To begin with, if you're not a regular reader I should mention that I love Opeth. I would consistently rank them among my top 5 favorite metal bands, and they are one of the few groups I routinely buy new releases from without feeling the need for a preview.
Well, today I bought Heritage, which I somehow didn't realize until last night had already been released earlier this month. Everybody seems to be up in arms over the album, and I've already heard that oh-so-favored term "sell out" getting thrown around a great deal. I've also heard a number of claims that Opeth have abandoned metal entirely and morphed into a purely prog-rock band in the vein of Camel. The album's cover art, I should note, does little to dispell this latter notion, and so it was that I headed into the local record shop to see what had become of the great Swedes.
The first thing that struck me about the music itself was how much it sounded like . . . well . . . Opeth. This is definitely one of their softest releases, and it certainly does explore more of the prog-rock and jazz elements of their broad spectrum. Still, it didn't sound like some random prog band, it sounded like Opeth. The choices of chord progressions, the vocals, and the amorphous song structures all carry on in the band's typical style. Indeed, I found myself reflecting on Watershed, which this feels like a logical progression from, and I maintain that The Devil's Orchard (Heritage) and Burden (Watershed) sound like they could easily be from the same album.
As the album progressed, I began to see more clearly what people had meant about the prog and jazz elements. There are certainly jazzier, more experimental tracks here, with the extremely soft Nepenthe serving as a fairly good example of that side of things. There are moments here and there in the mid-late parts of the album where they seem to be channeling Jethro Tull, most notably in the peculiar flute sections of Famine. The album closes on an instrumental track, which actually feels rather fitting in my opinion.
I should note that the song lengths are generally somewhat shorter on this album than is usual for them, with only 2 tracks cracking the 7 minute mark (both are around 8 1/2 minutes long). The total of 10 tracks are, if I'm not mistaken, the most any Opeth album has featured. And yes, the death vocals are gone this time around. It's not the first time that has happened with Opeth, though, so I find it rather laughable that so many people are taking the vocals as a sign that Opeth are no longer a metal band.
So in summation, this is indeed a rather strange Opeth album. It is, nonetheless, still distinctly recognizable as Opeth. As for what this bodes for the future, I find the band's willingness to experiment with their sound to be one of their strongest suits. They continue to try new things without ever taking any really distinct step toward becoming a radio band, and I wouldn't have it any other way. In a musical climate where fans are all too quick to assume that any release which isn't "normal" for a band is a sign of the end, I personally have no fear whatsoever about Opeth's musical direction.
While this is not likely to find a place alongside my favorite Opeth records like the masterful Still Life and Blackwater Park, it's still an enjoyable record which I expect to play plenty of times in the future. My initial reaction is to give it about a B+.