Like other bands I absolutely love, I find the task of reviewing the new Orphaned Land album a daunting proposition, because there’s so much of my own emotional response I have to consider and somehow weigh before writing something that makes a lick of sense. Its been this way with new music from Maiden, Blind Guardian, Insomnium, etc… and will likely be this way for the upcoming Therion album as well. Its been five years since the band’s last album, the masterful, career-defining All Is One; an album that captured my heart so fully that it dragged me back to my fanboy state that existed with this band well over a decade ago. To quickly recap my personal history with this band (I go into much greater detail in that All Is One review): I was introduced to them and hooked in with 2004’s Mabool, quickly bought up their back catalog, consequentially explored other Middle Eastern/Arabic music (metal and non-metal) because I loved the sounds of it and needed more, and spent over half a decade waiting for a new Orphaned Land album. When that follow up arrived in 2010’s The Never Ending Way of ORwarriOR, I could not get into it and felt greatly disappointed —- whether in myself or towards the band I still can’t really say. Three years later, All Is One was our relationship therapy, an album that was so magnificent in all its aspects that it renewed my enthusiasm for the band tenfold. It made me go back and reconsider ORwarriOR, which I found a new appreciation for even though its still below its predecessor and successor in my overall affection.
It was going to be hard for Orphaned Land to follow-up All Is One, it was a watershed release for more than just its musical content too —- being founding guitarist Yossi Sassi’s last album with the band whose sound he had a massive role in pioneering. I thought that was a massive blow to the band’s artistic fortunes for the future, the only potential salvation being that All Is One was also the introduction of guitar wizard Chen Balbus into the lineup. Together he and Yossi traded flashes of brilliance back and forth across that album through inspired songwriting and emotionally expressive playing. When Yossi announced his departure, it was only natural that Chen would move up to fill that creative void and claim a greater share of the songwriting responsibility alongside vocalist Kobi Farhi. In essence, Chen is Yossi’s “replacement”, and newcomer Idan Amsalem is Chen’s replacement, the newer new kid in the band. Fans are always leery of big lineup shifts like these, particularly of integral members like Yossi, but Chen’s continued presence in the lineup gave me a little bit of confidence that they’d be able to make this transition. And make it they have, because after intensively listening to Unsung Prophets and Dead Messiahs on countless repeat spins, the discussion really should be about whether it is leapfrogging All Is One to claim the title of the band’s best album to date.
I’m taking it as a given that everyone knows what Orphaned Land generally sounds like, its metal merged with Middle-Eastern instrumentation, melodies, and patterns. That’s a simplistic explanation but generally sums it up —- the thing is, a lot of bands can employ those sounds as window dressing and have (not naming any names here!). But Orphaned Land were the first to really do this in not only an authentic way, but in an interconnected way, meaning that it was enmeshed within their songwriting approach and integral to their sonic identity. It was called Oriental Metal by both the band and the metal community around the world, and one of the unique facets of this style of metal as others have gone down its path is that its entirely malleable to different subgenres. So we have the founders in Orphaned Land who for their first four albums merged traditional sounds with progressive death metal; but bands like Melechesh and Odious merged it with black metal; Aeternam are merging it with Gothenburg melodic death metal, and the likes of Myrath and Amaseffer merged with it clean vocal progressive metal with some power metal influences. I bring all this up because Orphaned Land’s sound has changed quite a bit over its past two albums, and its becoming clear to me with Unsung Prophets and Dead Messiahs that the choice of metal subgenre, or harsh or clean vocals doesn’t really matter —- the core of this style of metal is the traditional/ethnic Middle Eastern sound itself.
This new album is Orphaned Land’s grandest, deepest, and richest embrace of that sound, so widely and deeply does it cover and infuse every single song from front to back. You couldn’t honestly say that about an album like Mabool, or especially The Neverending Way of ORwarriOR —- go back and listen to those records, there are large swathes of those songs where what you’re predominantly hearing are slamming prog-metal riff passages and Kobi’s scream-growled death vocals. Sure the Middle-Eastern elements are there, but they sometimes recede to the background or they ebb and flow in and out of places in songs. I remember thinking that my one wish for the Mabool album was that the band could’ve thrown in more songs along the lines of “Norra El Norra”, those perfect, symbiotic fusions of cultural folk influences and metal. I longed for another “Sapari” on ORwarriOR, and though I’ve come to enjoy that album over time, there are still large chunks of it where I feel its lacking that special element that makes Orphaned Land (and Oriental Metal) so unique. The band headed in the right direction with All Is One, an album where they increased the melody by relying more on Arabic strings to drive most of the songwriting, pairing it with a power metal inspired turn towards choir vocal backed choruses. But here on Unsung Prophets, Kobi and company have finally dived headfirst into the pool of Middle Eastern sounds —- it infuses every song in intertwined melodic patterns and motifs.
The first visible ripples of that headfirst dive appear in the opening seconds of the album, where a sonorous female voice wordlessly expresses some undefinable emotion, ushered in by graceful violins. Those strings coalesce with a dramatic flourish and we’re off, their Arabic melodies leading the way on “The Cave”, leaving gaps for Balbus and Amsalem’s guitars and bouzouki. Back again are Kobi’s scream/growled melo-death vocals, and not just on this track but all over this album (they were relegated to a single song, “Fail”, on All Is One), and I find their reintroduction to the band’s sound refreshing. It has the effect to keep us off-balance with sudden bursts of heaviness and aggression in the songwriting to accompany him. A chief criticism of All Is One was its static tempo all throughout —- and while I don’t agree that it was a detriment to the songwriting quality on that album, I can understand why others might have. So the pinball bouncing around of tempos, melodic shifts and unpredictable rhythmic patterns on Unsung Prophets must be an absolute delight for anyone who felt that way. I guess another way of looking at it is that All Is One was imbued with a strong prog-power influence in its major key melodicism and reliance on vocal melodies, and here they’ve reintroduced some of the melo-death back into the formula while still carrying over the power metal esque love of dense orchestral arrangements.
Proof of that melo-death resurgence is heard in “We Do Not Resist”, arguably the heaviest song they’ve done in years, one that starts off with door kicking-in riffs with perhaps the fiercest growling vocals I’ve ever heard Kobi deliver. Once again however, that strong choral vocal influence from the last album stirs again for the chorus with a largely female backing cast singing the refrain. Its instrumental final half minute sets the stage for one of the prettiest songs on the album, “In Propaganda”, where traditional sounds lead the way in favor of electric guitars —- bouzouki melodies and crying violins usher us in, and we find Kobi showcasing the delicate, upper register of his voice that is really lovely. The mid song uptempo rhythmic shift is also traditionally inspired, something about it has an echo of Greek folk music, like the kind of excitable moments you’d hear at some kind of celebration. That’s an underused term for this band’s music, that it sounds celebratory, even if the lyrics are counter indicative of that sentiment. I’m speaking from experience a bit —- I’ve been to many a Muslim and Hindu wedding, or Diwali celebration, even the odd party at those kinds of households, and sometimes Orphaned Land’s music reminds me of standing outside with all the other guys, drinking a beer or chai (or both!) and hearing traditional music drift out from somewhere inside.
I had wondered if there would be an instrumental drop off after Yossi left the band, he was such a talent on a multi-instrumentalist scale, but thankfully the band has diversified their supporting musicians cast and still employs all the sounds you’d expect them too. I’m not good at picking individual tones out to identify each instrument correctly, but surely all of them are present on “All Knowing Eye”, a four minute journey into a lush Steven Wilson-esque soundscape, hypnotic melodies, and once again Kobi knocking it out of the park with a memorable vocal hook. He’s captivating again on the old traditional Hebrew vocal sung “Yedidi”, and its always interesting just how seamlessly the band’s amplified interpretations of these old religious/cultural songs fit in with their original material. The song that surprisingly might be the gem of the album is the nine minute plus epic “Chains Fall to Gravity”, a breathtakingly beautiful piece of music in construction and execution. Its not just the heart-wrenching violin melodies that grab you here, but the surging, hair-raising choral vocal bridge build up: “Go forth and be all you can be…”. The strange thing about this song is just how admittedly disjointed it really is if you break it down to its constituent parts. I’m not sure why it works so well, but its one of the most captivating things Orphaned Land has ever recorded, this album’s “The Beloved’s Cry” or “Brother”.
A close second favorite is the lead-off single “Like Orpheus”, which features the one and only Hansi Kursch on guest vocals. First, what a treat to have both these singers on the same song, but this track has really grown on me from my initial listen to it where I came away uncertain of what to think. Its hook is deceptively buried, revealing itself through its gossamer thread violin melodies that weave around Hansi’s distinctive tones in the chorus. It took a little courage for the band to trust such a crucial fragment of a song to a guest vocalist, but you’ve got to credit them for seeming to know that Hansi would be a great fit. If you haven’t seen the music video for this one, check it out below —- not only is it shrewd of the band to remove themselves from it entirely, but its message of unity through music is a hard one to pull off without feeling canned or corny. Great actors, a simple concept and focused yet simple cinematography go a long way (so many metal bands and video directors could learn from its example methinks). Moving on, I could see some people getting impatient with the lack of metal on “Poets of Prophetic Messianism”, but if you consider it in context within the tracklisting, it works well as a change of pace semi-instrumental. Particularly so when its followed by the up-tempo, groove-riffed “Left Behind”, a candidate for a single release with its ear-wormy hook and awesome acoustic rhythmic shuffle. I love the choice to deliver half the verse with the choral vocals, its one of those little details that keeps this album sounding fresh and exciting even on my umpteenth playthrough.
If you got to “My Brothers Keeper” and all of a sudden began to suspect that Unsung Prophets had some kind of conceptual streak running through it, you weren’t alone. Its not just that Kobi’s almost spoken word vocals here immediately draw attention to it (and to his credit, he pulls them off convincingly where so many others would sound terrible), but in examining lyrics like “I have to go back / To save these shades, souls with faded hearts, brothers of my pain” I immediately began to think about a larger picture at work here. Indeed this is a conceptual album, as Kobi has discussed at great length in the various interviews surrounding its release, one that’s inspired by Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, something those of you who’ve read The Republic might remember. I won’t go into its conceptual details here, but you can gather just by looking at the tracklisting that these songs follow the journey of the freed person in that allegory (Kobi provides a pretty good overview of the concept if you’re interested). Normally I’ve tended to avoid looking too deeply into the band’s overarching concepts, preferring to enjoy individual songs on a musical and lyrical level as my own personal interpretation I suppose. But I think this is the most intriguing, in depth, and frighteningly relevant concept Kobi has ever worked with, and it clearly brought out the best in him on a lyrical level.
The album finishes strong, with “Take My Hand” and “Only the Dead Have Seen then End of War”, the latter serving as a visceral reminder of just how good bassist Uri Zelcha and percussionist Matan Shmuely are at being an inspired, vibrantly unconventional rhythm section. The closing cut “The Manifest – Epilogue” isn’t technically part of the concept but is somewhat thematically linked, being a tribute to the assassinated revolutionary Chilean singer Victor Jara (if you were at any point a U2 fan like myself, you’ll remember his name being dropped in “One Tree Hill”). What a strikingly beautiful way to end an album that is really battling it out with All Is One as my favorite of all their records. For all that I loved about that album’s exuberant simplicity and joyous outpouring of melody, I love that Orphaned Land have delivered an album that really speaks to the darker mood of the world right now. But with this band, there’s always hope, and so at the 3:05 mark, where the choir vocalists get one final moment in the sun, their voices surge to sing in Spanish a sentiment that I honestly think Orphaned Land have earned unto themselves —- “Songs of bravery, will always be new songs, forever.”