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.