Clawing your Heritage

Oh come on.  What did you think it was going to be about?

But I’m not really going to review it.

Opeth have, like many bands before them, reached that point in their career where they’ve decided they’ve had enough their old sound and want to trade it in for a new one–or rooting around Goodwill, in Opeth’s case.  This seems to be an almost ritual trial of fire for long standing bands, and rightfully so, for any band attempting to make actually distinct albums instead of releasing B side (and C side) compilations disguised as albums for a few decades before feigning a break up and living off royalties.

No, this process itself makes perfect sense; whether or not it goes well, or what the intention of the band, or even media reception isn’t what is interesting–it’s the fans polarity that is interesting.

Heritage is Opeth’s ‘dividing line,’ if you will.  That was apparent long before the album had any singles out, and certainly before it’s release.  Mikael flaunting about and eschewing of Death Metal (or metal in general) tropes, 70s Prog Rock worship and that fucking cover pretty much told everyone, fan or not, that things weren’t going to be very much like the rest of their catalog.  I applaud this; whether or not I enjoy the album (or would rather use it to scare small rodents nesting in in my walls away) I always am glad to see creativity and chances taken within music, and Heritage is no different.  I’m all for it.

But not everyone is.

On the internet it’s much more difficult to discern what exactly constitutes a single opinion and what is essentially the same guy changing wigs for each review.  Obviously, much of the reviews that add up to little more than “OPETH NO 1 PROGROCK MASTERPEECE” and “OPETH ALBUM GAY SUCKS” aren’t anything more than spam to bump up (or down) the rating of the album–ProgArchives is a prime example.   However, once we get down to the actual meat of the reviewer base, things start to coalesce more nicely.  And, to be honest, only one side has an interesting reaction:

The most common, and by common I mean eyebrow-raising common, thing I see in reviews for the album (seriously, look over ProgArchives album listing for Heritage) is people qualifying, often in the first paragraph or sentence that the people rating it low or mediocre either ‘don’t get it’ or ‘wanted the metal album.’  Fair, I suppose; I’m sure there were  some people who did just that.   However, the more I read negative reviews, the less I see it.  I rarely see it.   In fact, I don’t think I’ve read more than a small handful of albums decrying the lack of metallic elements in the music as a reason for the album being boring or bad.  The reasons vary, but the most glaring change in sound hardly ruffled any feathers.

This was interesting.

Again, nothing really surprising.  After gathering a following fans on a specific sound (in Opeth’s case it was becoming more of a formula) you’re bound to lose a few fans after making  such a drastic sonic change.

But for however many people that dislike an album for the stylistic change, how many enjoy it for the same reason?  Is the latter any more valid than the former?   Opeth hasn’t changed that much.  They’ve taken out distortion levels, death growls and stopped having songs that played the same in reverse, but the music is fundamentally the same band.  A lot of people DID praise it for the change of sound, but this was supposed to be a good thing–in fact, it mimics much of what I said before.  But is my opinion, or their’s, more valid than someone lambasting the album for dropping their metal roots?

(Alright, I’ll start sprinkling the post with my own opinions on it now; leave now or forever hold your bitchy comments)

Many of the reviews applauded Opeth on their ‘maturation’ of sound.  I suppose a ‘mellowing’ of sound makes more sense, since the album is indeed softer, more subdued than their previous ilk, but I’d hardly call it a maturity of sound.  Ignoring that most are calling it a mature album simply by virtue of pretending they were born in the 1950 instead of the 1970s, it doesn’t really hold that much water.

Aesthetically, and on paper, it’s all there: Progressive Metal demi-gods decide to make a Prog Rock album using what they’ve learned in their 20 year career of Death Metal and their love of Progressive Rock, Jazz, Folk and whatever else is on there.  BAM, looks fantastic.    And it is, again, aesthetically and on paper; but for all the neat keyboards and faux-retro recording techniques and that 300 pound drum kit Axenrot dragged out on which to play, there’s just not a convincing song on it.  It sounds like a rough draft.  In just about every song I found some things I really, really enjoyed, and then it’s something else and where the fuck am I and what the fuck just happened?

Metal has never really been known to be a happy genre (to avoid going into diatribes about it), and often fails to make their incredibly dark, morbid and often grotesque lyrics and feel believable (or not hilarious) but if Opeth did one thing right, it was make all of that fit well into there music–if they did one thing right, it was an atmosphere.  No, I don’t mean guitar textures and Neurosis/Earth worship, I mean actual atmosphere, a sense of cohesiveness and unity that brings the lyrics, the song structure and the flair together into one convincing, sexy package.  And they managed to do it (for the most part) right up until they started throwing whatever the hell they wanted into their songs (AKA, Watershed), including all the stylistic changes: the somber, oppressive and languid feel of Still Life to the goofy keyboards and Prog worship of Ghost Reveries to even the long lost Camel album, all of it had a strong sense of songwriting and atmosphere.    I don’t feel it here.   It’s all over the place–and that’s not counting the wonky-as-fuck songwriting.  I just mean the album as a whole; they’ve lost the plot.

There are a lot of bells and whistles, but exactly what I feared would happen kind of did happen: instead of having whistle or two, they’ve made their entire album out of them.  Now, that’s really hyperbole.  I guess I liked Slither.  Ok, seriously, though, it’s not entirely a gimmick–not by a long shot.  It’s still worth listening to, and the instruments are played strongly and energetically, and there’s plenty of ideas to be enjoyed.  But it sounds almost TOO Prog.  And not in the sense that the album is insanely complex, pretentious and unlistenable–quite the opposite, since the album still sounds much like an Opeth album, just without the death metal elements.  What bothers me is that it plays out like a Prog Rock sampler, filled to the brim with all the tokens and cliches of the genre without any of the charm or sense of adventure that came with.  Opeth took a chance making an album that sounds like this, but not the same kind of chance the bands they are worshiping did–it’s not anything new.  For as many Hammond Organs, muffled Flute passages and acoustic interludes, outros and intros, it falls somewhere between the charm Opeth had with their previous work and the charm that the bulk of Progressive Rock had, and has.

The biggest irk of mine is that none of the songs sound like songs.  They range from underwhelming to ‘wow, really?’   I don’t know why they weren’t able to implement graceful, or even functional, transitions between themes or passages, something they managed to do before they decided to mimic who had mastered this quite a long time ago.   Many of the songs have jarring transitions–I Feel the Dark literally sounds like they had two completely different songs on the same track and before the producer could fix it Mikael lightly touched his hand and said “No, this is perfect.”  Speaking of production, I don’t know why they felt the need to half-ass the retro feel of the production–I’d have given them more credit for at least using retro equipment to record it, even if I’d have found it somewhat silly.  Instead they just muddy the production using incredibly modern equipment and hope no one notices.

And bringing this back to the opening thought: what makes an album as radically different polarize the fans based on the change rather than the album itself?  Much of the reviews, both positive and negative, seem to be general praise or criticism of Opeth rather than the album, which is fascinating.  And possibly explains why the polarizing is so rampant, both here and in decades past: they’re not as interested in defending the album so much as the band itself.  Or maybe I’m talking out of my ass.

I suppose you now want some sort of verdict, and I don’t really have one.  I enjoyed it.  I actually enjoyed it a fair amount; it’s not my favorite Opeth album; it’s not even my favorite “Modern Progressive Metal band pretends they’re in the 70s” album, since Road Salt One (and maybe Two) already whisked me away on it’s creepy piano waltzes with disturbing catchy lyrics.

Listen to it; if only to experience an album attempting to branch into things outside it’s comfort zone, for better or worse.

But seriously, Road Salt One is a lot better.

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