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The Orphan Brigade The Orphan Brigade
Album: Heart Of The Cave
Label: At The Helm
Tracks: 13

On this record, The Orphan Brigade is a band comprising 14 musicians and singers that includes at least three familiar names – Ben Glover, Gretchen Peters and Will Kimbrough – and a few more half-familiar names (Neilson Hubbard, Joshua Britt and Heather and Kris Donegan to name but four). Heart Of The Cave is a kind of follow-on from a 2015 album put out under the Orphan Brigade name, Soundtrack To A Ghost Story; this was a one-off project which documented the Civil-War-era history of a haunted house in Kentucky. It was Joshua, Ben and Neilson from the band who then landed the invitation to explore Osimo (Italy) and the 2000-year-old caves under its streets. They responded so immediately and strongly to the stories hidden within the cave walls that they quickly got down to forming a proper band to convey those stories.

The sense of place was clearly very powerful, and the resulting 13 songs were written comparatively quickly; The song Osimo (Come To Life) was written during their first visit to the caves, and the remainder of the album tracks were written and recorded during their return visit to the caves shortly after. Rather than researching the region beforehand, the musicians took on board the services of a local raconteur who served as their tour guide, and the songs emerged more naturally as a result. The physical feeling of the past was palpable, indeed, and the caves themselves held so much atmosphere that they were the only choice for recording venue. Spirituality and history are essentially invisible, although they both leave physical evidence, and this concept translates to the timeless Americana of the music. Some tracks (Pile Of Bones, Alchemy) have something of a sanctified gospel-chant aura, while others like the reverb-laden, clangorous There’s A Fire That Never Goes Out are more mysteriously laid-back; the soulful Pain Is Gone and the mando-led Sweet Cecilia both have an open-hearted bluegrass feel; The Bells Are Ringing, by contrast, is almost jubilant in nature, whereas The Birds Are Silent, inspired by an earthquake that occurred during the musicians’ stay, turns out to be something of an epic. Inevitably, death and mortality are explored here, notably on the doomy, distorted Meet Me In The Shadows. The record ends with Donna Sacra, which evokes religious ceremony and antiquity through the incorporation of distorted (overheard?) sampled voices singing the mass.

Throughout, the caves and the experience of being in them become the backdrop for the musicians’ own meditative inner explorations of darkness and danger, mysticism and mortality; and a sense of their self-discovery and illumination sure comes through in this record.

David Kidman