[8 February 2010]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Of all the metal music to come from countries other than strong metal exporters like North America, Europe, Japan, and Brazil, Israel’s Orphaned Land has been one of the more fascinating acts in recent years. Like Mesopotamian metalers Melechesh, Orphaned Land look to their own heritage and culture for inspiration instead of recycling the same old metal clichés. Unlike their countrymen, they take things several steps further, combining indigenous music and instrumentation with a strong progressive metal element drawn heavily from Opeth and Dream Theater. When done properly, world music and metal can be an enthralling combination, as Sepultura’s Roots and Amorphis’s Tales From the Thousand Lakes have shown in the past. Orphaned Land’s ambitious 2004 album Mabool: The Story of the Three Sons of Seven was another terrific example. A concept album about the splintering of Abrahamic religion into Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, Mabool delved deeply into the band’s roots in the Holy Land, from the prominent use of Middle Eastern string instruments like saz and oud to haunting vocal passages sung in Hebrew. A gigantic, often ebullient record, its cohesiveness was remarkable, its soulful melodies keeping the flashier prog moments grounded.
In the six long years it’s taken for Orphaned Land to write and record a follow-up, the band’s profile in the metal world has changed. Their global fanbase has grown a great deal, thanks in part to the support of a strong European label in Century Media as well as an appearance in the excellent 2008 documentary Global Metal. Their peers have definitely taken notice, especially Steven Wilson of veteran band Porcupine Tree, who joined the band as mixer and co-producer of their highly anticipated fourth album. With a larger audience and loftier expectations, the temptation to go all out in an effort to top their breakthrough album had to be huge, and to no one’s surprise at all, Orphaned Land does just that on the esoterically titled The Never Ending Way of OrwarriOR. What does surprise us, though, is just how slipshod it actually sounds, especially when compared to the transcendent Mabool.
Like Mabool, ORwarriOR is another concept album, but this time it deals with the present instead of the past. Vocalist Kobi Farsi draws from Israel’s present-day situation. Lyrically, it’s an incredibly convoluted tale, and musically it’s often even more so, divided into three long sections over 79 minutes. Led by female vocalist Shlomit Levi, who was responsible for many of Mabool‘s more beautiful moments, the metallic reinterpretation of the Yemenite folk song “Sapari” gets the album off to a blazing start, with “From Broken Vessels” following suit with a sleekly melodic arrangement before downshifting into more complex, prog rock cadences and dissonant riffs and pinch squeals. It’s during the latter movement where things start to get seriously muddled, thanks to overbearing narrations and moments where Arabic percussion feels tacked on. The song only rights itself when Farsi returns with his strongly sung verses. Meanwhile, the two-part, 15 minute opus “The Path” is positively Opethian. While “Part 1 - Treading Through Darkness” shows remarkable focus for seven and a half minutes, the same cannot be said for “Part 2 – The Pilgrimage to Or-Shalem”, which doesn’t so much lose its way as completely fail to have a destination whatsoever.
The rest of ORwarriOR continues in similarly frustrating fashion, the momentum of strong moments (“The Warrior”, “New Jerusalem”) halted by bloated arrangements (“Disciples of the Sacred Oath II”, “Codeword Uprising”) and song fragments serving as interludes (“M i?”), not to mention that ever-present narration, pushed so prominently in the mix that it quickly becomes too distracting. Ironically, for an album so operatic in tone, instead of building to a gigantic, melodramatic climax, it simply peters out over the course of the final 15 minutes, the remaining songs sounding more tired than maudlin. As is often the case, it feels like the album would have worked a little better if it had been trimmed of some fat, and of course, that would have come at the expense of the storyline.
Considering how vague the lyrics on this album are (as on most concept albums, for that matter), would that have been such a bad thing?
Orphaned Land’s heart is definitely in the right place. They are trying to unite people in their fractured homeland through their music, a message conveyed even further on OWarriOR‘s artwork, in which, according to Farsi, a calligrapher has combined Hebrew and Arabic to create a symbol of peace. Unfortunately, in trying to put together a Gigantic Statement of a record, it seems like at times they’ve forgotten what made their music so charming in the first place.