Songs of Bravery: Orphaned Land’s Unsung Prophets and Dead Messiahs

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.

 

 

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hurWzo01FpM&w=560&h=315]

 

 

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.”

 

Shalom Orphaned Land! The All Is One Discussion

I loved Mabool. Orphaned Land’s 2004 comeback album was a seminal moment in my journey not just as a metal aficionado, but as a music lover in general. I was even fortunate enough to catch the album just shortly after its initial release, instead of years after the fact as would become a prevailing trend for me later on. It was to say the least, an incredibly timely release: An Israeli metal band delivering a conceptual album about the reunification of the three Abrahamic faiths smack dab in the middle of the Second Intifada, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and a mere year away from Ariel Sharon’s earth shattering declaration to pull out of Gaza. You could either call that incredibly ballsy, or brazenly foolish.

 

But something truly dramatic happened: This Israeli metal band had struck a powerful chord throughout various Arab countries where their music was being pirated. The internet in its increasingly flourishing ability to outreach, unite, and amass people from all over the globe was the first piece of evidence that something truly profound was happening. I was on the band’s message boards during that time period, and you’d see users posting not only from Israel, but from Turkey, Egypt, Syria (seriously), and almost any other Middle Eastern/Islamic land you could point out on a map. The album was a success yes, but for so many more reasons than just commercially speaking. Orphaned Land were transcendent in ways that their region’s political leaders were unable to be.

 

The album’s impact on me personally was a revelation. I had equated the very concept of folk metal with artists like Vintersorg and Ensiferum, as well as in the numerous Celtic-isms of a wide variety of metal bands. An exclusively Celtic/Scandinavian art form then…? It was, to say the least, a limited perspective. It had never occurred to me that yes, there could be folk metal that drew upon the musical heritage of other cultures. Mabool was the album that smacked me in the face and said, “Of course it can”. Songs like “Birth of the Three”, “Ocean Land”, “The Kiss of Babylon”, and the masterful “Norra El Norra” were laced and imbued with rich Middle Eastern/Judaic instrumentation and melodies. It wasn’t just the metal that was satisfying, I found the soundscapes of the ethnic musical backdrops extremely alluring. It all captured my imagination and swept me away to someplace else — it was an epiphany! And it soon occurred to me that this was a kind of metal that I had been longing for without even realizing it.

 

 

In time, after many hundreds of repeat spins, Mabool also left me with a void in my music collection: I had discovered a new found hunger and soon to be great appreciation for cultural music of the Middle East. I asked the band for recommendations through their forums, and was supplied a short list by Yossi Saharon, the Orphaned Land guitarist. I found that this newly acquired musical interest would only increase in momentum — I began seeking out, sampling, and buying international/cultural music regardless of where on the globe it was sourced from. My job in the music department of a Borders Books only aided my drive to find more and more. The store would be sent promo CDs from various record companies for in store play, and when the promo shelf had to be emptied at the end of the month (by employees getting to select stuff they wanted to take home… a definite perk), the dregs that no one else wanted were always a vast array of modern and traditional international music: French pop, Brazilian jazz, Gregorian Chant, Greek/Mediterranean folk, fifty different subgenres of music from Africa, in short, everything you could possibly imagine. I found a treasure trove of great stuff that I loved, and eventually this experimentation and growth lead to me appreciating stuff like the hip hop of Jurassic 5, or even the alt-country of Uncle Tupelo, Wilco, and Neko Case. It certainly wasn’t the first time I’d explored non rock/metal music, but Mabool tapped open a geyser of interest and curiosity in exploring new sounds that thankfully hasn’t stopped.

 

Now Orphaned Land has a tendency to work slowly. Well that’s actually unfair and inaccurate, but it could justifiably be the casual perception. There was an eight year gap between the band’s pair of mid-nineties releases and Mabool (explained vaguely as personal problems), and the success of that album demanded a touring schedule of three to four years — presumably to make up for lost time. Work on the follow up record took another couple years due to having to wait for their producer’s schedule to synch up (Porcupine Tree founder Steven Wilson), and so it was finally in 2010, six years later, when the band released The Never Ending Way of the ORwarriOR. I was as eager for the album as I was for that year’s new Blind Guardian and Iron Maiden records, and the heights of that anticipation would conversely be the depths to which I found myself disappointed.

 

 

I thought the album had a pair of good tracks, but the rest had failed to move me in any way. I know it sounds a little dramatic now, but I felt disheartened that after the impact of Mabool and the (I hate to use this word) “journey” it took me on, the band who delivered that eternal classic was somehow unable to impact me any further. When I looked at reviews all over, the general reception was overwhelmingly positive and glowing… so how was I left out in the cold this time around? I had burned myself out on Mabool through excessive overplaying, yet I couldn’t find enthusiasm for their new stuff. When the band played close to me on a subsequent North American tour supporting Katatonia, I missed the date and didn’t feel bad about it.¬†Wow I’d think, my opinion had really soured on these guys. It really was a little depressing… and so I chalked it all up to an unfortunate loss, and moved on.

 

It was with a great deal of surprise that I began to hear rumors of a potential new Orphaned Land album slated for release in 2013. Of course, I had heard that kind of optimistic thinking before with this band, but hell, there I was this past Spring looking at the new cover artwork for All Is One. What — no half a decade plus wait? As stunning as it was that these guys managed to break old habits and actually deliver a new record within a reasonable time frame, I was a bit bummed out to realize that I had a mere speckle of interest when it came to checking it out, and certainly with a great degree of skepticism at that. My doubt was suddenly called into question when I heard the title track previewed on Dr. Metal’s The Metal Meltdown radio show. It was good, damn good — freaking beautiful actually. Right after I heard it, I found out that a friend of mine who does a rather excellent podcast (@ MSRcast) had interviewed Orphaned Land’s vocalist and founding member Kobi Farhi some weeks ago, and listening to their conversation was intriguing enough to make me plunk down for the album come release day.

 

My faith in Orphaned Land has been restored: All Is One is a fine album that while marking a noticeable stylistic shift in their trademark sound, beautifully weaves together disparate musical genres together into one epic, majestic, worldly fusion. It must be noted however, that for the most part gone are the frequent death metal vocals of yore, only popping up once on this album (to great effect at that). Is this the start of a post-metal Orphaned Land ala Opeth? Eh… no, not exactly. This is more Orphaned Land meets hard rock guitars as well as an progressive-power metal songwriting approach ala Blind Guardian. Think that sounds like an absurd comparison? Take a listen to the glorious, life affirming title track where scores of Guardian-esque choral voices join in on the most beautifully penned refrain in the band’s discography. Orchestras swoop in and usher melodic refrains throughout over a bed of crunchy guitars, hand claps spice up the percussion throughout, all surrounding an epic guitar solo that resides at the heart of this gem of a song (I also love the surreal, trippy, psychedelic music video they’ve done for the track). Additionally, on the rather charmingly rhythmic “The Simple Man”, guitars riff and play lead melodies in an intertwining that recalls Andre Olbrich and Marcus Siepen at their complicated best — all whilst Kobi Farhi’s lead vocals are embellished and sustained by intricately patterned supporting choral vocal harmonies. The newest addition to the band, guitarist Chen Balbus, seems to have a far greater natural chemistry with Yossi Saharon then his predecessor. The interplay between the two is fun, surprising, and rich.

 

 

Of course, the album is laden with all the traditional Arabic/Israeli (oh hell lets just call it “Oriental”, Edward Said enthusiasts be damned) that we’ve come to expect from Orphaned Land. There’s oud, saz, bouzouki, chumbush, apparently even a xylophone at some point, and of course the aforementioned tremendous strings and choirs. The band splashed out for this record, amassing a talent pool of over forty musicians “including 25 choir singers and eight classical violin, viola and cello players from Turkey”. Its a smart play, one that lines the sound of this album with an open fullness, a sense of spatial relationships between instruments that their older records, yes even Mabool, were unable to attain through having to rely solely on keyboards. As for the scarcity of death metal vocals I mentioned above, I don’t find myself missing them, or believing that these songs would be better served with them. Farhi has always had a fine, well accented clean delivery as a pure singer, and when he does decide to lay the death vocal wood, on “Fail”, its a powerfully shuddering standout moment. I’d be remiss if I didn’t remark upon his fantastic clean vocals on that particular song, as well as on the haunting, emotional “Brother” — which contains perhaps the band’s finest lyric.

 

I find it interesting that one of the most vocal admirers of the band’s previous album, ORwarriOR, the one and only Angry Metal Guy, has given their newest work a right panning. His primary criticism is that the majority of this album remains at a similar tempo throughout and lacks the varietal structure of albums past. I guess something like that doesn’t bother me, because as long as the music itself is of interest in the moment, I don’t consider its relationship to the songs surrounding it. But taking a step back I suppose I can concede to this being a weakness of the album, and surmise that that perhaps the band’s inclinations away from their metallic tendencies has homogenized their overall songwriting approach. I don’t however, agree with AMG’s take that a shorter gestation period for this band will undoubtedly lead to inferior results. First of all, I’m enjoying this record, but more importantly, these guys are too talented to let precious years go by in the name of delays or worse — absolute perfection. I don’t need perfection. Not even Mabool was perfect (it dipped in the second half a bit), but it had moments of perfection. Same goes right now… I’ll eagerly anticipate a record every two to three years if it means I get gems like the ones found on All Is One.

 

 

 

 

While I disagree with AMG’s take (and am only singling out his review in this instance because I so rarely do), I do have to give him credit for making me go back to give ORwarriOR another shot. Of course the fantastic new album is also encouraging me in that regard, my Orphaned Land fandom once again flourishing, but his adamant stance that I’m missing out on something close to perfection is reason enough for me. And here’s the thing… I’m finding that ORwarriOR is steadily growing on me. There are still some moments throughout that aren’t striking the right chord but I’m beginning to enjoy songs that I previously thought were clunkers. There’s a lot to digest there, so I’ll keep working on it — the best thing being that I want to give it repeated spins to see if anything else sticks. It feels good to have a second chance at something like that, and of course, if you’ve been a regular reader of The Metal Pigeon, you’ll be realize that its becoming my M.O. for the most part.

 

So All Is One may ultimately not have the perspective altering impact that Mabool had for me. But that’s okay, albums like that are rare, and often not recurring from the same artist. It will have the personal distinction of being the album that gave me one of my favorite bands back, almost like reconnecting with an old friend. A metal band that avoids topical cliches and genre tropes, seeks diversity both musically and topically, Orphaned Land are a uniquely rare breed. I can’t help but feel a little inspired by this unexpected turn of events, and as odd as it may be to say, I feel like it may be speaking to something deeper within me on a personal level. This is a music first oriented blog, so I’ll just leave it at that, but its comforting to know that I’m not yet jaded to a point where music is reduced to only being surface entertainment. I hope it never does.

 

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bds3FALcR7M&w=560&h=315]

 

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qsPb1-uPIic&w=560&h=315]

 

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