My taste for symphonic progressive metal comes from the sense of a larger reality; when the elements of rock, classical arrangements and experimental touches come together, the music can capture the feel of dark fantasy on a scale you wouldn't normally experience in a book or movie. The flagship bands of the modern prog-metal genre, most of which hail from Europe, run the spectrum from ethereal gothic rock to horror & occult-themed metal, even grand-scale melodic death with full orchestras. But those of you who remember metal's golden era know how bands like Queensryche, Dream Theater, Fates Warning and Metal Church dominated the genre, and their kindred still kick much ass, even three decades later. Among those descendants are Pennsylvania-based unit Order Of Nine, who take a cue from the classics while giving a nod to symphonic/gothic styles from across the Atlantic, in an effort to fill their cinematic canvas with many shades of darkness. Their fifth studio album Seventh Year of the Broken Mirror dropped this week, and you can check out our review below!
Formed in 1997 under the name Templar (named after the Medieval sect of religious warriors – yes, the same ones from the Blind Dead movies), Order Of Nine underwent some dramatic lineup changes since their debut release A Touch of Winter's Discontent – including the untimely death of guitarist and founding member Michael Chiccitt – but endured enough to hit the #5 spot on the Amazon downloads chart (and stay there for two months) for their 2008 record A Means to Know End, which they followed up with a haunting holiday-themed single, the musical ghost story "The Chronicles of Jacob Marley." Seventh Year of the Broken Mirror puts more emphasis on their aggressive elements, from thrashier riffs to more elaborate technical guitar leads; also noteworthy are the vocals of frontman Michael DeGrena, whose range goes from a smooth and dark baritone to a sinister snarl (imagine a more gothic version of Zakk Wylde), often accentuated by subtle layering effects.
Whispered incantations open the title track, a mystic anthem driven by simple chunky riffs and adorned with glassy layers of piano and multiple vocal harmonies, topped off with a solid guitar solo in the bridge. It establishes the enticing but dangerous sound that is the band's trademark, but in a more compact presentation. The band's real sense of scope comes across in sprawling tracks like "Dreamspeak," which runs the course from a very Goblin-like piano and guitar intro to gritty old school thrash with washes of keyboard backing, spoken-word touches and another massive solo. At his best, DeGrena's voice lends a ritualistic feel to songs like "Words that were Said" and the rhythmically tight "Twelfth Talisman," but while I hear a touch of Mastodon's surreal energy in the shifting patterns of "Reign Down," the more subdued vocals don't quite pack the possessed mania summoned by the likes of Brent Hinds.
There's a distinct '80s feel to cuts like "Spiral Staircase," with its darker, heavier, mid-tempo riffs (featuring a beefy bass line) and reverb-fat acoustic guitar passages; it's no surprise to learn that Order Of Nine contributed to the Queensryche tribute album Rebellion, and their songwriting style reflects a lot of that legendary band's influence. When they throw down for more straightforward thrash (including occasional touches of death metal vocals and riffs) in "Changing of the Guard" and "Third Wish," the sweeping dynamics of those earlier songs is leveled out a bit too much. But the band also shines out in their Euro-style gothic pieces like "Innocence," which layers bright acoustics with piano, and the guitar-free closing lullaby "Winter's Call," which is carried by soft piano, rich vocal harmonies, and the sound of winter winds.
While sometimes lacking in aggression and dynamics, Order Of Nine still manage to create a sense of grandeur using the classic tools of metal – something bigger bands with massive backing orchestras and choirs often fail to capture. When it comes to creating a haunting mood, a flair for melody and arrangement is key, and this group has a solid grip on the essentials. With just a touch more energy, they could bring something bold and new to the metal landscape, while paying rightful homage to the genre's Great Old Ones. That's not to say their current work isn't ideal for arena-sized venues, because it totally is, and I'm betting that's where they really shine. Definitely a worthwhile spin for prog-metal fans.