Orphan Brigade – Heart of the Cave
At the Helm Records – 29 September 2017
Two years ago, a bunch of singers, songwriters and musicians holed up at a supposedly haunted mansion in Kentucky to write and record Soundtrack to a Ghost Story, an album documenting the house’s Civil War history (read the review here). As a direct result, they were invited to explore Osimo, a town in Italy under whose streets lie 2,500-year-old caves with tunnels that once hosted religious secret societies. And so the Orphan Brigade reassembled, among them Ben Glover, Neilson Hubbard, Gretchen Peters, Josh Britt, Heather and Kris Donegan, and Will Kimbrough. The eerie nature of the caves and the stories they held, often of devotees prepared to suffer torture and death for their beliefs, as well as the often inexplicable feelings and sensation the musicians experienced resulted in Heart of the Cave, an album about death, transformation and spirituality.
It opens with Pile of Bones, a drum beat, fiddle and shaker accompanying a choir of massed voices on a song about the transient nature of life and its sufferings with the worksong-like chanted refrain of “We ain’t leaving but a pile of bones. We ain’t leaving no more.”
This gives way to the uptempo, country-flavoured jog of Town Of A Hundred Churches, a song about how it’s possible to be isolated and alone, even within a crowd or a town, “still looking for a home” with backing vocals by Peters, Heather Donegan, Natalie Schlabs, Audrey Spillman and Kira Small.
Sung by Glover, the soulful, mid-tempo, brass and mandolin-backed Osimo (Come To Life), from whence, comes the album title, was written during their first visit to the caves in response that experience and the hidden secrets they witnessed.
Their guide during their stay was local historian Simona Palombarani who told them about the legend of Saint Joseph of Cupertino, a 17th-century Franciscan friar whose ecstatic meditations reportedly caused him to levitate, giving rise to the partly acapella bluegrass gospel flavoured Flying Joe.
By contrast, the breathily-sung V.I.T.R.I.O.L is a mandolin, fiddle and keyboards-backed swayer about words spoken, regret and the quest for truth that apparently invokes an ancient Masonic motto, while, sung by Glover accompanied by just acoustic guitar, and highly evocative of his solo albums, Pain Is Gone is a soulful meditation on redemption inspired by seeing a pile of bones under a grate in the floor of a Knights Templar church.
Driven by Britt’s jangling mandolin and steady drumbeat, gradually gathering impetus with the arrival of electric guitars, Alchemy features another rousing choral whoa oh-oh backing vocal before the mood shifts for, again with Glover on lead, the spare, brittle The Birds Are Silent, a song inspired by an earthquake that occurred while they were underground, with its lines about blood on the walls and darkness pouring into the streets.
After doom comes relief, The Bells Are Ringing opening with the tolling of church bells before launching into a frisky, mandolin-strummed upbeat song of celebration only for the tone to shift again on the rhythmically pulsing Sweet Cecelia, which, backed by fingerpicked classical guitar and with a sort of Appalachia meets Andalucia feel, is a Glover-sung ballad about a woman visited by the angel of death.
Mortality and death also inform the somberly-intoned Meet Me In The Shadows with its echoey, low monastic vocals backdropped by spare piano notes, but then comes the light of hope with the euphoric slow building keyboards-led sway of the spirituality-themed There’s A Fire That Never Goes Out with its soaring female backing and crackling and dissonant percussion effects.
It ends with the haunting, simple mandolin-backed mood piece, Donna Sacra, a mood piece with wordless female vocal that closes with a sampled Osimo mass featuring the voices of the priest and congregation, a suitably evocative end to an album that touches on the core of existence and spirituality and the shadows that hover around the fringes.