With Our Arms To The Sun make a strong case for their longevity on their sophomore LP, Orenda. Where they’ll be heading is really anyone’s guess, but they certainly have the basic ingredients for some exploratory releases, even if the sign on the fencepost that gives directions is unreadable. Scratch your head and get on for the ride…or not.
Produced by sonic demigod Buzz Osbourne, Orenda is a dense and cinematic album, surely one of 2017’s most unpredictable listens. The cover art is impressive, but if you want to see cover art that reflects what it actually sounds like, check out the cover art for Rush’s Grace Under Pressure, which mixes an icy landscape with a touch of fantasy. There is a remoteness to the record at times, which runs counter to much of post-rock. In fact, it takes some concentrated listening to get to the record’s core and this may turn off some listeners in the age of streaming music and “listen to it once and move on.”
The opening track, “Disdain-Why Am I” is post-sludge, with vocalist Josh Breckendridge turning in a rare harsh vocal: in this case, a burly-man style, one-squinty-eye vocal hook that makes this easily the most memorable track. He likes use harsh vocals sparsely, which is a bit of a shame, as he turned in a post-black metal screech that drove the most prominent vocal tune, the appropriately titled “Great Black Divide,” on the band’s previous album, A Far Away Wonder. This style of vocal barely registers on Orenda, though. These guys are pretty much post-everything, so it’s not entirely unexpected. Maybe. Or perhaps they just embrace the show biz mantra of “leave ‘em wanting more.” The common understanding of this applies it to quantity but, you know, the entertainer decides what to hold back.
Maybe this isn’t a bad thing, but front-loading the album with the most innovative track may not be the best strategy in an album that relies so heavily on sequence. Due to its unusual nature for With Our Arms To The Sun, it might not be terrible to have placed this somewhere farther along. As it is, its strength is reminiscent of a concert where the opener blows the headliner off the stage. You enjoy the hell out of that opener, but wonder why the main act didn’t step up in response. It’s hard to believe the band didn’t give a lot of thought to the sequencing of Orenda. This is an album with three songs that are interludes, barely crossing the two-minute mark.
At times the band seems to mock the idea of titles and separate tracks altogether, as many of the “songs” feel more like two compositions segued together, further confirming that this is intended to be consumed in its entirety; this is a band who suggests that rock might embrace the “post-song” ethos that permeates live DJ sets and continuous mixes. Tentative confirmation comes from the titles, many of which have two “names” separated by a dash.
“Memory-The Drift” is up next, and gives listeners a better idea of what to expect. Some high-end riffing phrased a bit in the style of Minus The Bear, along with clean vocals and a few harsh screams to ease the withdrawal and transition to cleans. Breckenridge’s cleans are pensive and soulful. For contrast, some gorgeous, sparsely accompanied guitar lines provide some of the icy substance of the album. About halfway through the tune we get a vocal hook, almost as peaceful as they come, followed by an emoting guitar solo that invokes something falling or burning out, somewhere across the sky, visible with a distant gaze to the horizon.
“Macrocosm-Prometheus” starts off with a similar feel to “Memory-The Drift” though slides into a mellow passage invoking not just the feeling of aimless drift, but also the slow process of melting ice. “Doorway To Realization” feels like a post-Roger Waters Pink Floyd moment, a brief piano ballad that draws the listener into “Apex-100 Year Dream,” with delayed guitar and an insidious riff similar to Orenda’s opening. Some trippy keyboard fills mixed just right—never overpowering—enhance the feeling of a journey before dropping into some heavy riffing and more blazing guitar hero pyrotechnics and a plaintive second half, all dreamy vocals and ringing guitars.
Orenda’s most meditative track, “The War-Light The Shadows” materializes to really kick off the second half, showcasing the band’s ability to seem like they’re about to kick it up a notch without actually kicking it up a notch. If it’s possible that the phrase “these dudes are about to throw down a serious drone” exists, this could be the place to apply it. This is followed by what is probably supposed to be some guys getting down to some serious fucking chanting, but instead, in the album’s most ill-timed misstep, sounds bizarrely like rhythmically barking dogs. The track never breaks into a drone, instead actually building up to what threatens to become a harsh vocal peak but instead becomes a fall into angelic keyboards and a segue into “Doorway To Ascension,” a track whose vocal sample and pacing recalls moments of Dark Side Of The Moon.
From here, we’re off to “Regret-Sailing Stones,” a track whose title summarizes the sonic feel of the album and might even be the most “typical” track Orenda offers, containing all elements of the band’s sound—even some kinda buried harsh screams reminiscent of the black metal screeching of their debut longplayer.
And finally, “Homebound-March Of The Trees” finishes things up. The title practically demands that the song be near the end, unless these guys were big on the irony, which, they’re clearly not. There’s nothing particularly revelatory about this song, which is unfortunate given its placement. We get a few more harsh vocals, but nothing approaching the dominance or intensity of the vocals on the opening track. The guitars have a mournful sound that hints at a finale, which the band unspools near the end, with a return of the screechier vocals and an ending that confirms the iciness rather than the warm resolution that post-rock often builds to.
Orenda is a smart record, and perhaps in some ways it’s the sound of a band whose reach slightly exceeds its grasp. One thing it excels at mightily is mapping the band’s ambition, which is apparently pretty lofty. Barring an Icarus-esque burnout, these guys will definitely have a bright future.
So, yeah, Orenda is not the kind of album you’re going to just randomly encounter on a daily basis and, despite some misfires, is a rewarding listen. If you are an adventurous listener looking to spend a few spins getting comfortable with the material, by all means, seek it out. But don’t expect it to reveal its charms with a casual listen to one song, cause that ain’t happening. The Floyd references above are a good touchpoint, but mainly in the album’s philosophy, as the band has only passing sonic similarities to the classic rockers. Ignore at your own peril. But just don’t be surprised if you find out later that Orenda syncs up to, like, The Truman Show or whatever.
With Our Arms To The Sun’s Orenda is available April 21st through 11th Dimension Records. You can pre-order now at Pledge Music.