Sound — 9
The sound of the guitars is lushly decorated with reverb, an effect seldom used to great effect on Death Metal albums. The reason it works is that this is not a Death Metal album, but being that I am not the stuck-up metal purist I was when I shunned all Grunge as "crap" simply because it was popular, I am open-minded enough to enjoy it anyway. And enjoy I did. As an audiophile, this album had plenty to offer; lush guitars as previously mentioned, deep, fathomless bass that revealed the inadequacies of my speakers (perhaps some caulk is in order..), and of course the keyboards of Per Wiberg. While Per's playing is fantastic, I can't help but wag my sound-loving finger at the use of synth. Now synth has its place, but I find its strength is in creating new sounds, not possible before Moog and other innovators of the 20th Century birthed a new technology with seemingly endless potential. But I used to design and install church organs - digital ones to be exact - and I can tell the difference. It pained me to see a good pipe organ go. The main element lost in their replacement with cheaper digis is the extensive dynamic range. This is most apparent as the last chords of Hex Omega fade to silence in tell-tale digital steps that can be heard a mile away. They do not descend with a smooth, organic decay, but rather diminish in discreet steps that have no place except maybe a rock-'em for Jesus guitar-based church somewhere in Alabama. It's not like there is a shortage of actual Catholic churches in Sweden or the UK. Lately they are hurting for money. Rent one and record the real McCoy. Of course you run the risk of a "troo" black metal band arriving in corpse paint and burning it down, but still... Despite the mediocre organ samples, Per's keyboards are a surprisingly cohesive addition to the band. I'll admit to being a bit nervous about him: No offense to keyboardists, but their addition to brutal Death Metal bands usually yields a tremendously over-indulgent, inevitably softening effect. In this case, Per expands on the already brutally brilliant sound of the band rather than neutering it, leaving us with an impotent version of the familiar beast. It has happened before, but I will not name names.
Lyrics — 8
I have to admit I have no earthly idea what Mikael is singing about. Honestly I don't care. Yes, that makes me a rogue pox amongst the faithful Opeth congregation, but again I don't care. I hear that it's a puzzle. I will simply delight in the poetry of the lyrics and in Mikael's brilliant execution. One thing I will add is that the death metal growls are phenomenal this time around. We know the man can sing, but over the years his death vox have grown increasingly brutal. I guess practice makes perfect. The are deep, brutal screams not suitable for the weak of heart. There are also too few of them on this "observation" (aka Opeth album.) That said, Heir Apparent is a metal horns in the air, headbanging whirlwind of masterful brutality that simultaneously pulverizes your face and gently caresses your head as you lie bleeding: in other words, classic Opeth. Coil, Lotus Eater and Heir Apparent all sport very cohesive lyrics and music, but as the album progresses both begin to lose their touch. It's not the quality of material that suffers as the album proceeds into tracks 4-7, it is simply that there appear to have been truckloads of great ideas that were put in a room and forced to play nice by threat of corporal punishment, or Pro Tools.
Overall Impression — 7
Everything here is very, very good. Excellent to brilliant in the case of Heir Apparent. The problem is not the quality but the lack of consistency. At times I wanted to reach into the studio, grab Mikael by the neck and say, "ENOUGH!" By that I mean that often times the band resorts to messing around rather than developing material. While I approve of the twin "Axes" and what they add to the band, certain features just seem last-minute ideas thrown in out of boredom or wanting to quit and head to the pub for a few rounds. Case in point, the detuning of the guitar at the close of Burden. At first this messed with me, and I thought, "wow, that's different!" Then I realized it was merely another weird thing to do. Ghost Reveries suffered from this as well. Whole tracks in that case seemed to be born of home-studio monkeying rather than true inspiration. They are initially interesting, but over time I just skip them because I get the idea. I'd say I could do without the latter half of this record. That said there is a wealth of material in this latter half that is quite delicious. It just doesn't hold together the way an Opeth observation should. This album is a good listen, and it will mess with your head the first few times you listen to it. Over time, though, I predict that you, like me, will probably switch over to a stronger, older effort such as Blackwater Park or My Arms Your Hearse once the glory of Heir Apparent has concluded. This will likely be a very delicious occasional listen, though, particularly on a long drive when I have nothing else to think about. Admittedly, I enjoy Watershed more when I can sit down and listen without interruption. Such devoted quietude is hard to come by these days.