“He played the most dreadful music that could possibly be imagined by the most fiendish mind of man. He deafened us with the sheer fabulous ugliness of his music. He made our flesh crawl and bristle with his noise. Mum’s face began to twitch. I kept jerking. A strange smell, as of a rotting corpse, or of a great animal in the throes of death, rose from the music, and occupied the room. It was incredible.”
-Ben Okri, The Famished Road (1991)
“At the moment the face is horribly distorted, especially the eyes. The whole body and the features of the face work with convulsive jerks and contortions. A terrible, indescribable scream that is unlike anything else breaks from the sufferer. In that scream everything human seems obliterated and it is impossible, or very difficult, for an observer to realise and admit that it is the man himself screaming. It seems indeed as though it were some one else screaming from within the man.”
-Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Idiot (1869)
Had this been any other year, the fight for top grindcore album come December would’ve been a bare-knuckled brawl. A nearly unprecedented number of the genre’s modern purveyors released excellent LPs this cycle, and the Iron Chef-level of accomplishment on the best of them would’ve meant a hair’s breadth difference between the first, second and third place position, had Jon Chang’s elite grindcore commando squad not loosed this 13-minute, precision-guided salvo broadside through their hulls, rendering further discussion unnecessary.
Ever since my frenzied first listen some 4 months ago, I’ve known that 2011’s album of the year had already been chosen for me. Of course, there was at first some denial on my part; surely some other album could come in the next 8 months that would shake this grind masterpiece from its throne, relegating it to second or even third place? Yet as the weeks wore on, my enthusiasm for Orphan just never seemed to wane, and its unshakeable supremacy was further cemented as weeks and then months of listening allowed me to unpack more and more of the intricacies that compose this compact musical dynamo of a record.
Orphan seems essentially designed to ramp up every aspect that made 2006’s Amber Grey a masterpiece in its own right. Takafumi Matsubara, also guitar mastermind of Japan’s underrated technical grind powerhouse Mortalized, has upped the band’s guitar composition in both complexity as well as catchiness (an aspect oft-overlooked in grindcore songwriting,) crafting songs that perfectly marry the technical with the memorable instead of jumping off the deep end of wankiness as many “mathcore” and technical metal groups tend to do.
In response to the upgrade in songwriting, the other aspects of the band have been beefed up as well. Former Human Remains members Steve Procopio (who acted as touring guitarist for Discordance Axis when Rob Marton was out of commission) and bassist Teddy Patterson do an excellent job of filling out the band’s sound, adding punch without sacrificing an ounce of rawness or energy. Blastbeat wunderkind Bryan Fajardo returns to the drum stool with his chops cranked up to 11, and even he’s had to make some changes to cope with Matsubara’s frenetic fretwork. Formerly the king of the single-pedal blastbeat, he had to learn to play double-kick just to keep up with the relentless bpms this record cranks out. Even vocalist Jon Chang shows increased versatility this go-round, exhibiting his full range of techniques from shrieks to deathgrowls and to several surprising gradations in-between.
Ever a font of vitriol, from his work in Discordance Axis to the present, Chang has upped the anger, pain and frustration to a fever pitch on this release. Vocally, it’s rarely more visible than in the black metal-inflected, tortured-wolverine-spewing-acid delivery on “Scopedog,” one of many anime-indebted narratives to be found on the record (the song itself named after a character from the long-running VOTOMS series.) He also employs a clearer, almost barking technique for some lines, making lyrics like the title track’s “Somewhere in between we’ve lost ourselves” surprisingly understandable right from the first listen.
His penchant for violent revenge returns in full force on this record, perhaps most evident on standout closing track “The Last Red Shoulder” (named after a VOTOMS OVA and another of many anime references on the record): “I want to hear you scream until it becomes the flat drone of tinnitus / Until the ground is Pollacked with your offal and blood.” However, the lyrics boast more than just extreme music’s requisite gore; they also exhibit a pain and fragility more common to heart-on-sleeve singer-songwriters than grindcore lifers, exhibited in these lyrics from the title track: “I never wanted this distance / This distance between myself and the rest of the world / Unanswered voicemails[,] the cursor hangs anxiously / Waiting for words that never come.”
Lyrically, Orphan also boasts some of Chang’s most accomplished writing to date. Aforementioned album closer “The Last Red Shoulder” boasts particularly evocative, imagery-laden storytelling that weaves a violent, emotionally intense war narrative. While clearly influenced by the mech combat of some of his favorite anime, these lyrics, like much of his work, seem to carry a deeply personal undercurrent. These lines from the song’s opening genuinely gave me chills when I first cracked open the gatefold for a peek at the lyrics sheet: “Rotor wash stirs the desert / Only a shadow of myself / Covered in the grey powder that once was people / Gore spattered chassis are matted by acid rain.”
The record offers a surprise treat for grindcore purists in the fantastic “Cargo 200,” a blistering 7 seconds that will go down in history as one of the finest micro-songs ever written, in grind or any other genre. More than just primal therapy, the song proves that there’s still life in a trick that’s become something of a genre cliché roughly two-and-a-half decades after “You Suffer” blipped its way into our music-consuming consciousness.
While I could go on, dissecting all of the layers that make the album great track-by-track, it seems futile, especially after the excellent coverage it's received within the blogsphere and the surprisingly positive reception it’s received from some corners of the mainstream metal press. Additionally, considering the track record of Chang and the rest of the band, if you were going to pick this record up you most likely had the good sense to do it months ago, and anything I would have to say either for or against it would be fairly useless.
Instead, consider this more a love song to a record I've grown extremely attached to and should’ve reviewed months ago, as well as perhaps a re-introduction to me as a blogger, since now that I’ve completed my degree and am settling into post-college life I plan to start publishing reviews of grindcore records (as well as some from other genres) at least weekly. Midnight Wednesday evening I'll be airing a grindcore radio show from my alma mater's radio station, which you can stream here when the time comes, and which I'll also be posting a mediafire link for either early Thursday morning or later during the day on Thursday or Friday if you can't listen live.