Not a lot of bands last twenty years, and even fewer do so with no real lineup changes. British stoner rock stalwarts Orange Goblin are a rare breed: aside from losing second guitarist Pete O’Malley long ago, the other four members have stood fast since 1995. Two things usually happen in these cases: first, the band gets incredibly tight, with fantastic chemistry. Twenty-three years together will do that. On the flip side, more often than not the songwriting suffers (see: Angry Metal Guy’s Law of Diminishing Recordings™). Bands turn into caricatures of what they are most famous for. In Orange Goblin’s case, we wouldn’t be too far off base expecting (or hoping for) every album to be a new version of The Big Black. But here we are with The Wolf Bites Back, the band’s ninth studio album, and those of us who love the band are wondering how close to type they’ll be, and whether or not any changeups are coming at us.
The Wolf Bites Back opens the way one would expect an Orange Goblin record to open: with a prototypical fist-pumping anthem in “Sons of Salem,” a song about the descendants of the area’s witches. It’s fast, it’s hectic, it’s got a great Orange Goblin riff, it’s got a great chorus: in short, it’s a variation on “Scorpionica.” Let’s face it, when it comes to the faster-paced variation of stoner rock, these guys are almost untouchable. Other similar songs throughout the album include “Renegade” – not the Styx song, sadly, but a straightforward rocker that singer Ben Ward seems to struggle to keep up with at times (the only flaw on an otherwise excellent album vocal-wise, his best performance coming in “The Stranger,” where he comes off as a drunk Mike Patton), and “Suicide Division,” in which the band channels their inner Motörhead for a two minute proto-metal blast (of note: Motörhead’s Phil Campbell drops a couple of solos on the album).
The worry with Orange Goblin is how many of the songs are going to sound the same? While the band’s music has always been focused on Ben Ward’s whiskey-soaked vocals and Joe Hoari’s stellar axework, monotony can set in. Thankfully, on The Wolf Bites Back diverse songwriting is at the forefront – very unexpected, but highly rewarding. The variations in the formula begin in the second number, the title track, an absolute gem of a song featuring a brief acoustic intro and a driving, rhythmic opening, not to mention a superb vocal melody throughout. Of course, this is Orange Goblin, and in all of the songs here the band eventually sounds as if someone has lobbed a beer bottle over the chicken-wire fence, forcing the band back into their up-tempo, trashy stoner metal. All good in my books.
The title track isn’t the only left turn. “Swords of Fire” opens with a distorted bass riff courtesy the underrated and always rock-steady Martyn Millard. The intro is nearly half of the song, but eventually the band says “Fuck it,” abandons the moodiness of the piece, and kicks our ass. “Ghost of the Primitives” has a groovy intro with an intricate clean riff, goes balls-out shortly thereafter, but after a staccato lead break Millard and drummer Chris Turner shuffle things along to a very stoned fade-out-fade-in ending. “In Bocca Al Lupo” is an interesting instrumental featuring layered guitarwork. And the album closer, “Zeitgeist,” has a distinct Thin Lizzy feel to it. All told, the variety in the songwriting that’s at play on The Wolf Bites Back keeps us fully engaged through all ten songs.
Orange Goblin have had a pretty damned respectable resurgence this decade. Their albums in the 2000’s may not have hit home like gems such as The Big Black and Frequencies from Planet Ten did, but their last couple (both reviewed by Steel here) have been excellent examples of barroom brawl-inciting stoner rock. The Wolf Bites Back is another superb entry, better than Back From the Abyss, even a bit stronger than A Eulogy for the Damned. The forearm shiver of their rocking numbers is here, and the changeups are all album highlights. In short, the band have delivered one of their top three or four albums, a very strong 3.5, and a number of songs are going to get extended airplay in the Huckster’s garage.