Monday, December 16, 2013

Israeli prog metal outfit Orphaned Land lose their touch on All is One

All is takes is a few good listens to All is One to realize this isn't the same old Orphaned Land we've grown to know and love. Part of the change is literal, following last year's departure of guitarist Matti Svatizky. But it's also clear the band have truncated their tunes, eschewing their typical long, winding, progressive song structures in favor of more condensed tunes that are much shorter on average. This can often be a winning approach if a band is able to cut out the fat and streamline their sound, but there is also the risk of losing what makes a band stand out. The songs on All is One may be shorter, but it hasn't helped their focus. And to make matters worse, these cuts lack punch.

The first two tracks on their previous album, The Never Ending Way of ORwarriOR, showcased perfectly how to forge a short, hard hitting blast of heavy metal, and then transition it into a more extended, progressive piece full of atmosphere and great instrumentation. All is One, however, discards that sense of variety, and is instead clogged with sterile five to six minute tracks that start off strong but lose their moxie as they progress. And to make matters worse, the album presents one of the most half baked and cliched representations of the Middle East in possibly ever. The first half of the album is hilariously over-reliant on delivering a Middle Eastern/Egyptian sound, even in comparison with their earlier works.

It seems as if their goal is to make damn well sure you know they're from the Middle East. Album opener "All is One" leads in with overly dramatic choir vocals, setting up vocalist Kobi Fahrl to make reference to the blazing desert sands in the album's very first line. In most cases, allowing your environment to color your music can be a positive, but here it very quickly begins to sound artificial. The only saving grace is that guitarist Yossi Sassi Sa'aron can typically be depended on to deliver a dazzling solo whenever the music gets stale.

Musically, this album is probably the most accessible of Orphaned Land's career and seems focused on moving away from many of the band's traditional elements. This may disappoint metal purists, but it really isn't a bad thing. At least in the context of this album, it's not where the real problem lies. Many of the songs are bolstered by a prominent orchestral sound, along with plenty of acoustic folk elements. "Let the Truce Be Known" is accented by mellow flute and a martial drum line, while the acoustic stylings of warm hearted power ballad "Brother" sounds like the band's take on Opeth's "Harvest."

"Fail" is easily the most metal song on the disc, with Kobi Fahrl's deep death vocals. He pulls them off very well considering that he usually sticks to clean vocals, but the material itself is dripping in cheese. An overabundance of spoken word vocal sections lose their initial impact quickly, but at least the guitar parts are melodic enough to keep things interesting.

The latter half of the disc tends to falter somewhat. Instrumental "Freedom" starts off strong out of the gate but loses quickly loses steam. Its attempt to marry heavy metal guitar with Latin infused acoustic rhythms is a well conceived design, but the song suffers from lack of distinctive riffs outside of the opening. This is the general problem with many of the later songs on All is One. Many of them open with powerful, distinctive riffing but become more generic as it goes along. The gypsy beat of "Shama'im" can't save it from mediocrity, while "Ya Benye" suffers from awkward vocals and doesn't accomplish much of anything from the first note to the last.
All things considered, All is One is certainly a listenable record with a pleasing overall sound, but that should be a matter of course for a band as accomplished as Orphaned Land. The biggest sin still comes down to just how cheesy the entire affiar is. They miss a golden opportunity here. If, say, Orphaned Land were a metal band who just so happened to be from Israel, interpreting the contours of today's metal scene through the lenses of guys who grew up in one of the most volatile areas of the world it could be genius. And for the most part, that's what we got out of the early part of their career.  

Sahara fascinated with its dune blasted black metal, and for once gave us a black metal record that wasn't inspired by some permanently frozen forest in Finland or Norway. But on All is One, Orphaned Land push the Middle Eastern tropes to such an extent that it almost comes across as caricature; nearly every song on the record sounds like it could be on the soundtrack to a Mummy movie starring Bela Lugosi. The biggest shame of it all is that it obscures the fact that Fahrl rightly brings up some very pertinent and serious issues that have historically plagued his native Israel. And this is, in fact, the biggest failing of All is One; it takes a sound influenced by one of mankind's cradle of civilizations, and distills it down to little more than a gimmick.

Score: 71/100
Related posts:

Orphaned Land - Never Ending Way of ORwarriOR album review
Orphaned Land live at The Masquerade, Atlanta
Interview with Orphaned Land guitarist Yossi Sassi Sa'aron

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