Monday, July 1, 2013

Orphaned Land - All Is One (2013)

The liner notes read like a shopping list of appearances; strings, soprano vocalists, a myriad of orchestral instruments. Yet this isn't the jacket of an album from an extravagant symphonic metal outfit; not Therion or Blind Guardian. Instead, it is a glimpse into the workings of an expanding sound, one that grows by the minute. Orphaned Land are no strangers to massive soundscapes and rich instrumentation; their last album, "The Never Ending Way of ORWarriOR," had taken their Middle Eastern inspired progressive folk metal to new heights, earning it critical acclaim and fan adoration across the globe. Countless festival appearances and world tour stops later, the band return with something even more ambitious, and perhaps more complete. It is brought together by more than just sound, though. Recorded in three very different countries, it is a central theme, one called out in the album's name that echoes through everything that comes before and comes after the first notes. On "All Is One," the band give both themselves, and their listeners, a sense of harmony; both musical and spiritual.

A series of hand claps and twirling clean guitars open the title track, launching into action a wave of choral vocals. But rather than abandon everything you've come to expect, the band maintains that signature sound, rumbling bass lines permeating the entire mix. They build the mix like a set of Jenga blocks, a battery of drums occupying the lowest, most structurally sound positions. The guitars stand side by side with the rejuvenated string arrangements, while vocalist Kobi Farhi sits stop the mound with his backing chorus. Guiatrist Yossi Sassi carries so much weight on his shoulders, provided both the heavy, chugging distortion on songs like "The Simple Man," but also he ethnically charged strings as well. The latter provides a sense of identity to the music, giving you the clear sense of style and direction. There is as much diversity in the track as there is in the cast of characters that perform on it, reinforcing that all important theme of unity through music. The smooth orchestrated strings on "Brother" provide something soothing, but also intriguing. The violins sweep through the mix, a smooth bass line behind them, as Farhi uses his vocal lines to tell a real story, not a contrived collection of three word phrases and hooks. With an emotional investment like this, from both and listener, it fosters an attachment that is far too often absent in modern metal.

One of the greatest strengths of the album lies in the flow from track to track, brilliantly executed in the transition from "Brother" to "Let The Truce Be Known." The strings tie the tracks together, carrying you along with them. They star here, sometimes even acting as direct support to a subtle, almost crooning performance by Farhi. The band strikes a familiar but impressive harmony between sublime and heavy, with stomping kick drums and crashing cymbals attached to every vocal note. Sassi does some of his best work to date on "Through Fire And Water," plucking his way through a beautiful melody. As the verse kicks in, it is surprisingly straightforward in construction, with drummer Matan Shmuely leading the charge. The sea of voices that inhabits the chorus is otherworldly, balancing male and female, low and high, clean and distorted. It's beauty is enhanced by what comes after, the dark whispers that open "Fail," retracing the failures of man kind shrouded in death. The growls of "ORwarriOR" make an appearance here, raising the hair on your neck and arms. The sparing use of harsh vocals make them more impactful, especially when bookended by a melodic instrumental, and a message. Combined with the snarling guitar groove of "Freedom," (no pun intended), you have a match made in Heaven.

A swirling set of strings them welcomes you to "Shama'im," a beautiful Middle Eastern anthem, meaning "Shy/Heaven." The track, written for the band by acclaimed Israeli artist Yehuda Poliker, is a stirring reminder of the breadth and reach that folk metal can have. But it is "Ya Benaye" that may come to define the eclectic nature of this album with its soaring vocal lines and roaring blast beats. Ever present but often under the radar, bassist Uri Zelcha puts his own signature stamp on the album, but even more on this track. His bass lines roll and flow with the best in the business, adding a dimension that takes things from great to larger than life. Together with rhythm guitarist Chen Balbus, he keeps the foundation strong, even when Sassi unleashes a solo, as he does in the break here.One of the more interesting aspects of the album is how you can feel it starting to wind down; not in effort or quality, but in tone. "Our Own Messiah," with a stellar performance from Farhi in the chorus, begins the process of coming full circle. The track feels complete in every way, including squealing harmonics and rich symphonic elements. And as the opening lines of "Children" are placed at your feet, including Farhi singing "am I meant to be another orphaned child?" you know the album has come around. the last track is also the longest and, not coincidentally, one of the best.

There is a beauty in what Orphaned Land have accomplished on this album, some twenty years after their formation. They gave you exactly what you wanted, without doing what you expected. From the immediate and consistent use of strings and a chorus of voices, right down to the haunting whistles that bring the album to a close, they went outside the box we, as listeners, have created for them. They've found harmony in sound, in songwriting, in structure, and in strength. That alone would be worthy of the praise that is sure to follow this album wherever it goes; but that never seemed to be what this band, or this music, was all about. It's as though each album has been a tool; a device to help people from different parts of the world to see things from a new perspective. We bond over our love of music and our knowledge of all things metal. But we argue and go to war over misunderstandings and differences in our culture. And by the time the last note fades out, the album has said so much through lyric and instrumental. But the lasting takeaway is one that was right in front of you the whole time; All is one.


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