Israeli Metal, Arab Fans: Orphaned Land Creates an Alternative Middle East

Israel’s most successful metal band has fans throughout the Arab world. For 27 years it manages to combine guitars and distortion with traditional Middle Eastern music

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Orphaned Land in concert. The band's lyrics highlight the similarities and shared values among the three monotheistic faiths
Orphaned Land in concert. The band's lyrics highlight the similarities and shared values among the three monotheistic faithsCredit: Orit Pnini
Avi Pitchon
Avi Pitchon
Avi Pitchon
Avi Pitchon

The contrast between reality and the common stereotypes of what a heavy metal band is and what interests metalheads becomes all the starker when my whiskey-fueled conversation with 43-year-old Kobi Farhi, lead singer of metal band Orphaned Land, moves to the subject of Janusz Korczak and becomes a lengthy discussion about education as the key to improving the human condition.

Orphaned Land. Israel’s most successful metal bandCredit: Zohar Ron

>> The heavy metal solution to conflict in the Middle East >>

So yes, given the prevalent prejudices about metal and the moral panic whipped up by the media (Satanic cults, burners of cats, encouragers of suicide), and the musical snobbism that says metal is infantile, machoistic and anachronistic, we can laugh together about how the message of the most successful Israeli metal band isn’t all blood, fire and loudness, but “Let’s educate the young generation to have good values.” Satanism out, education in.

Orphaned Land is far from the only metal band in the world that doesn’t adhere to the usual stigmas, but its uniqueness in nearly every aspect truly sets it apart within the genre – in terms of its music and lyrics, the audiences that come to its shows and the musicians with whom it collaborates (a partial list: Yehuda Poliker, Avi Singolda, Riff Cohen and Genesis alum Steve Hackett).

Kobi Farhi, second from left, lead singer of the Israeli heavy metal band Orphaned Land performing at a music festival in Ankara in 2012. Credit: ADEM ALTAN / AFP

Anyone who knows anything about the band – which was founded in 1991 and released its debut album three years later – knows that it has fans from many Arab countries. They follow the band on European tours, or travel to concerts in Turkey. Emotional encounters between band members and fans from Syria and Lebanon have been filmed, as have the flags of different Arab countries waving alongside Israeli flags at big music festivals like the Wacken Open Air festival in Germany.

The cover of the band's 'All is One' albumCredit: Metastazis
The cover of Orphaned Land's new album, 'Unsung Prophets and Dead Messiahs.'Credit: Metastazis

The following in the Arab world is due to the sophisticated and effective way in which the band combines guitars and distortion with traditional Middle Eastern music, from classical Arab scales to the sounds of the muezzin calls to the Mizrahi-style singing of Shlomit Levi and motifs borrowed from Jewish liturgical music and synagogue melodies.

Then there is the fact that Orphaned Land’s lyrics highlight the similarities and shared values among the three monotheistic faiths. This reached a peak with its previous album, “All is One,” whose cover featured a Star of David, crescent and crucifix all intertwined into a single new unified symbol. Contrary to what one might think after giving this a superficial listen, this is not a utopian and optimistic album, but rather one that has a lot to say about the pain and tragedy in this part of the world.

Orphaned Land’s lyrics highlight the similarities and shared values among the three monotheistic faiths. The cover of their last album features a Star of David, crescent and crucifix all intertwined into a single new unified symbol

Even amid the polarized and violent political discourse that exists among Jewish Israelis, the band manages to rise above the usual incitement. Any Facebook post by Farhi about current events elicits hundreds of “likes” and a long chain of responses in which the arguments hardly ever include cursing. Farhi says he doesn’t vote in elections – in keeping with his desire to avoid the boxes of right and left, as well as the pretensions of the centrist parties that describe themselves as “beyond right and left.”

The respectful space that Farhi has carved out in social media is a result of his overcoming the conflict between the leftist aspiration for peace and freedom and the rightist aspiration for collective belonging and identity – both legitimate aspirations, parallel lines that will never meet. He and his band are seen as unwilling to touch party politics with a ten-foot pole. Even when they talk about things that in any other context would be viewed as leftist, they are seen as speaking from within their people rather than looking down condescendingly. And this all happens without resorting to shallowness or a feigned appeasing attitude. Sounds like an impossible contortion to pull off? Well here you have a model for an alternative type of dialogue that can grow in places that are out of the spotlight.

Which brings us to another thing worth noting: the sociocultural aspect – the way that metal views itself as a way of life that rises above all the artificial differences. The reason you’ll have a hard time convincing a metal band to boycott Israel has less to do with specific objections to BDS’ message and more to do with a deep and explicit belief that the encounter between a band and its fans stands above any other mundane considerations of this world. Political trends come and go. Reality, for the most part, is static. This is the viewpoint that informs metal’s anti-establishment stance, which includes strongly held internal solidarity coupled with scorn for those on the outside. It’s a kind of metal Marxism: Metal fans of the world, unite!

Into Plato's cave

Orphaned Land’s latest album, “Unsung Prophets & Dead Messiahs,” came out in January. The video for the song “Like Orpheus” depicts the unity of metal and its supremacy over all the religions that spill each other’s blood. It features an Arab Muslim woman (played by Ethel Feigman who is of Russian background and the lead vocalist of Magen and Orgonite) alongside an ultra-Orthodox man. Each of them plans, separately, in secret, to go out to a metal concert. After the show, both are waiting at the same bus stop, unaware that they were just in the same place and that they have something in common. The video ends with a caption that says, “With feelings of respect for Judaism and Islam and [in huge letters] for metal.”

Which leads us, at last, back to Farhi’s living room. The new album actually leaves the Middle East behind to take on global issues. The video described above is just one piece of the album’s thematic and musical puzzle.

“The first song on the album is called ‘The Cave,’” says Farhi, “after the cave in Plato’s famous allegory.”

“So basically from the very beginning it’s clear that the album has a broader vantage point than just what is happening in the Middle East. It’s more universal. It’s not just the first song. The narrative is spread throughout the album and deviates from the original allegory. There’s a hero who understands the deception, escapes from the cave and then at a certain point decides that he must go back to free those who were left behind. The story keeps unfolding until the penultimate song, ‘Only the Dead have Seen the End of War,’ featuring guest artist Tomas Lindberg (lead vocalist of Swedish death metal band At The Gates), in which the hero is actually killed by the people he wanted to save.”

Orphaned Land in concert Credit: Niv Singer

So, “Like Orpheus” does relate to the Middle East as a continuation of the previous album, but here it’s linked to the larger narrative.

“When the Muslim woman and the Haredi man are at the bus stop and oblivious to what they have in common, in that sense they’re trapped in the cave. A few songs later, ‘Take My Hand’ opens with some excerpts from an interview with Aldous Huxley. So to connect all the dots, the overriding theme is about humans being content in a condition of slavery, they refuse to leave the cave, and they kill those who try to free them. So there are those that we know, from Jesus to Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Yitzhak Rabin, but the album is dedicated to those we still need to discover and learn more about. One such person, who is very important to me personally, is the musician Victor Jara, who was killed in the military coup in Chile in 1973. But he’s far from the only one. There are men and women like him in every culture, place and time.”

So basically what you’re telling me is that you’ve gone back to the tradition of megalomaniacal concept albums.

“This album blends what we did in the three albums that preceded it – ‘Mabool’ (2004), ‘The Neverending Way of ORwarriOR’ (2010) and ‘All is One’ (2013). The relation to the first two is obviously the broadness of the concept. When we recorded ‘All is One,’ the band was already 22 years old and when you’re at that point it’s always a challenge to decide what comes next. The desire with that album was to do something more simple and direct — even in terms of the song titles. Where we once had titles like ‘Disciples of the Sacred Oath, Part 2,’ suddenly on ‘All is One’ it’s ‘Brother,’ ‘Fail,’ ‘Children.’ And the cover, which you mentioned, and which was done by a French design firm, also came from a desire to make our ideas accessible.”

A lot of fans were disappointed by the change in direction. Some even whined that “it’s not metal.”

“We’re proud of this album and feel good about it, but we like to make concept albums so it’s fun to come back to solos that last a minute and a half, songs that are nine minutes long and have a plot thread that’s woven into all the songs. We wanted to go back to ‘Mabool’ but with all the bombastic pathos and orchestral production and arrangements of ‘All is One’ and see what happens when the two meet.”

As a former self-styled punk rocker who barely knows four guitar chords, it’s hard for me to imagine how you make an album like this... It sounds like a movie soundtrack.

“You start with the concept and then you build a chronological narrative. It’s a meticulous process of creating order out of total chaos. Just think about all the elements. Think how many hours of Huxley I had to listen to until I found the right fragment and then I had to fit it in just right so the song would start when he says the word ‘propaganda.’

“It’s like managing an Excel file. You have violins that you want to put in here. And bouzouki. And effects. And there are things where it’s a gut feeling – like deciding that when I say the line ‘I have to go back’ at the start of ‘My Brother’s Keeper,’ there won’t be anything else in the background, just the speech alone, because it creates a cinematic kind of moment.”

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