by Phil Freeman
Orthodox are one of the most interesting bands in metal right now. (Matt Cibula wrote a brilliant exegesis of their work in Burning Ambulance #1. You really should read it.) They’re from Spain, and until recently (I’ve spotted some photos online that show their faces) they performed in the hooded robes of Sevillian monks, never revealing their faces because to do so would diminish the gravity of their work, drawing attention to them instead of their music. Other metal bands (Australia’s Portal, Sweden’s Ghost) have pulled this gambit, too, in Ghost’s case seemingly at least half-jokingly. Orthodox, by contrast, seem deadly serious about what they do.
Ba’al is Orthodox’s fourth album, and it’s something of a regression—the first in their career thus far. Their debut, 2006′s Gran Poder, was a doom metal record, full stop. The songs were slow and heavy, owing as much as every metal band in the history of the genre to Black Sabbath and somewhat more to Melvins. (The double vinyl version, released by Southern Lord, included a bonus cover version of “Black Sabbath”). Their second album, 2007′s Amanecer en Puerta Oscura, found them attempting to break the chains of metal by incorporating new instruments (piano, clarinet, trumpet) and a more improvisatory style, sometimes moving close to free jazz territory, with the drumming in particular abandoning the rigidity of doom (at least, doom as practiced by everybody but Khanate) in favor of skittering, time-scattering outbursts. They followed that with a quiet, mostly acoustic 19-minute track on the Four Burials compilation, before releasing their third album, Sentencia, in 2009. The only track on Sentencia to feature electric guitar was the brief opening invocation, “Marcha de la Santa Sangre,” which had a spaghetti Western feel. The body of the album was taken up with the 26-minute “Ascension,” which was arranged for piano, clarinet, upright bass and brushed drums, and the final track, “…y la Muerte No Tendra Dominio,” was all organ, drums and distorted percussion.
Ba’al, though, is all metal. The first four tracks—”Alto Padre,” “Taurus,” “Iatromantis” and “Hani Ba’al”—are cranked-up riff-fests, fuzzed-out guitar and thundering bass hammered forward by cruder drumming than they’ve ever featured before. The production and mix is deliberately distorted, owing something to garage rock and the proto-metal psych-rock of bands like Josefus or Buffalo, with maybe some Kyuss thrown in. And for the first time, the vocals are in English—the singer has some of the off-kilter incantatory power of Serj Tankian, with an extra edge of hoarse desperation.
The album’s final track, “Ábrase la Tierra,” is a 14-minute epic. The drummer combines martial thunder with long tom rolls to create ever-increasing tension, only slightly relieved by the occasional cymbal crash. The bassist unleashes roaring, distorted notes, as the guitarist tears at his strings, half riffing and half punishing his instrument. For much of its length, it’s a slow and crushingly heavy doom-psych anthem, muezzin-like wailing atop scorching guitars (including an actual solo!) and safe-falling-on-your-head-from-60-stories-up-drumming, but then in its last two or three minutes it dissolves into noise-guitar destruction and then eventual near-ambient strumming, the cleanest sound on the whole record. And then it’s over. Orthodox albums tend to be short; Sentencia was less than 35 minutes, and Ba’al runs just under 40. But they make every moment count. So while this guitar-bass-drums destruction may seem atavistic and regressive after the experimentation of their last two discs, it’s no less satisfying than anything else they’ve released. Orthodox are one of those bands that can seemingly do no wrong; there’s really no reason in the world not to listen to them.