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Confusion Reigns by Paul Ericson
on 22 March 2012
First, a little background ... I'm old, a lot older than the average Opeth fan, I'll guess. I was around as a youngster for the first wave of 70s progressive, and instantly recognised the assymetrical rhythms, the contrast between savagely heavy and pastoral calm which Mr Akerfeldt had so beautifully assimilated from the likes of Crimson and Zeppelin, blending seamlessly in Blackwater Park, which is where I discovered Opeth. I bought Deliverance and Damnation the instant they were released, and saw the magical live performances. I backtracked to the four earlier CDs from the 90s and heard how the sound and Akerfeldt's vision developed, until it all came together with Blackwater Park and really broke the band as a major force. I bought Ghost Reveries and Watershed, saw the band again live, and was suitably impressed, and got the lives and the DVDs. Like probably a lot of other people, I wondered where Akerfeldt could go next; he hadn't put a foot wrong in four albums, and the preceding 90s four really only lacked the polished production of Blackwater, and a little refinement.
The problem with the word `Prog' is that it means different things to different people; to me it means development and improvement, thematic cohesion, the ability to surpass what went before. 70s bands didn't have to worry too much about that, because they were making the rules at the time, and experiments which weren't entirely successful were excusable. Now we're all a bit wiser and our expectations require the finished article. Perhaps to Mr Akerfeldt and others it simply means `different'. Heritage certainly is `different'; whether it's superior is a matter of individual argument ...
`Heritage' the opening keyboard track, cute as it is, doesn't really do anything that wasn't done 30 years ago, and does't really do it any better. It tends to remind one of Debussy, slightly uncertain sounding, a little jazz tinged, almost an etude or a musical doodle. It's no match for the exquisite opening male/female/acoustic duet on Watershed; a piece of songwriting equalling any of Zeppelin's pastoral acoustic moments. As an opener, Heritage just doesn't open: it locks itself away in its own little world so that the next track has to do the job all over again.
I won't go into exhaustive detail, but generally, my perceptions for the rest of the album are these:
The individual tracks are a lot `busier' in the rhythm department, almost in some instances creating drum'n'bass-type fills; the riffs are complex to the point of a kind of exhibitionism, and don't help the overall flow (if any) of the concept (if any); I lke the bubbling keyboard-organ sounds, which combined with the busier arrangements are reminscent of Soft Machine, but again, there is a kind of stop-go feel about things, almost a `what shall we do next?' mood overshadowing it all, and on one or two tracks, the feeling that they could easily have been developed further, with less fuss. There isn't a natural ebb-and-flow. The result often feels like condensed overkill: after all, as Opeth releases go, it's a very short CD.
There's a vast array of musical talent, effort and quality production evident hear, but regretfully, I can't find a direction. Whether Steve Wilson's influence has overreached itself, or there was pressure to release Heritage without a final overhaul, or Pete Lindgren's departure took away more than just a fretboard and ten fingers, my final impression is regretfully that this lacks the grand sweep and vista of its predecessors, but hasn't produced a credible replacement. I doubt very much that Mr Akerfeldt will produce another album like this.