In the domain of shock rock and horror metal, elaborate masks, costumes and makeup effects can be just as critical to a band's success as their music... sometimes it seems even more so. Artists like GWAR and LORDI have successfully gone the extra mile and thrown themselves bodily into their monstrous alter-egos, complete with mythologies and character backstory, but not all of that world-building goes into each and every song. Not so with A Band of Orcs, who not only convey their monstrous roles through well-crafted character designs – they look like life-size Warhammer game figures – but also in a detailed fantasy storyline, set mainly in their blood-spattered home world of “Hirntodia,” that weaves though all of their songs. That's not to say they take themselves seriously (for proof, check out my insane interview with the band) but they do remain true to their characters, and their battle-themed death thrash is as ferocious as the band members' toothy snarls.
I've been following the Orcs since their 2007 EP Warchiefs of the Apocalypse, and while they've been very active touring since then, the only sampling of their full-length debut came in the form of last year's single "Wyrd of the Winter Wolf.” That was a promising preview, and now they've delivered on that promise with an epic concept record. Imagine an inverted take on Tolkien's Middle Earth told from the perspective of the bad guys, and you've got the essence of Adding Heads to the Pile, a thirteen-track bloodbath following the Orcs (that would be vocalist Gogog Bloodthroat, guitarists Cretos Filthgrinder & Hulg Elfripper, bassist Gronk! and drummer Oog Skullbasher) on their violent misadventures as they seek vengeance for their imprisonment by a human sorcerer.
With the larger creative playground, the fantasy elements the band has often hinted in their earlier work have much more room to romp, allowing for mood-setting pieces like the instrumentals "The Darkness that Comes Before" (a short and spooky tribal piece) and the sweeping, multi-textured "A Deeper Evil,” while bringing the real thunder in blood-curdling anthems like "When the Hills Run Red.” This brutal cut proves the band can back up their image with old school death/thrash fury, but now there's a slightly more blackened edge that cranks up the menace, resulting in a brew that feels like Slayer gene-spliced with Behemoth. Some of this may result from thicker, denser production, but the vibe also comes through in darker, heavier riffs and Gogog's full spectrum of vocal growls and screeches. This track is the first and last word on the Orcs' new battle strategy, and a great calling card.
The spooky lead guitar runs and multi-tracked vocals of "In the Keeper's Chamber" definitely fire up the horror elements, while warrior chanting brings a battle metal component to "Of Broken Chains & Shattered Skulls,” the drums and bass drive the "Hall of the Frozen Dead" into a manic ritual war chant, and the chunky martial beats of "Stormbringer" rally the troops into action. While these tracks balance the shadowy demonic mood with exhilarating speed, the blackening just gets blacker in cuts like "Lair of the Ice Wyrm" and "Fall of the Fire Lord.” The musical and thematic elements of fire and ice come together powerfully on the title track, which stands alongside "When the Hills Run Red” as the album's most entertainingly evil cuts.
While their brand of metal is hardly unique, Adding Heads to the Pile demonstrates how the Orcs have a solid grip on their blackened death/thrash fundamentals, but they've also found a way to put their signature on the genre with their lyrical world-building, which helps bring the essence of their outlandish live personas to your earphones. The whole monstrous bundle is wrapped up with supreme artwork, including paintings by fantasy illustrators Chuck Lukacs (Magic: The Gathering) and Lorraine Schleter, which should have fans salivating for a proper vinyl edition. In the meantime, you can buy a digital copy directly via BandCamp.