The din made by the Spanish doomplayers in Orthodox may be slow, but it’s not easy to pin down. During the first half of Ba’al, they find tension by having nearly no tension at all. Are the results gut rock or art rock? Obtuse drones and crashes still have the vestiges of power chords. No matter how spacious and gradual those crashes, they still preach verities established by late-’60s power trios. Is it the work of sharpened senses or utter depletion? Where was the mind when the music was committed to tape?
When Orthodox appeared around 2005, the band performed hidden in black hoods, evoking both grey clouds of Seattle’s Sunn 0))), and the monks of its Andalusian home. More recent press shots show them in Black Flag t-shirts. Ba’al, the band’s fourth album, sits between those points, even dedicating the opening instrumental to Cliff Burton and John Coltrane. The delivery comes across as loose and free ensemble playing. Ba’al is so heavy on prelude, though, moving systematically toward a climax, it guarantees that the improvisation came between the bars, and not in the overall structure. Listening to “Taurus,” one might loose track of the beat as it breaks down between drum rolls and feedback. But the beat always comes back on Ba’al, lurching forward and faster as the album rolls on.
Marco Gallardo sings in English for the first time, with a howl that has the controlled sustain of a muezzin, befitting his formerly-Moorish surroundings. The English lyrics may be a concession toward a larger audience -- if there’s a larger audience for a tale of Iberian warriors sacking Rome. But it’s Gallardo’s voice that makes Ba’al otherworldly, regardless of language. Like late Black Flag, the playing makes nods toward jazz, but with a cast-iron tone that reflects no light at all. Down to earth vox would have demystified the blackness. As Gallardo holds a single note across long phrases, the vibrations in his shriek have a sawtooth texture that skitters across the throb. It spooks.
It also ties the slog of the first three songs to the slow drive of the final two. At first, he’s exhorting the galley slaves to work the oars, but by the time they get the barge in out of the harbor, the rhythm is relentless. Whips and chain metal can make something powerful, that’s no surprise. Orthodox wrench an ugly artistry out of those tools, too.