The orchestrations are lovely. The band is energetic. The choir is excellent. The production, despite its ties to Fascination Street Studios, is surprisingly good. But something is missing... passion, perhaps? Uniqueness?
The loss of Yossi Sassi here is very apparent. Idan Amsalem and Chen Balbus are proficient musicians, if not a bit generic, don't get me wrong. Chen makes a fitting rhythm guitarist, and Idan would fit in great with pretty much any other progressive metal band in the realm of Symphony X and Scardust; however, I feel the latter lacks the "wow factor" of Yossi. Can he shred? Yes! Can I headbang to him? I suppose. But can I bellydance to it? That's the real question and the answer is a disappointing no.
What we have here is a tradeoff of orientalism for technicality. And frankly, the way, in the videos, he displays his guitar and neoclassically shreds, as if he's a support act Michael Romeo, with a deadpan expression doesn't feel right for Orphaned Land - he feels like a show off, which works for bands like Symphony X and Dream Theater. In their previous live album, The Road to Or Shalem, Yossi was smiling the whole time, moving around and interacting with the crowd. Idan is just... kind there.
His style lacks power and heaviness - when Yossi plays it feels like I'm being hit with a sledgehammer - the sound works for Unsung Prophets and Dead Messiahs, as it was a more symphonic, classically-influenced album than the band's previous work. When he plays their older Mabool/ORwarriOR stuff, it just doesn't sound right.
Chen is the one who maintains the modality in the band's sound along with Kobi Farhi, and while he's competent, he just can't compare to Yossi, except when soloing, on which are evident that he spent a ton of time practicing them to sound just like Yossi - the satisfaction he gets when successfully completing them is wholesome. I understand that lineups change, but this was a major loss in my humble opinion.
As for improvements over The Road to Or Shalem, Kobi's clean vocals have improved significantly. That was my single complaint on their previous live album. He did not sound good - he was nasally and almost sounded lethargic. On here, he's shining bright, however, as expected with age, his harsh vocals here do seem a bit more strained, not unpleasant, just not as natural. Noa Gruman of Scardust singing Shlomit's parts was a surprisingly strong fit. I hear more Turkish vocal techniques in her singing than Shlomit's Yemenite techniques, but it works overall - it's still "oriental" enough to compliment Kobi's more Mizrahi/Sephardic Jewish vocal techniques. I also think the video production itself is a massive improvement; in The Road to OR Shalem, I couldn't stand how frequently the camera angle changed as it felt unfocused and all over the place. Aside from the generally better recording angles and higher quality video, the editing is a lot more focused and I feel the right people are in frame at the right time, and it's just a better watching experience overall.
Don't misinterpret me; the symphony orchestra is perfect match, and the band performed well. I just feel the lineup change since their last live album is just too much of a departure to the band's core sound and I would rather listen to The Road to Or Shalem, and part of this is because I prefer ORwarriOR and Mabool material to Unsung Prophets and Dead Messiah material, but mostly because I want to hear (and see) Yossi Sassi. Kobi Farhi is still a phenomenal frontman, and super engaging with the crowd, and Chen, like Yossi, is always smiling and happy to be there - he even appears to try to mimic Yossi's overjoyed facial expression and pseudo-laughter when soloing, and man does he NAIL those solos, which is very fun to watch in a good way; but I don't like his reliance on power chords and his too-polished guitar tone. Uri Zelcha, the "metalhead" of the band is headbanging to his hearts desires. Sharon Mansur, the band's touring keyboardist might be the most lovely woman I've seen play with a metal band - she's always smiling and super happy to be there, and I like seeing her play, but I do think the programmed keyboard sounds a little "cartoony," if not novel, and in contrast with the professional orchestra feels out of place, yet strangely enough I do like it. Matan Shmuely, as usual, is great drummer and adding the darbuka to his kit was a brilliant idea, and I also find it amusing how he's wearing the exact same shirt in this concert as he did in The Road to Or Shalem. It's a good album, overall, and it's interesting enough that I will probably still get it, I just think the new lineup needs some getting used to.
A hard rating for me to give, but aside from "Radiation Decay (Live)," "Broken Epitaph (Live)", and "Unburied Corpse (Rehersal)," most of the music here honestly is kind of junky... had those three tracks been released on a smaller EP, this would have been given a much higher rating... the poor recording quality doesn't help either. However, this is an insightful look into the band's very early years (as indicated by the album's subtitle). It's cool to see how "that" riff on Radiation Decay was re-used on "The Storm Still Rages Inside," later on in the band's career, for example. It also seems that parts of Broken Epitaph were too reused in the Sahara/Beloved's Cry version of The Storm Still Rages Inside, but I'm not totally sure. It's a great archival release, but I wouldn't recommend it for anyone other than hardcore Orphaned Land fans, or fans of the most underground, lo-fi early death metal imaginable. I do, however, find the opening of the album quite funny with someone shouting "Sheket!" ("Quiet!") in Hebrew multiple times - the band members were teenagers back then lol
Yup, this is a concept album alright! In fact, I think it's quite possibly the greatest metal concept album ever made! Yet, I wouldn't call it Orphaned Land's best album, overall. I'd give that accolade to El Norra Alila, and I would even call the Never Ending Way of ORwarriOR a better overall album than Mabool. But this is easily Orphaned Land's, and indeed possibly the metal genre's, best CONCEPT album. Once you listen to one song, you cannot not listen to the rest of them; they play so well after one another. Somehow Orphaned Land managed to make this album very cohesive, but diverse, yet highly refined despite pioneering a completely new style of metal, here. The last four songs, the Mabool suite, are a large reason why this is such a legendary and successful album - what a way to end such an epic album, perfectly tying together all the themes before them with a very satisfying climax and conclusion. Yossi Sassi's 4 minute long guitar solo on The Storm Still Rages Inside is one of the greatest of all time, up there in my opinion with Lynyrd Skynyrd's Free Bird. My biggest complaint with this album is that the production has not held up well since 2004, and a remix/remaster to make it as dynamic and clear as ORwarriOR is definitely warranted. In terms of sound, I would consider this to be a fusion of Twilight in Olympus-era Symphony X and Morningrise-era Opeth - that is, the melodic, yet virtuoso power metal riffing of the former with the darker production and more abrasive playing of the latter.
Building the Ark 5:02
Mabool (The Flood) 6:59
If this were new material or a more comprehensive compilation, I would rate this higher; however, this doesn't add anything to the discography that is worthwhile... one bonus track from All is One (which is a rearrangement and re-recording of the live cover track mentioned below), One bonus track from The Never Ending Way of ORwarriOR plus an alternate mix of the same track (which happens to be a cover song), four tracks from a live album (one of which is a non-OL guest performance, and another is a cover song featuring the original artist), and a promotional cover song; not exactly a great selection of songs, in my opinion. I do, however, appreciate how diverse this one is with Greek, Turkish, Mizrahi Jewish, and Arabic influence here.