*** Go to our YouTube channel in the link below to see the video review of this record in episode #29 of the SBR Album of the Week.
Rock music has offered little of interest to metal fans since the rise and fall of grunge. When was the last time a rock band provided the metal scene with a kick up the backside? Yet a growing number of artists in the last decade have started to incorporate the low guitar tunings and complex rhythms of metal and taken inspiration from its dynamics. The likes of Karnivool, VOLA, Caligula’s Horse, Voyager and, of course, Tesseract, now spearhead a wave of challenging rock music aimed at metalheads. Sometimes, the two are indistinguishable. London trio, Black Orchid Empire, are one of those artists that can appeal to both camps. The absence of aggressive vocals pivots their music towards rock, but there’s no doubt the riffs belong at Bloodstock and Wacken. Signing to Season of Mist for their fourth album will make them even more enticing to those with heavier tastes.
Perhaps the greatest strength of Black Orchid Empire is their ability to write songs of between three and four minutes in length while maintaining the illusion of prog metal sophistication. You’ll find no ironic art rock fascination with 1980s pop culture or virtuoso shred guitar here, but that may be the secret to this album’s success. This band dare to strip prog metal of its indulgences on ‘Hydrogen’ and scale it back to a core identity of heavy riffing, melodic verses, and memorable chorus lines. Yes, they throw in subtle offbeats and use the middle eight section to deconstruct the main guitar hook and reprocess it as a more complex simulacrum, but vocalist, Paul Visser, always commands the mix. Listen how he leaps into the chorus of ‘The Raven’ with a magnificent tenor uplift after navigating through a spacious melodic framework like the brighter moments on Haken’s latest record. The predictable dynamic contrast between verse and chorus should be a source of weakness, but this is acceptable when the guitar riffs are so colossal.
See if you can control the impulse of your head and shoulders to loop forward in a clockwise direction when the opening guitar hook to ‘Deny the Sun’ emerges from the amps in a drop-tuned distortion. This is how you mix the low-end might of Meshuggah with the anguished introspection of Tesseract. ‘Glory to the King’ is just as poignant in its sophisticated simplicity. Of course, the innovations of Meshuggah and Tool extend far beyond the metal sphere, yet we can trace the origins of this type of rock-metal hybrid to the debut King’s X record in 1987 (see Out of the Silent Planet). They were the first to combine drop-tuned guitars with advanced melodies and razor-sharp rhythms even if some of today’s artists are unaware of their legacy. You can hear their stylings in ‘Summit’, where the technical metal riff in the intro gives way to a succession of pastel textures and hostile bass gargles before they step on the overdrive for an emotive chorus straight from the inner workings of A Perfect Circle. Pop was not a dirty word to Faith No More on The Real Thing or to Nirvana on Nevermind, so why should it be anathema on a record like Tempus Veritas where the aim is to write catchy songs with crushing guitars? Do we not praise Spiritbox for the same thing?
You’ll soon forget about the lack of aggression in the vocals once you grow to appreciate the melodic brilliance of the voice arrangements. The guitars are happy to provide the hostility with a growling low-end intensity and dexterity in all but one of the eleven tracks on this record. Jinjer and Periphery fans will delight at the angular guitar shapes on display throughout ‘Vesuvius’. Only ‘Scarlet Haze’ falls into the generic radio-rock category with its determination to find an optimistic vibe in the beauty of its chorus. You can tolerate it as a one-off, but you wonder if the trio might indulge this weakness on future albums rather than focus their energy on rip-roaring anthems. It makes you appreciate the great success of Black Orchid Empire’s balancing act on Tempus Veritas, where the emphasis leans towards the heavier end of the spectrum.
Season of Mist will be eyeing Haken’s commercial success in Germany and studying Tesseract’s international growth with great interest. Could Black Orchid Empire be their prog metal ace in the pack? The London trio have the songs and the musicianship to justify these ambitions and deserve the attention of all who enjoy heavy guitar music.
Release Date: 14/04/2023
Record Label: Season of Mist
Standout tracks: The Raven, Deny the Sun, Vesuvius
Suggested Further Listening: Haken – Vector (2018), Threshold – Dividing Lines (2022), Tesseract – One (2011)