Ryan Adams rose to fame as the leader of The Cardinals, crafting a unique blend of alt-rock through a myriad of albums. Now, Adams returns with a new solo album, his first since splitting with The Cardinals in 2009, and something decidedly less quirky. Make no mistake, Orion is an honest to goodness metal album from a guy who is, until recently, decisively not metal. Despite some flaws, the album generally is an homage and less of a satire of all things metal.
Adams’ background means that this isn’t going to be your uncle Steve’s metal record. His work as a singer/songwriter and his minimal output as the black metal Werewolph means that, unlike anyone from Mastodon to Slayer, he isn’t burdened by the constraints of the scene and is unbound by the stifling tendencies of a genre that, despite bright spots and several innovators, is the same hackneyed noise to the uninitiated. The album sounds like Motorhead’s ferocity meets the poetic drama of Dio with a pinch of sci-fi epicness for good measure. “Fire and Ice” starts with backward guitars and bleeds into a sweeping piano bit. From then, it’s a melted rush of bluesy hard rock that fights to stay together and resist the micro-explosions of cheery piano and strain of organized, glimmery pop. From the Middle East-tinged guitars of “Ghorgon Master of War” to the low-key, near-indie meekness of “By Force”, there’s plenty of Adams’ signature touches throughout the album. And with most tracks at under three minutes, Adams has taken metal and boiled it down to its least wasteful denominator, which adds to the accessibility of the album for those who never quite connected with the big, booming bombast of metal.
Of course, it’s probably safe to say that if you do love the big, booming bombast of metal, this is not going to be your album. Perhaps you can enjoy a listen or two at most, but if you grew up with a Pantera poster over your bed, you’ll get awfully annoyed real fast by Adams’ falsetto wailing and cheesy storyline involving some detail-less galactic battle between good and evil. Tracks like “Defenders of the Galaxy”, which feels like lazy speed metal and features Adams barking orders rather than hitting those sweet notes, and “Imminent Galactic War”, which has to be the first nasally metal song ever, only work to highlight the album’s more gimmicky moments. It all has nothing to do with a disconnect between the material or an emphasis of one genre over another in the course of one song. Rather, it’s where you rest on the musical spectrum that will inform the songs you actually enjoy on the album. If anything, that’s more of a victory for Adams and the album’s concept than a critique.
Should Ryan Adams make another metal album? Probably not. Should he continue to make nothing but Cardinals-esque records for the remainder of his career? No way. While there’s going to be a clear division between fans and non-fans of the album (most people and then metalheads), Adams made a record for himself to deal with some creative uncertainty and demonstrated that he is open to new ideas and burning down the walls of musical expectations. Even if your blood boils through this album, it’s got to make you feel hopeful for the future of Adams’ career.