Saturday, November 5, 2011

Opeth's Aberrations: "Heritage" and "Damnation"

Opeth was, at their inception in the mid-90s, an extreme metal band, complete with intense drumming, terrifying "cookie monster" vocals, and a tounge-in-cheek undertone of evil. When I found out about them in 2003 at the suggestion of a student, however, they had just released Damnation, an album that was a conscious effort to extract, examine, and refine the emerging atmospheric and melodic aspects of their work. Damnation is a bit of an aberration in their catalog, but Skipper (the aforementioned student) suggested that I check it out, perhaps to avoid scaring me off with the growls, or maybe to prove a point about Opeth's musicality. Either way, the suggestion was solid. I would say without hesitation that the moody, ethereal Damnation is now counted among my personal classics. Even if you don't do metal, there's a strong possibility that you'll be down with it.

On their following two albums the band folded their increasing mastery of the atmospheric into more identifiable metal forms. I’ll save talking about these in depth for another day, but for now let’s just say that partially due to lead singer Mikael Ackerfeldt’s obvious affinity for progressive rock, the diversity and impact of these magnificent albums is nothing short of unbelievable.

Heritage, Opeth’s most recent release, extracts and examines the band’s roots in progressive rock, particularly focusing on classic 70s styles. The album opens with an instrumental that is not only unsettling in its beauty, but also in the anticipation it builds.

Usually, moments like this in Opeth's recent work predict an oncoming explosion of roaring vocals and towering walls of guitar, but on Heritage, this inevitable punch in the gut never comes. Instead, its arresting lyricism announces that Hertiage is a different kind of Opeth album, indeed.

More so than on their other albums, Heritage shows Opeth wearing their influences on their sleeves a little more overtly. It’s a pastiched combination of Camel, Uriah Heep, Jethro Tull (complete with hyperactive flute solo) and a number of other 70s progressive icons from the dark side, stitched together by chugging acoustic guitar riffs. I am no stranger to the surprising ways in which Opeth examines and reinvents themselves, but I wonder how innovative it is to do something that has already been done – just not by you.

The more conservative naysayers in the prog community often refuse to accept any music as progressive without a certain amount to mellotron and odd time signatures, implying that a band really isn’t progressive unless it sounds like the music of the 70s. I find this stance to be problematic and paradoxical. I think that the more that prog quotes the past, the more it defeats the countercultural adventurousness that was the original intention of the style. In my conception, Opeth is at their most progressive when they directly challenge the expectations of the death metal genre. On Heritage, this challenge is more to the band’s identity than to death metal at large. Still, its a very good and deep listen, even though it largely sheds the superficial characteristics that once defined them..

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