Orphaned Land has gone through a lot more change than I think I even realized as they have made the journey from an obscure but promising melodeath band to a major label metal act. Back in 2013, I ended my review of All Is One by urging the band and the label not to “fuck with the formula.” The new record, which I was not impressed by, was being released only three years after the incredible The Never Ending Way of ORwarriOR. All Is One lacked the depth and force of any of the band’s previous material, a fact which I attributed to the album not having been given the time it needed to germinate. But I didn’t fully realize that since the release of 2011’s The Road to OR-Shalem, the formula had already been pretty well fucked. The first drop was Matti Svatizky in 2012, he was followed by Yossi Sassi in 2014. Both the guitarists had been in the band since 1992 and Yossi is the one I have always associated with Orphaned Land‘s characteristic “oriental”+prog rock sound.1 With Yossi’s departure, it was hard to not imagine that decline was inevitable. So I admit that I approached Unsung Prophets & Dead Messiahs with mixed feelings and a healthy dose of dread.
Unsung Prophets & Dead Messiahs is a concept album that clocks in at 63 minutes and it was 5 years in the making. That alone gives it a distinct Orphaned Land feel. But the music helps: an idiosyncratic combination of melodic death metal, post-Floyd progressive rock, traditional instrumentation with folk song arrangements, and orchestral bombast gives the band their unique flavor. All of these facets are present here in good measure. “We Do Not Resist” and “Only the Dead Have Seen the End of War” feature some of the band’s heaviest material since Mabool, with Tomas Lindberg (At the Gates) lending his unique vocal character to latter. “Yedidi” is the obligatory traditional, while “Chains Fall to Gravity” is a nine minute, swelling epic featuring Steve Hackett (ex-Genesis). Interspersed on this journey are the trademarks of Orphaned Land‘s sound; Kobi’s heavily accented voice growls, sings in English, Hebrew and Ancient Greek, and narrates a story with heavy political overtones. “The Manifest – Epilogue” brings the album to a close with 1984‘s famous quote: “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever.”2 The theme of tyranny and resistance is at the core of Unsung Prophets & Dead Messiahs. To help demonstrate this, they use a lick from Víctor Jara’s “Manifesto” as the album’s outro, quoting him in the booklet: “Songs of bravery, will always be new songs, forever.”3
The amount of detail and work put into Unsung Prophets & Dead Messiahs shows Orphaned Land reclaiming much of what was missing on All Is One. Gone is “the tacky Tel Aviv tourist shop” feel, replaced with great riffs, thoughtful writing, and the renewed depth and genius of a band with the new focus. Despite the impression you would garner from the band photos, Kobi is not driving this machine. The core seems revitalized, too, with guitarists Chen Balbus and Idan Amsalem filling Yossi and Matti’s shoes admirably. Bassist Uri Zelcha and percussionist Matan Shmuely bubble, thud, and rock along underneath, an ever-tighter rhythm section. The whole band is tight and talented, and they have an army of musicians to help them make their sound epic and baroque.
Orphaned Land did not abandon the characteristic Arabian orchestral sounds when they formed The Orphaned Land’s Oriental Orchestra, and the sound is executed to perfection with the violins swooping along with Kobi’s voice or the guitar riffs. The audioscape they paint is striking and it drives the album forward, masking its length. The song and orchestral arrangements are also stand out, and are maybe the things that are most reminiscent of All Is One aside from Jens Bogren’s production. But even the production—crushingly brickwalled to a DR6—is good. While loud, this job reminds me of the balanced tones of Turisas‘ most recent records more than the flat, wet tones of Enslaved‘s E. The non-rock-instrumentation doesn’t have the depth and punch that Steven Wilson coaxed from it, but I was still impressed with how the album sounded.
At their best, Orphaned Land is one of the most exciting bands in metal, and this album shows them near their best. Unsung Prophets & Dead Messiahs is an album that longtime fans will be pleased to hear. Growing up and getting popular is tough on bands, but with the specter of Angry Metal Guy’s Law of Diminishing Recordings™ looming, Orphaned Land swerved deftly back on track. And while they don’t pack the punch they used to in terms of sheer novelty, they continue to demonstrate that they are among the best bands in the world with the power and depth of their writing. Only time will tell if Unsung Prophets & Dead Messiahs lives up to the universally loved Mabool and ORwarriOR, but it seems like ‘fucking with the formula’ was what these guys needed to get back on track.
- I use “oriental” for lack of a better term. I’ve used MENA as an adjective in the past, but this also struck me as problematic, treating as monolithic a variety of sounds and musical traditions that exist in north Africa and what we call the Middle East. I guess I’ll just have to cope with the word oriental, despite well-founded worries about the term, since the band uses it. ↩
- The whole quote is: “There will be no loyalty, except loyalty towards the Party. There will be no love, except the love of Big Brother. There will be no laughter, except the laugh of triumph over a defeated enemy. There will be no art, no literature, no science. When we are omnipotent we shall have no more need of science. There will be no distinction between beauty and ugliness. There will be no curiosity, no enjoyment of the process of life. All competing pleasures will be destroyed. But always—do not forget this, Winston—always there will be the intoxication of power, constantly increasing and constantly growing subtler. Always, at every moment, there will be the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—for ever.” George Orwell. 1949/2008. Nineteen Eighty-four. London: Penguin Books, pp. 279-80. ↩
- Canto que ha sido valiente / Siempre será canción nueva. ↩
- A gentle reminder to everyone tempted to write “How can you judge a record’s sound from 192 kb/s mp3s” that the human ear isn’t able to differentiate 192k from CD quality using studio equipment, and while it may affect DR scores, it is my experience from dozens of attempts that low quality mp3s do not differ in DR even from lossless tracks. ↩