7/2/2009 - Review by: Etiam
In a recent interview with About.com, Greg Anderson of cult drone/doom act Sunn is quoted as lamenting that, "the attention span is a lost art." Certainly, in our age, where everything is now and iPod syndrome (skipping from one artist to the next without ever finishing a whole song) is ubiquitous, it's easy to empathize with him. As co-owner of Southern Lord Records--along with fellow Sunn-ster Stephen O'Malley--Anderson has the opportunity to help buck that trend by distributing and signing artists whose compositions are once lengthy and compelling. In typically contrarian fashion, it's instead mostly artists like Orthodox that Southern Lord ends up backing. (It should be noted that Southern Lord is the band's Stateside distributor; Orthodox is technically signed to Alone Records in Europe). To be fair, Spain's Orthodox fit well into the label's, and Sunn's, existing aesthetic: occult, vacuum-tube powered monoliths of sound that sometimes even sound like music (only rarely, though). But after a few spins of Orthodox's debut LP, 'Gran Poder', likely referring to the Jesus del Gran Poder, one is left wondering whether this band and folks like Anderson are simply shooting themselves in the foot.
'Gran Poder' is an intriguing contradiction in that it relies on bringing unpredictability to drone, a genre defined by its monotony. The band's trilingual (English, Spanish, Latin) lyrics center around themes of naturalism, Catholocism, and mysticism, and are aptly aligned with obscure musical motives. At their best, Orthodox imbue their blend of primal and ultra-heavy riff sketches, impulsive drumming, and lengthy silences with a sense of momentum and brash purpose. A few times, they even burst out into a full-blown stoner rock frenzy, like Boris kicking out the jams. Opening cut 'Geryon's Throne' occasionally channels this energy, reaching new plateaus of instrumentation and agitation every handful of minutes over its nearly half-hour length. However, just as frequently, Orthodox are hobbled by useless repetition that crosses the boundary from compulsive and trance-inducing into boring and uninspired. The final half of 'El Lamento del Cabrón' consists solely of a short and painfully simple phrase repeated approximately every fifteen seconds, ad nauseum.
Of course, this is not to say that simplistic riffing or minimalist music are necessarily without momentum. Indeed, Sunn have brushed up against brilliance in their day (as well as crippling tedium), Earth's popularity is deservedly rising, and the recent debut of Trinacria--more song-oriented than the other two, but occasionally as strophic as these others--was among last year's best. The critical element, or x-factor, if you will, is a band's ability to say more in thirty repetitions of a riff than they could in the traditional four or two. On 'Gran Poder', Orthodox have not yet learned this skill, intermittently entrancing as they may be.
This album's most consistent presence is the percussion of Borja Diaz Vera, whose experimental and open-minded approach to his kit again recalls the irrepressible Max Roach (the best single reference, Roach was also mentioned in my review of 'Amanecer...'). Wielding only a pair of brushes and seated before a single snare, Roach could rivet an audience with a three-minute drum narrative that ranged from the head of the drum to its rim and all the way down to the floor. Though Vera is (thankfully) more reserved in his approach, his free-ranging contribution to 'Gran Poder' helps drag it through the occasional doldrums.
One year after this debut's release, Orthodox's sophomore album, 'Amanecer en Puerta Oscura', would delve more keenly into freeform and seemingly improvisational ambiance, including some jazz instrumentation absent on 'Gran Poder'. These additional textures helped bring a much-needed dynamicism to the band's ponderous weight and improved the subtleties of their preexisting instrumentation (drums, bass, guitar, vocals phased more heavily than UFOmammut, etc.). Hopefully, Orthodox will continue to develop that unique niche on their forthcoming third LP--another album like 'Gran Poder' might begin to try even Anderson's patience.
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