Nü-metal's return, like its first coming, has been a bit of a mixed bag—so bastions of quality like Orthodox should be emphasised. The Tenessee quartet's unique combination of Slipknot's creepier deep cuts and System Of A Down's freakish artistry comes wrapped in a lethal combination of straight edge hardcore and Gojira's scathing riffage. It certainly helped their 2019 album Let It Take Its Course stand out. It's unfortunate that their breakout tour with Spite and Varials got cut short in the wake of COVID-19, but Orthodox took the set back on the chin and set to work on an album to prove their vitality within the scene. To that effect, Learning to Dissolve (out Aug. 19 on Century Media) finds Orthodox at their tightest, heaviest, and most unabashed.
The Iowa-core vibes come in hot on opener "Feel It Linger," but Orthodox uses unique rhythmic cohesion to keep their approach above the derivative. This most obviously manifests through drummer Mike White, as he transcends generic bounce riffs with off-kilter accents. The same goes for the riffs, which remain equal parts unpredictable and aggressive.
Take the absolute devastation of “Head On A Spike,” as guitarist Austin Evans’ harmonised string-bending tremolo synchronises with White’s double kick. It’s not easy to write a song that’d get Ozzfest folks push moshing, but would stump guitarists expecting your average nü-core rager. Speaking of thug-and-chug, the song’s final mosh part showcases Adam Easterling's staple of whispering his pre-breakdown callout, which makes the disjointed breakdown hit all the harder.
Where many self-proclaimed SOAD-influenced bands ride the Arminian export's coattails too closely, Orthodox manifest this influence by punctuating their sound with ear-grabbing pockets of weirdness. Look at "Cave In" for instance, where a shrill siren motif precedes a thuggish closed hi-hat groove. Taking something outwardly annoying, and using it tastefully, really gets at the heart of what made the nü-metal era interesting. The song's Impending Doom-esque bass-dropping breakdown is just more icing on the cake. It's these unpredictable shifts that make cuts like "Dissolve" so much fun, jumping from ascending chromatic oddity to gnarly hardcore fight riffs. In fact, both of these tracks repurpose their chunky riffs to service eccentric guitar solos. It's definitely nü, but also new.
Easterling's vocals remain uniquely bestial while adapting to each sonic context. He harks back to a time when nü-metal vocalists sounded genuinely crazy, as spotlighted in the sparse erie, sparse verses of "Become Divine." He downplays his projection in pursuit of animalistic graveliness and muttered melodies, in contrast to the song's driving rhythm and aggressive distortion. His relative quietness helps his moments of throat-shredding adrenaline stand out when "Nothing To See" guns the throttle. But really, Orthodox is more about atmosphere than the chops-obsessed variant of metal that blows up on TikTok. He lets the hard-hitting riffs succeed on their own merits, choosing instead to set them up with cryptic diatribe and wisely choosing his moments to truly explode.
The three-count structure of "Digging Through Glass" reveals more melody, but Orthodox approaches less aggressive ideas beyond a barrel chested hook. Yes, the barrel-chested hook is there… and it's great! But the vibes are also indebted to Slipknot's "Virus of Life" and SOAD's "Suggestions." The band's ability to drop down to almost silence, and steadily build the emotional turmoil remains quite impressive. Indeed, songs like "All That I Am" don't exist to gets kids to "Jump the fuck up" or show off how low their tunings are. Arrangements remain as tight as they are strange — accessible, but likely to make the average two-stepper to trip over themselves.
It wouldn't be an Orthodox record without "1 1 7 6 2," an interlude of industrial noises and bomb-shell bottom end thuds. It spotlights the filthiness of Shiloh Krebs' bass tone, even if it doesn't quite reach the believable scare factor of "Leave" from the last album. Still, it goes to show that these guys aren't afraid of adding demented theatrics to their formula. In fact, that's the real charm of a song like "Fast Asleep." The "nü-metal is lame" mantra carries little water when Orthodox starts cycling through several rhythm changes in just a few minutes, complete with a post-rockish crescendo and some of Easterling's most emotive performances. There's just too much dexterity and dynamics at play to deny these sonic marauders.
On the subject of dynamics, that's the secret weapon that makes "Voice In The Choir" such a memorable closer. After one final onslaught of rapid-fire riffage and nasty grooves, Orthodox drops down for a passionate, forlorn finale. Echoing arpeggios, glacial chords and a massive old-school death metal lead carry the most chilling lyrics of the album: "Forgive me/ For what I couldn't stop/ I swear I did everything I could/ But god wouldn't accept the swap." The tortured lyrical refrains only deepen the song's impact, crystalizing the final plait in Orthodox's armor: palpable emotion.
Learning to Dissolve plays like a refined take on a pre-existing statement of intent. It's bigger, badder and more technical than Let It Take Its Course, which further elevates Orthodox in their attempts to update nü-metal for a new generation. It really does sound like these guys grew up adoring the 1990s' unloved child, and decided to start a hardcore band that incorporates the apsects of that unloved child that stood the test of time. The results are not only serviceable, but remarkably skillful.