The novelty of metal bands performing with orchestras has worn a bit thin. Far from being anything revolutionary at this point (Deep Purple did it in the 60s), something’s gotta be really special if I’m gonna notice, because even if it’s excellent, I feel like I’ve kinda heard it all before. Leave it to freaking Orphaned Land to pique my curiosity.
Sonic Perspectives and its many contributors have damn near all had glowing things to say about this Israeli ensemble, and for damn good reasons. Their seamless and uniquely Middle Eastern blend of classical Arabic, klezmer, and progressive & death metal styles is an immaculate embodiment of Orphaned Land‘s entire purpose: to unite peoples who traditionally don’t care much for one another. To drive this point home, this band has written and sung lyrics in Hebrew, Arabic, and Turkish; designed artwork that looks more like an Islamic tome than a metal album; and created a set of promotional photos that pay tribute to the religious traditions that were born in their part of the world. With a sound adorned by everything from saz, blast beats, Jewish choirs, death growls, and those freaking awesome Arab strings, this is exactly the kind of band that warrants such an undertaking. The only thing the Orphaned guys needed was an excuse to actually do it, and two literally just landed in their laps: Israel’s surprisingly effective Covid vaccine distribution allowing a semblance of normalcy to return, and the band’s thirtieth anniversary.
Yep. Thirty years of Middle Eastern peacenik death metal culminated in a performance – before a sizable and unmasked crowd, mind you – at the Tel Aviv Hall of Culture with the 45-member Israel Chamber Orchestra sharing the stage with them. Luckily for us non-Israeli fans (and the fans in several Arab nations hostile to the State of Israel), this was viewable to the band’s Patreon subscribers. And despite a number of streaming glitches, it turned out to be a phenomenal event.
Unlike the late-90s fiasco Metallica appropriately titled “S&M,” this isn’t metal with an orchestra simply thrown on top it. This is metal where the strings and choirs are actively and integrally woven into the music and its very identity. And lest you think this is yet another Nightwish or Dimmu Borgir knockoff, consider that these classical elements borrow from the Arab and Jewish traditions and very deliberately leave the western neoclassical approach aside.
The set opens with the Orchestra performing a variation on the instrumental intro to “Mabool,” the title track to the band’s breakthrough 2004 album, with the Orphaned guys cutting straight in. Though the band itself didn’t miss the cue, the sound crew apparently did, as the orchestra’s ambient mics weren’t cut for the band’s mics in time; for a few unbearable seconds, the mix sounded as awesome as those DIY bootlegs you used to make when you’d sneak a cassette recorder into concerts. Fortunately, the crew caught on rather quickly, and we soon heard the sound board mix of both the band and the orchestra for the remainder of the 100-ish minute performance.
Up next was “Like Orpheus,” a newer cut that quickly made its way into Orphaned Land’s growing list of classics (and if you want a good idea of what this band is all about, watch the damn video because wow). Unfortunately for Orphaned honcho Kobi Farhi, he was all on his own when singing that chorus that Hansi Kursch of Blind Guardian had handled so beautifully on the recording. But much to my delight, Kobi very capably carried a melody that I’d previously thought was outside of his admittedly limited range.
One of the bright spots of that latest album, the 2018 doozy “Unsung Prophets and Dead Messiahs,” was getting to hear the enchanting voice of on-again/ off-again backup singer Shlomit Levi again. It was she, after all, who sang those mesmeric Yemeni-inspired parts on such cuts as “Norra el Norra” and “A’salk,” and after featuring prominently on the “The Neverending Way of OrWarrior,” she declined to participate on 2013 follow-up, “All is One.” And I was big sad over that. She did, however contribute her talents to “Poets of Prophetic Messianism” on “Unsung Prophets,” so my disappointment was palpable when a choir member who was very obviously not Shlomit Levi joined the Orphaned guys to sing Ms Levi’s parts on “The Kiss of Babylon” and the absolutely energizing “Sapari.” I will readily hand it to her though, this gal is a dead ringer for Ms Levi, and while being out front with the band clearly made her nervous, she sang her freaking heart out and sounded great doing it.
Orphaned Land’s resilience is the stuff of legend. This is, after all, a band whose most notable fans, those in the Muslim world, are unable to see them in their homelands. (Unless I’m mistaken, the only Muslim-majority country where Orphaned Land has performed is the one whose cultural epicenter lies partly in Europe: Turkey). And for many fans, the heart and soul of this incredible band was the partnership between Farhi and guitarist/ songwriter/ multi-instrumentalist Yossi Sassi, whose saz, oud, and especially bouzouki playing lent a distinctly Levantine flair to an already exotic sound. Hell, Sassi helped create an instrument he calls the “bouzoukitara,” which is exactly what you think it is: part guitar, and part bouzouki. Apart from allowing him to switch from East to West simply by switching necks, it’s said that the hollow bouzouki part of the body adds a resonance to the guitar that must be heard to be believed.
The Orphaned guys have usually only brought out the folk instruments for special occasions, so I was hearing those parts piped in was something of a letdown, even with so many guest performers on stage. And while current guitarists Chen Balbus and Idan Amsalem did a damn fine job arranging some of those parts on guitar (as on “All Knowing Eye”), I could not help but think just how much more magical an already magical performance would have been if Sassi and original rhythm guitarist Matti Svatizky had made a guest appearance or two. Srsly, I would have spooged. Curiously, Farhi did a special shout-out to Sassi, Svatizky, Levi, and other former members just as I was thinking how awesome it would be if they were to appear. To my knowledge, this is the first time the band has officially acknowledged Sassi’s departure in early 2014.
The orchestra took a more prevalent role on fan favorites “Birth of the Three” and “Ocean Land,” performing parts Sassi had originally played on his collection of folk instruments while also adding another layer of mystique with some fresh new arrangements. At times it resembled a western-style orchestra, at other times like those supervenient Arab strings, and at still other times it even tasted like the folk music you’d hear on the busy streets of Cairo. The whole metal band + orchestra has some a long way since “S&M.”
As chilling as the orchestral treatment to “In Thy Neverending Way” is, a huge part of me resents that the bouzouki parts were piped in. Again, I can think of someone (*cough cough* Yossi *cough cough*) who’d be well qualified to have performed those. Having said that, hearing a western classical arrangement in place of Steven Wilson’s piano on this song just brought home the fact that this reworking of one of my favorite Orphaned songs just f**king rules. Ditto for the revamp of “The Beloved’s Cry,” for which the Israel Chamber Orchestra’s conductor had removed his suit jacket to reveal an Orphaned Land shirt that they’d better damn well make available online. The “Norra el Norra / Ornaments of Gold” medley with which Orphaned Land has concluded their sets since at least the “OrWarrior” tour again ended the evening, this time given a breath of fresh air by a new string arrangement and a trippy keyboard solo by Sharon Mansur in place of Ms Levi’s mesmeric voices.
In a just world, the Orphaned guys would fix the several technical issues that plagued the stream, have the sound mixed by their old friend Steven Wilson (he produced and played piano on “OrWarrior,” dontchaknow), and release this on blu-ray along with a hi-def restoration of “The Road to Or Shalem,” the 2010 DVD that not only featured the band’s classic lineup (including the Divine Ms Levi) but also a guest appearance by the original Israeli bouzouki rockerdude Yehuda Poliker. And in an even more just world, the Orphaned guys would tour every country in the Near East, Middle East, and North Africa with Tunisia’s Myrath and Egypt’s Cresent in tow, because if there ever were a metal band whose music actually could change the world, Orphaned Land is unquestionably it.
Also, I was the 666th person to view the Youtube stream. Because of course I was.
The Calm Before the Flood (orchestra only) / Mabool / The Storm Still Rages Inside / Like Orpheus / The Kiss of Babylon / Sapari / The Cave / In Propaganda / All Knowing Eye / Brother / A Neverending Way / Birth of the Three / Ocean Land / All Is One / In Thy Never Ending Way / The Beloved’s Cry / Norra el Norra / Ornaments of Gold