Story: Leonard Pierce

To call Opeth’s Heritage a departure from the band’s previous work would be a vast understatement.  While it obviously builds on previous tendencies developing within the group over the past decade, its sonic attack – removing death growls, while showcasing complex polyrhythms, unexpected guest instrumentalists, and brain-shifting chord progressions – now includes elements of art rock, prog, space rock, and even jazz fusion, giving it a feel entirely different from anything that’s come before.

Listening to Heritage is way too enjoyable to be homework, and longtime fans and newcomers alike should feel free to dive right into its ’70s-flavored stew.  But in case you want a crib sheet for some of the strange sounds that will be clanging around inside your skull, we’ve prepared a list of some albums we think are key to fully appreciating the latest opus from Mikael Åkerfeldt and company.

Van Der Graaf Generator, Pawn Hearts (1971)
Right off the bat, Heritage’s title track makes it clear that this is anything but a typical metal album. “Heritage” starts out like it’s going to turn into, of all things, a jazz piano ballad, upright bass and all – but it never quite gets there, taking odd turns before fading into the prog-metal stun-gun that is “The Devil’s Orchard.” In this way, it resembles Pawn Hearts by quirky British outfit Van Der Graaf Generator: clever, darting pianos illuminating songs that never quite go where you’re expecting them to.

King Crimson, Larks’ Tongues in Aspic (1973)
If guitarist Robert Fripp and drummer Bill Bruford had a nastier side to them, they might well have included “The Devil’s Orchard” on this legendary prog-rock album. Opeth has been dipping into their prog side for years now, but Heritage’s Crimson-soaked second track, with its busy drum patterns underscoring unpredictable chord changes and fluid instrumental passages, jumps into the deep end and never comes out until the final screaming guitar lick. This is metal at its proggiest, and prog rock at its most metallic.

Black Sabbath, Black Sabbath (1970)
Sure – what band hasn’t been influenced by Sabbath? But here, the comparisons are particularly stark: the doomstruck feel of tracks like “I Feel the Dark” (not to mention the title) make use of space and a quiet/heavy dynamic that transcends the Sabbath inheritance that any group can claim. Its structure follows the early Sabbath model, with an almost bluesy construction and a tinge of psychedelics, and the ruffling snare and sharp edges of Martin Axenrot’s drums suggest a lifetime of listening to Bill Ward.

Deep Purple, Deep Purple (1969)
You can see the Deep Purple influences all over Heritage; Opeth has never tried to hide their love of the band, even cribbing one of their album covers for last year’s live release. But even if you’d never heard Opeth before, “Slither” would serve as proof of how much they worship at the throne of the hard rock pioneers. It’s pure, propulsive guitar-driven metal with a gnarly psychedelic underbelly, and wouldn’t be at all out of place next to “Chasing Shadows” or “Bird Has Flown.”

Mahavishnu Orchestra, The Inner Mounting Flame (1971)
Stellar guitarist John McLaughlin honed his chops by playing with jazz god Miles Davis before forming this band, which showcased the dynamic chops and breakneck improvisations jazz fusion was capable of before New Agers and smoothies gave it a bad name. McLaughlin’s specialty was blistering tonal shifts, moving from delicate jazz-style fingerpicking to fiery Hendrix-inspired solos; Åkerfeldt has clearly learned a thing or two from him, as can be heard on “Nepenthe,” with its unexpected chord progressions and loose, jazzy guitar explorations.

Alice Cooper, Billion Dollar Babies (1973)
Åkerfeldt has mentioned this album as one he spent a lot of time with while writing the songs on Heritage, and its influence creeps out here and there. There’s not much sonic similarity between “Häxprocess” and the glammed-up screechiness of Billion Dollar Babies, but what they have in common is a creepy, feminine darkness (evident in the sound and “Häxprocess”’s witch-burning lyrical imagery) and its grave theatricality. Opeth doesn’t employ the big-screen showmanship Alice Cooper did, but the song is no less dramatic.

Camel, Mirage (1974)
A minor player in the ’70s prog scene that flourished in the city of Canterbury, Camel’s early work was anchored by the supple flute playing of bandleader Andy Latimer. “Famine” begins with an extended riff on that much-maligned instrument (courtesy of Björn J:son Lindh), before shifting into a flirtation with piano balladry and then intricate percussive rhythms and guitar-keyboard interplay that also recalls Camel at its best. The hypnotic shifts and ‘eastern’ feel make a good case that the flute deserves a place in metal’s armory.

Hawkwind, In Search of Space (1971)
This was the album where Hawkwind’s expansive, cosmic space-rock groove really blossomed, and on “Lines in My Hand,” Opeth proves that they’re as capable of exploring outer space as they are inner space. It’s a titanic four-minute odyssey, funky and spacey at the same time. With its stuttering drumbeat, trippy Martin Mendez bassline, and keyboard stabs from Per Wiberg, this needs only an extra ten minutes of riffing to stand alongside In Search of Space’s epic sci-fi jams. Maybe in the live version.

Jethro Tull, Thick as a Brick (1972)
The flute makes another appearance on “Folklore,” but this time, it’s accompanied by the loping, chunky riffs of Jethro Tull. Once the drums kick in about a minute into the song, it begins to develop an undeniable “Aqualung” quality – one that’s enhanced by the compressed vocals at the start – but the lengthy, epic aspirations of “Folklore” place it more in the tradition of Tull’s ambitiously sprawling Thick as a Brick. The mid-song breakdown perfectly fuses the whole album’s hard-rock and art-rock sides.

Pink Floyd, Atom Heart Mother (1970)
This Floyd release, spotlighting guitarist David Gilmour at his most experimental, has always been a controversial and undervalued album. Mikael Åkerfeldt takes similar risks on Heritage, like on the album’s closing track, “Marrow of the Earth,” where subtle two-guitar interplay ends things on a thoughtful note that recall Pink Floyd’s instrumentals: you’re lulled into a meditative state that serves to focus you on how deeply strange your surroundings have become. It’s a tricky thing to pull off, but Heritage is nothing if not daring.

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Opeth's Heritage is in stores today. Pick it up at your local Best Buy or download it from iTunes.