Album Review: ORPHANED LAND Unsung Prophets & Dead Messiahs
It's easy to drift into the state of taking where you live for granted as the years roll by. Residing in the Los Angeles area, I'm surrounded by music venues, new band formations, and shows on an almost daily basis. I can walk down the street wearing a scary ole' Marilyn Manson or Gojira shirt without fear of repercussion. Flip the globe and things are vastly different in terms of accessibility and social tolerance of metal music. Now I'm not one to stand on a soapbox and rant about privilege or anything of that sort, but I genuinely am grateful more and more as I realize how opposite life may be for a metalhead in the Middle East. Granted, I'm not here to paint the Middle East as completely authoritarian and void of metal music, yet a good majority of countries in that region are unfortunately presented with far less opportunity to openly enjoy heavier music as other countries. And for that very reason, I feel it is important to shine a bright light on the titans moving the Middle Eastern metal scene to bring global awareness to the talent that is being harnessed in a region that doesn't exactly welcome it with as open arms as jolly lil' Los Angeles.
One of the most well-known metal acts within the Middle East is the folksy, blackened, and melodic death metal group Orphaned Land. The act formed in Israel back in 1991, breaking through the scene pioneering "oriental metal." With five previous albums and lineup changes, the band now presents Unsung Prophets & Dead Messiahs under the lineup of vocalist Kobi Farhi, guitarist Idan Amsalem, multi-instrumentalist Chen Balbus, bassist Uri Zelcha, and drummer Matan Shmuely.
As female vocals seduce the listener into the first track, "The Cave," the band cuts to the chase in establishing their usual tropes: Eastern stringed instruments, a catchy vocal verse, and a triumphant backing choir, which all lead up to the climax of Farhi's growly snarls. With a bob-your-head breakdown, string section passage, and guitar solo sewn through this piece, it is undeniable that the band knows how to keep a composition dynamic and unpredictable. The first time I heard this opener, I felt so compelled at all the intricate layers that I did not notice that eight minutes has passed by. I was hooked and ready for what Orphaned Land had prepared next.
Moving forward, the next several pieces remain under the five minute mark such as "We Do Not Resist," which strangely enough possesses a Rammstein vibe to it at parts. There are of course still Orphaned Land traits alike the elements mentioned in the previous track. "In Propaganda" is propelled forward with Eastern rhythms clapped and played out on the string section in a mesmerizing manner. I'm typically not a sucker for ballads, but "All Knowing Eye" is absolutely moving and holds your attention all the way to the blistering guitar solo crescendo, which totally sounds Pearl Jam inspired. If the tracks had so far seemed easy to swallow, the group undercuts the listener with "Yedidi," a composition rife with musicalities very much so foreign to Western ears. The melismatic vocal delivery feels overtly contrary to typical singing and is undoubtedly captivating for that exact reason.
Another shockingly impactful aspect of this record is the variety in guest musicians. The Pink Floyd/Porcupine Tree-esque prog piece "Chains Fall to Gravity" is tied up with a guitar solo from Steve Hackett of Genesis fame. And while it is amazing to have Hackett contribute to the track, the entire piece is jam-packed with ornate layers and melodies. Blind Guardian vocalist Hansi Kursch adds harmonies to the record's arguably catchiest song, "Like Orpheus." Lastly, Tomas Lindberg from At The Gates provides some nasty scowls on "Only the Dead Have Seen the End of War."
To be fair, a solid half of this album may be considered more equivalent to rock than metal, but Orphaned Land's ability to fuse metallic attributes with classic and prog rock is butter smooth. Unsung Prophets & Dead Messiahs is so incredibly diverse that not once did I feel bored or as if the songs began to sound the same. While I could chalk this up to the array of instruments, which admittedly is truly impressive, I feel that the band's songwriting skills are the true driving force in this record's range. This LP is gripping from front-to-back and is already a contender for album of the year in my book.