Orphaned Land has been a hit or miss band for me. My first impression of the group was with their 2004 breakthrough album, Mabool - The Story of the Three Sons of Seven. I truly found that album to be rewarding on several levels but felt that the harsh elements weren't totally congruous with the Middle Eastern sentiments. I had largely forgotten about the band by the time their next album, The Neverending way of ORwarriOR was released in 2010. I was not impressed by that album at the time, nor do I retain any kind of overwhelming emotion to it now. Thus, predictably, the band drifted off my radar. Somewhere within the past two or three years, I encountered the band's sophomore album, El Norra Alila at a garage sale or flea market somewhere for a few bucks and picked it up for the sole reason of finally hearing some of the songs which I had only previously heard on the live bonus disc which accompanied Mabool. Having not heard the band's recent albums, I still feel confident proclaiming that Orphaned Land's second album is their best record. To my ears and judgement, El Norra Alila should be considered a transportive album, carrying the listener to a truly new landscape of sounds.
While there are several key tracks on the album, the album opener, "Find Yourself, Discover God" epitomizes what makes El Norra Alila special. The weaving guitar lines are nuanced and enlightened by a native honesty. While Western artists have often opted to lift middle eastern themes for placement into songs - the iconic acoustic fill in Megadeth's "Holy Wars, The Punishment Due" comes to mind quickly as one example - guitarist Yossi Sassi seems to mindlessly play through endless variations of traditional phrasings which I find breathtaking. Kobi Farhi's vocals are another unique element which instantly give a grandeur to the track. Deep spoken word sections and hymnal-esque segments are interrupted with occasional black-metal rasps to form a deeply religious and spiritual atmosphere. At all times, this is complemented by Sassi's lead guitars. Other times the vocals follow the rhythm guitars by Matti Svatizki building deep harmonious combinations. As if all this wasn't enough, Orphaned felt inclined to elicit the help of a number of guest musicians to add numerous folk and traditional instruments to the mix. As an opening track, it doesn't draw you into the album as much as it pushes you off a cliff into Orphaned Land's musical universe.
Another key track - or tracks - is the combination of "The Path Ahead" and it's tail "A Neverending Way," the latter of which was one of my favorite tracks on the Mabool live bonus disc. The track there is a mostly a cappella rendition and always spine-tingling. Here, the original version is no less incredible but we are given the full context of the song. As "The Path Ahead" treks forth through memorable leads and elegant sections, it also moves through some darker moments. I think in this song more than any other, the influences of classical composition is apparent. The song flows with little repetition, giving Farhi room to explore vocal usages and invoke imagery. Split by a highly emphasized overdriven vocal moment, the song slowly morphs into the violin opening moments of "A Neverending Way", the song hearkening back to it's preamble track lyrically. It's easy to hear why the track is a fan favorite on the Mabool bonus tracks. It's big chugging verse moments, long vocal lines, poetic lyrics, and clear concise ending are indicative of the band's confidence in their craft.
Lyrically, the album is beautifully jammed with what I could call a treatise on spirituality in poetic verse. While it's possible to, of course, look at the lyrics in an interpretive manner and not literally, I believe that Orphaned Land is fairly clear in their content and it's not surprising given the cultural surroundings. "I'm down on my knees, I worship you with awe, I'm down on my knees, my belief forever strong, And I call out to you my lord of light, Watch my faith how it glows (Flawless Belief)" or "Find your self, discover God... You are his begotten son (Find Your Self, Discover God)". Much of the album's lyrical content is a call to find solace and love and one's relationship with God. There isn't a set denominational statement and the lyrical content is less proselytizing than your average Satanic black metal album, giving the listener a breath of ideological space. Nevertheless, one of the drawbacks on this album for me is the lack of diversity of thought to match the diversity of musical influences. I wanted to see some form of conflict, of hesitance, of intellectual battle, but it is quite dry in that regard.
Other noteworthy tracks for me are "Flawless Belief" with it's truncated rhythmic syncopations and impressive structural scale emphasizing the rhythm section of the band comprised of drummer Sami Bachar and bassist Uri Zelcha. Also "Like Fire to Water" and "El Meod Na'Ala", one of two songs sung in beautiful Hebrew. My main concerns with the album are relatively few. I find El Norra Alila to be more cohesive than it's follow up Mabool and a big step up from debut Sahara in maturity and vision. There are moments where I am not entirely satisfied, particularly towards the end of the album where there are some filler tracks such as "Of Temptation Born" and "The Evil Urge". The album is long, a blemish which I can overlook in this instance, but does detract from my likelihood of listening to the album more than once in a while, even for as good as it is. I'm not sure the hidden track warrants the additional ten minutes of blank time to hide it at the end of "The Evil Urge". The production overall elicits a feeling of dryness, especially the harsh sandy guitar tone which is ideal for the atmosphere yet after an hour of music, could be found to be grating.
El Norra Alila considered within the appropriate context of it's creation makes it a quite astounding album for something created in not only a non-traditional metal market but in an area of the world where just several miles away in a different country, such an album could cost the musicians their life. Released in 1996, it is one of the earliest examples of metal to appear in Israel, and the Middle East as a whole, which would reach audiences beyond. It also makes no attempt not to remove the regional and traditional elements and mimic western archetypes. It is unabashedly local. Compare this to other material of it's time and there is a significant change in how these elements are portrayed. Melechesh - who are trumpeted as being purveyors of Middle Eastern cultural motifs on their albums - on their 1996 album, As Jerusalem Burns... Al'Intisar, do not incorporate such clearly defined folk influences.
Also of interest is the usage of harsh and clean vocals as a singularly atmospheric element - a combination which, to my knowledge, was at this point in time still rare and obscure to find. Orphaned Land, two years prior, on Sahara, were also mixing vocal styles and patterns however on El Norra Alila they have truly specialized into using the technique to convey atmosphere. Opeth used the mixture of clean vocals and death metal vocals as an atmospheric element similarly on their albums - at least through Deliverance - and Orphaned Land predated them on both their debut and El Norra Alila. In the Sahara insert, Holy Records defines the band as Oriental Doom Death. It's actually quite accurate but nowhere near as comprehensive as it should be. El Norra Alila is a true progressive gem, advancing Metal in a unique way.