I've recounted many times on these pages how deeply the doom-filled strains of bands like Black Sabbath and Pentagram have burned their brand into entire generations of hard rock and metal, but the dark and heavy sounds of that era lend themselves so well to macabre, occult and horror themes that they continue to capture my attention. Many artists try ascending to those heights, but only a few capture the same dark majesty while retaining their own creative stamp.
San Francisco-based quartet Orchid is quickly becoming one such band – so much that acclaimed engineer Richard Whittaker, who was instrumental in the remastering of Black Sabbath's early albums (including their self-titled 1970 debut), has been following the group's progress since their 2009 EP Through the Devil's Doorway, and came aboard to master Orchid's latest full-length studio album The Mouths of Madness. On the heels of last year's well-received EP The Heretic, Madness sports a cleaner, fatter and more modern mix, with production kicked up several notches, bringing the band into an expert balance of vintage blues-influenced hard rock and modern metal, with a powerful current of menace and haunting atmosphere rumbling through all nine tracks.
The album opens with the title tune, which also happens to be the strongest of the bunch, with hooky, snarling riffs from guitarist Mark Thomas Baker, gut-punch kicks and shimmering cymbals by Carter Kennedy, beefy, Geezer Butler-style bass by Keith Nickel, and the best vocal work to date from frontman Theo Mindell, who channels just enough of Ozzy Osbourne's distinctive tenor to remind you of the band's roots, but with a grittier, higher-range tone all his own that's given extra weight by multi-tracking an octave lower.
It's a hard act to follow, but the band goes a bit more old-school for the swinging, jazz-infused rocker "Marching Dogs of War," which as you can infer from the title owes more than a little credit to Sabbath's “War Pigs.” That bluesier side resurfaces later in "Loving Hand of God" and "Nomad," the latter of which features Baker's richest lead guitar lines and more distinctly Ozzy-like vocals from Mindell, and the trashed-up groove of "See You on the Other Side" seems to add a little touch of Led Zeppelin to that formula. The seven-minute behemoth "Silent One" is another standout, bringing one their scariest riffs to bear for a relentless and deliberate mid-tempo assault. The more upbeat "Mountains of Steel" showcases Kennedy's sparkling drum work, while the vocals seem to be mixed a bit low beneath the blanketing main riff.
The album's first single "Wizard of War" stands alongside the title track as Orchid's best material, with the meanest, nastiest main riff on the album, as you can hear for yourself in the video below. It also gets a little extra love from me thanks to the bizarro cover artwork for the single release, which bears a passing resemblance to poster art for the schlocky 1979 horror film The Dark, featuring an alien with laser-beam eyes. Probably just a coincidence, but that's just how my mind works.
If there's a downside to The Mouths of Madness, it's the lack of clear variation between tracks, as there's a definite sameness to the dynamics, especially in the middle section. But this isn't exactly uncommon among doom-rock material, which aims more for a pervasive atmosphere than mixing up tempos or cross-pollinating with other genres. The album is also a stylistic step up from their previous full-length Capricorn, which to my ears seemed to be reaching too deep into the past for a vintage tone; Madness is a modern metal record in all the best ways, but with a tough, bluesy vibe that fans of early '70s dark rock can truly appreciate.
Here's the old-school performance clip for "Wizard of War," which sadly does not feature laser-eyed aliens, but is a badass jam nonetheless: