Orders of the British Empire wear some pretty evident, pretty well-known influences upfront. These North London bandmates are avowed disciples of Mogwai, of Pelican and of Oceansize – and it shows.
While OBE are members of the broad church of instrumental post-rockers, they operate at the brutal, crunchy, masculine end of the genre. In other words, the one which relies on a bristly bromance between hardcore punk, hurricane-textured shoegazery and epic heavy metal, all reconfigured for sensitive guys with tattoos. It’s the side of post-rock which brings most of the previously-despised rock muscle roaring back in; and which (while abhorring and deleting the spotlit solos and preening, cocksure singing) is rammed full of guitars which fret, bulge and wail like a man who’s undergoing an apocalyptic religious conversion but who’s also reduced to frantic speechless hand-gestures to explain just how he feels.
There’s certainly enough of the hallmarks of this art-brute school of sound. There are the melancholy guitar arpeggios which cloudburst into sleet-storms of frantically scrubbed strings and distortion sprays. There are the hush-to-shriek dynamics and the clear evidence that everyone involved can play like a demon, but have had to carefully weave and duck their skills past the frowns of the punk police (or perhaps their own vestiges of punk embarrassment). There are the Godspeed You Black Emperor digressions into dry-boned countrified vistas, suggesting poisoned prairies under oil-smeared skies. There’s the sneaking feeling that this kind of music should just bite the bullet and call itself “psychedelic metal”, if that didn’t throw up unfortunate thoughts of a saucer-eyed Ozzy Osbourne chanting and dribbling blood down his kaftan.
So – not terribly original at root, and building heavily on what’s gone before. Yet what saves OBE (and then some) is that their hearts are as upfront as their debts. To a man, they’re bulge-eyed romantic ear-splitters, about to pop a vein in the service of expression. Their decision not to include a singer means that all of that passion feeds magnificently into their churning hands. The guitars bypass the pitfall into neurotic stiffness which often plagues post-rock: instead, they play with the suppleness and flex of tormented blues. The drums pace and clamour at the back like a fierce and loving sergeant – not just keeping time, but chivvying each of the other instruments.
Admittedly, the other payback is that their music is stadium-sized, and dazzled by its own overwhelming importance. The wordless songs march under fierce manifestos (Rebuild With Gunpowder), namecheck mythical serpents and Earth-hammering asteroids (Apophis Reigns) and cast up, without a hint of self-consciousness, questions for everyday existential heroes (What Would You Do). Even so, OBE have delivered up a striking, accomplished opening statement – especially as, rather than being a squad of pierce-festooned hardcore athletes with scalp-locks, they turn out to be a bashful-looking crew of soft-lipped boy-men.
There’s much to savour on ‘Rebuild’. Partly, it’s the sonic excitement, with the fluttering intro thrums and emotional math-riffing of Rebuild With Gunpowder; or the gushes of deep, disgruntled pink noise which swell under the increasingly frantic What Would You Do, like the breath of a sleeping giant. The multi-part Apophis Reigns boasts a spectacularly emotive flow of Western desert chords and ear-scouring guitar boil; the lapping lake-music of Roundabouts offers comparative simplicity and a clear view into the band’s romanticism, bypassing the epic storminess.
All things said, it’s refreshing when a band who, on first count, seem so derivative can in fact be so transformative – and so soon. Swerving aside from simple tribute, OBE rapidly become flushed with their own life and their own fascinations.
Orders of the British Empire: ‘Rebuild’ EP
Released: 1st January 2010