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Opeth’s ‘Heritage’

October 8, 2011

Surely metal is the most maligned of all subgenres of rock. Of course, headlines like ‘Australian heavy metal band member jailed for satanic goat sacrifice’ do not really help, and, as Sam Dunn’s documentary ‘Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey’ demonstrates, there is a section of the metal community openly devoted to behaviour that includes church burnings and murder. Treating such groups as representative of metal fans in general is like using Rebecca Black as a synecdoche for pop music.

As a huge fan of the genre of progressive metal, I often have to introduce myself as a fan of ‘70s prog rock and the bands they influenced’ deliberately omitting the word ‘metal’ for fear of being gently excluded from the rest of the conversation. In short, unless you’re talking to someone who is wearing a Megadeth or Dream Theater T shirt, you proceed with caution. In a conversation I had with guitar virtuoso Andy James, he mentioned how he jokingly said that he was going to go into jazz fusion when conducting a master-class because that is what is perceived as being a ‘proper’ genre for a serious guitarist. Luckily, he added ‘That’s not going to happen, though. I’m going to stick to metal.’

It is even worse for fans of death metal. The harsh vocals and orchestrations sometimes obscure the true artistic and aesthetic value of the music. It is far from immediate. That, combined with the morbid imagery usually associated with it, has kept it in a little niche about as far from the mainstream as possible.

But there were exceptions. Listening to Opeth adds immediate prog-credibility to a death metal fan’s canon, just as listening to the Beatles does for a pop music fan’s. Of all the contemporary death metal bands, Opeth are the most popular among fans of other genres. Opeth made it acceptable to be a death metal fan. And not just because of their music. Frontman Mikael Akerfeldt’s reputation as a connoisseur of both esoteric prog albums from the seventies as well as the previously sneered-at death metal albums of the eighties bridged the gap that many found impossible to cross.

And that is why I have a problem with the title of the new Opeth album. It is their tenth album and it is called Heritage. It is a loaded term, particularly in the context of Opeth’s music. The album is heavily and almost exclusively influenced by 70s era prog bands like King Crimson and Jethro Tull, who were famous for combining jazz and folk influences. It is not a death metal album. It is not even a metal album. It is a brilliant album, but that is hardly the point.

This is not their first album not to feature death metal vocals. It probably will not be their last. Most Opeth fans will be able to deal with it; Mikael Akerfeldt writes great music. It is not the apparently temporary abandonment of their death metal roots that is upsetting. It is the symbolic abandonment of their death metal heritage that is. Even if one speculates that Akerfeldt’s interest in death metal is beginning to wane (and there have been a few hints), there is no denying that he was, once, the champion of the genre. His collaboration with Steven Wilson showed the world that death metal musicians could be erudite and intelligent while still being vulgar, funny and visceral.

Calling the album ‘Heritage’ and then leaving out any traces of death metal is selling short an already short changed genre.


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