For Orphaned Land singer Kobi Farhi, the band is his life. The five-piece act from Israel are the country’s biggest heavy metal band now and that’s quite simply down to 22 years of hard work. Like the true greats of metal, they play with passion and move to new heights with each new release – the latest being fifth album, ‘All Is One’.
But while other bands are busy trying to claw their way into the grand halls of metallic fame, Orphaned Land are focused on offering a message of peace to the world. Being Israeli Jews based in Bat-Yam and Petah-Tikva, the band are astutely aware of the political turmoil and generations of conflict that has engulfed the Middle East. “I’m sometimes terrified to think that I could bring children to this reality,” Kobi says. “If I will bring children to the world, I will definitely be proud to tell them that they had a father who at least tried to change something and succeeded to make a small flash in this place in the world. And that’s probably a lot! [laughs] I’m not a rich guy, I’m not into business and I haven’t made a fortune out of anything, but being a part of Orphaned Land and what it represents is much more than any other fortune.”
For Kobi, a life encouraging peace is everything to him. Whilst Orphaned Land’s music has always reflected this yearning for peace in the region, new album ‘All Is One’ feels like their most monumental piece to date, both lyrically and musically. A lot has changed too. The band have given us a more concise record with ‘All Is One’, cutting track times, offering a more accessible album with an emphasis on melody, and leaving the album with almost no growling vocals. After the quality work of Porcupine Tree’s Steve Wilson in the production quarters on last album ‘The Never Ending Way of ORwarriOR’, the band opted for producer Jens Bogren to take control behind the desk, in a colossal project which over 40 musicians took part. It meant that – for the first time ever – Orphaned Land would record outside of their home country too. The main bulk of the album was completed in Sweden whilst Kobi flew across to Turkey to record 10 string musicians and back to Israel to orchestrate a choir of 25 singers.
“That was a refreshing change,” Kobi says. “We had the ability financially, to take things to a higher level this time. That was a great thing to do. We tried to be more focused and upfront this time – the song titles, the lyrics, the album itself and the way we arranged everything. I really think we focused everything to be a better picture this time and that was a result of everything – having a better budget and growing up as musicians.”
But all in all, despite the larger budget and extra musical elasticity, the band’s roots are still one of the most important components to their sound. “To be a Jewish guy in Israel, it’s very easy for me to understand a lot of the cultures in the world,” says Kobi. “And adding to that, I’m living in the country where the three Abrahamic religions were formed. All of those things happened where I am, so having those aspects is a perfect ground for me to have those plans of our songs. I’m feeling like I can be an expert just by being in Israel and the Middle East.”
On the front cover of ‘All Is One’, the three symbols of the Abrahamic religions are merged, in unison. From the outset, ‘All is One’ seems to powerfully embody a utopian hope, both in the artwork and in its title, but the content of each song contrasts with those ideals, giving larger emphasis on the continuing conflict in the Middle East and as a result, being the band’s darkest album to date.
“When you go to the album itself – to the songs, to the lyrics and everything attached to what’s going on – it’s nothing but dystopia. It’s the tragic reality of life in the Middle East – that miserable conflict that never ends between the three Abrahamic religions. The children are suffering being stuck in the middle of these wars while the adult ones are behaving like the little children themselves. There is a contradiction between the utopia on the front cover, the album title and the tragedy that’s going on in the album, because the album itself is one of the most tragic, criticising albums we have ever wrote.”
Orphaned Land’s affinity with the situation in the Middle East stems back to their very beginnings in 1991. The band’s name addresses an extensive history of fighting in the war-torn Gaza Strip, in which innumerable Israelis and Palestinians have been killed as a result of the conflict. Being Israeli Jews, the band have been accused of taking sides or harbouring their own political and religious motive in the past, though clearly, Orphaned Land’s cause is a humanitarian one and their message simply promotes peace.
“People sometimes tend to think that we are pro-religion missionaries taking sides,” Kobi explains. “That’s definitely not the case. Yeah, we are Israelis, yeah, we are Jews, but we’ve never been pro-Israeli, left-wing or right-wing. We feel privileged to be musicians and musicians are for everyone – this is a universal language. I don’t write songs about my personal life or ex-girlfriend, we write about the macro-political situation in the Middle East, but never from taking sides.”
According to the CIA World Factbook, Gaza has the seventh highest population growth rate in the world, meaning that yet more children are born into an unstable and unpredictable environment. Last January marked the end of Operation Cast Lead – a 22-day conflict in Gaza that saw 13 Israelis and 1,417 Palestinians killed. A ceasefire deal between Israel and the Palestinian Hamas movement was agreed last November, though despite the proposed truce, there have been rocket attacks this year. Military leaders and politicians on both sides have opted for retaliation tactics, perpetuating a culture of revenge and yet more death. For a lot of people stuck in the situation, no solace can be found in the world of politics.
“I can honestly say that today we are the most popular Israelis among the Arab world,” says Kobi. “Even more than any Israeli author, politician or musician and that’s a credit you can give for a heavy metal band from Israel. That’s something really rare! If this utopia does exist of ‘All Is One’, it exists between us and our fans. When I look at the macro-picture, I cannot ignore the fact that 80,000 people have just died in Syria and it was by the hand of Syria who are killing Syrians. Of course, we’re not mentioning the conflict in Israel, the war in Gaza and the rockets that were flying on Tel Aviv and in the south of the country. Everywhere in this region, we are suffering from fucked up leaders, fucked up politicians and very bad religious leaders. I respect religion, we use a lot of models from religion but I think that the leaders of today are a disgrace to religion and giving a very bad reputation, while we, the metalheads, succeed to do better!”
Historically, those who have spoken out for change in Middle East have not only been condemned for it, but have put their own lives at risk. In 1994, Israel Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by an extremist after a rally in support of the Oslo Accords – a framework set up to create a stable future of peace between Israel and Palestine. It led to the first meeting in history between the Israeli Government and the Palestine Liberation Organization, but by embracing such change, Rabin paid the ultimate price. Orphaned Land aren’t directly playing a part in the political process of their homeland, but that doesn’t mean they’re exempt from a worrying backlash. In 2011, the band courted controversy when they played at Hellfest Festival in Clisson, France. Belly-dancer Johanna Fakhry brought the Lebanese flag onstage and waved it alongside the Israeli flag – an act which not only resulted in terrorist group Hezbollah issuing a death warrant on the then-22-year-old, but also led to family rejecting her.
“With the case of Johanna, it was her who was insisting on the flag thing while I told her that I think it’s a huge risk and she could be putting herself in danger,” says Kobi. “But she really represents this movement and the new generation of the Middle East and her answer was ‘shut up and bring your flag!’ She stands for something and she knew what she was doing, so I felt like I shouldn’t be in the way.”
The band are aware of the danger involved in relaying their message of peace. On the one hand, it might seem an overreaction to send death threats for merely waving a couple of flags. But through the eyes of an extremist embroiled in the generations of fighting, the intentions of a peaceful message can be overlooked. All in all, you might say that a heavy metal band might not be an extremist’s top target, though clearly the flag-waving fiasco has put the political ramifications of their message into context and with the band only growing and growing, one would have to admit that their work is still dangerous. Orphaned Land are Israel’s biggest export metal now and with popularity comes attention – whether it’s positive or negative. Kobi has thought about extremists being an issue as the band increases its fanbase, but he feels he has no choice but to persevere.
“I’m a human being and sometimes I’m afraid,” Kobi says. “When I’m standing onstage, maybe the bullet will hit my face! But what are my other choices? I ask myself that question again and again. Stay home? Do nothing? I am doing something that is very much important. Children are dying in this region. I’m just a musician. Let’s go back and remember when talking about politics, extremism and stuff, we’re just playing music. We’re saying things by this music and if I get myself killed because of saying these messages and these songs, I only think that music will be much more bigger! [laughs] So if someone wants to kill me, they’ll really make me ultra-famous! [laughs] Anyways, I would prefer to be famous just by the music and not by being a martyr or something! Every time some person has tried to change the system, he’s always ended up with a bullet between his eyes. It could be Jesus Christ, it could be Mahatma Gandhi, it could be Martin Luther King, Yitzhak Rabin or Che Guevara. It’s like a whole formula of getting rid of people who try to change the system. I understand that if Orphaned Land become really big, it might be a bit more dangerous for me.”
Kobi acknowledges the potential for evil and darkness to furrow in any one of the three primary religions that his lyrics focus on. Extremists and fundamentalists exist on all sides and have caused misery and death in the Middle East for centuries. But for Orphaned Land, discriminating against others who peacefully follow a religion just because of this bigoted and destructive minority, doesn’t make any sense. As the band put it on their website, “people should be judged by their hearts and inner sincerity, not their religious beliefs.” It’s a statement at the heart of the band, and evidently, it has rubbed off on their fans. Their concerts have seen Arabs, Jews and Christians united.
“It’s amazing to see the power of music,” Kobi says. “This is not just football teams, this is blood enemies: people who fight each other and have friends and relatives killed by the other side. For them to be able to communicate because of music is something really moving. I’m not naïve; I don’t think that we can change the world or we’ll create a brave new world with a metal band. Just being there is enough – showing that there is another way and it is living proof. It’s not a dream or something that’s not possible. If you told me that would happen 22 years ago when we started the band, I would say that it sounds like complete lunacy.”
But that’s not just it. At the beginning of 2013, fans started an online petition to nominate Orphaned Land for the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts in bringing together fans from across the world, something which Kobi appreciates and is “very much flattered by” but “also a little embarrassed by.”
“I can tell you, as cliché as it may sound, I’d give up all the peace prizes in the world just to have a better place to live for the kids of this region; I don’t care if they’re Palestinian, Syrian or Israelis. I don’t want kids to live with the sounds of shotguns and bombs. I want kids to play football, be friends, to learn about each other’s culture. I want Palestinian people to learn about Judaism and vice-versa. Those are the things I want. I am willing to give up all the prizes in the world for that. I hope that one day it might happen. I’m praying for that.”
‘All Is One’ is out now on Century Media.
Orphaned Land play in the UK on the following dates:
11th November @ Waterfront, Norwich
12th November @ Robin 2, Bilston
13th November @ The Garage, London
14th November @ Sound Control, Manchester
15th November @ The Pint, Dublin
Feature by Calum Robson