it? I can see how judiciously used growling would have a good effect, but like I said earlier, doing it all the time and as a default setting puts me off completely.

Right, now I've got that off my chest, let us turn to the band in question, whose music is undoubtedly intriguing but past albums have not got past the first "Grrrrrghwaaargh" on my hi-fi for reasons already stated. Yes, I know they've put out a couple of albums with minimal grunting, but by then I'd lost interest.

I described myself to a reviewer colleague as an Opeth virgin, so putting Heritage in the CD player was an act accompanied by no little trepidation. I need not have worried for Mikael Akerfeld and his buddies have come up with an album of homage, as the title may suggest. The homage in question is to all kinds of 70s prog influences, and it soon becomes apparent that there will no growling here, no siree. This surprised me to say the least, so God only knows how fans of the band take it, for Opeth are one of those groups that inspire a rabid fanaticism. I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall while a death metal loving Opeth fan sat through the opening title track to be greeted by two minutes of what sounds like Chopin warming up, just a lone piano and nowt else! This is followed by The Devil's Orchard which starts as a fairly run-of-the-mill prog metal work out, before a jazzy middle section slows things down, ending with a short Steve Wilson sounding guitar solo, with Mikael singing in his plaintive but fairly unexpressive voice throughout. A decent start.

The scene is set as things slow down with some nice acoustic work on the third song I Feel The Dark which has a stop-start feel about it before becoming more doomy about halfway through. The drumming on this and on the the rest of the album is well up in the mix, and it must be a relief for the drummer to be released from the shackles of metal stylings to show his chops, which are right up there with the best. A heavy riff eventually enters, stops and is mirrored on an acoustic. It's almost as if the band are going "Whoah, stop now, we're getting back in the heavy groove". in fact there is a feeling sometimes that they are straining at an invisible leash, imposed on them to remain in a largely 70s style, but on a modernistic framework.

The leash is dropped briefly on Slither, where dues are paid to all kinds of 70s hard rock (not metal, hard rock). Akerfeld, if his voice was half an octave higher could have done a good Coverdale impression on this! The very brief guitar break too is very Blackmore, until again, there's a pulling of the leash and we're back into gentle acoustic territory. This is now becoming a theme, or possibly a symptom?

I'm sure I heard some keyboard Gentle Giantisms in Nepenthe, which is all angularity and has probably the best guitar work of the album. This song really grabs me, I must admit. We're back to more playing on the leash and within self-imposed boundaries on Häxprocess, not to say that it doesn't have some nice musical touches, including a laid back and effortless guitar break near the end that reminds me of Wishbone Ash circa 1973. King Crimson mug Jethro Tull on Famine, but the leash still holds them back just when you think the song might take off. The Lines In My Hand almost gets funky in places and reminds me of Uriah Heep towards the end. Folklore at 8:17 is the longest song here, the main theme featuring runs up and down the scales that has a lilting, lyrical quality, acid folk running through its core. The Hammond sound also frequently reappears in the heavier sections, and there's a lovely Steve Howe like acoustic break in the middle before the song hints at shifting gear, but of course it doesn't, the leash being pulled at again. Finally two minutes or so from the end a mellotron led guitar solo speeds things up. This must sound fab in the surround sound mix, no doubt overseen by the ubiquitous Steven Wilson.

We end with Marrow Of The Earth which concludes the album in much the same way as the title track opened it, but this time on melancholic guitar. Actually, it is quite lovely.

A strange album this one. Although I've now spun it half a dozen times, and it is slowly growing on me, it still leaves me with the feeling of a band slightly unsure of where they are going, and the unresolved tension of not rocking out is palpable in places. Still at least it's an Opeth album I've played more than once and I'll certainly play again. Of course, the other eagerly awaited 70s homage album, Steven Wilson's Grace For Drowning is out next week, and it will be interesting to see how it compares. It is surely no coincidence that SW and MA have both decided to ditch metal at the same time, as they are big buddies.

The guy from earlier who I was watching as a fly on the wall would probably have written this, which I found on Amazon "I really hate to say it but this album is terrible. Why have they released this under the name Opeth?". Actually, no it isn't and why shouldn't they? For once, a band that gets lumped in as "progressive" has actually lived up to the label with this album, a brave move that will no doubt alienate their more rabid fans, but hopefully win just as many new admirers. It's where they go from here that will be the clincher.

3 out of 5 musically, 5 out of 5 for bravery!

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