As a songwriter, Ryan Adams is nothing if not versatile. His 2005 releases (with superb backing band, The Cardinals) are a lesson in artistic juxtaposition. Jacksonville City Nights contains some of Adams’ most true to form, legitimately classic country songs, while Cold Roses is a near perfect re-imagining of classic Grateful Dead-esque psychedelic pop. This perceived need to consciously, and successfully alter one’s sound is a curse that has plagued musicians for centuries, and it is one that exists as a necessary evil; forever toeing the line between being a blessing or a curse. That being said, Adams’ twelfth proper album, Orion — and its serious sci-fi thrash aesthetic — is a genuine exhibition of both artistic catharsis and genre experimentation, unlike anything we’ve seen from the notoriously shifty alt-country troubadour.
One of the more redeeming aspects of Adams’ foray into the realm of metal is the authenticity of these thirteen tracks. Where a different artist would chose to accentuate and even lampoon the absurdity of the such a polarizing style, Adams and his band act as if this is their only means of expression. Employing producer Jamie Candiloro on drums and Dale Nixon (a pseudonym of Black Flag founder, and hardcore mainstay Greg Ginn) on bass, Adams transforms himself into a bombastic ’80s ax-wielding god of metal, on an album full of wailing guitar, racing bass lines, and classically powerful drums — all in the theatrical vein of Spinal Tap.
The songs themselves are equal parts gravity and hilarity, as the power trio maintains a breakneck pace throughout nearly all of the 28 minutes of the disc. After establishing a conceptualized science fiction persona, and dealing with such topics as the “End Of Days,” a battle with an “Electro Snake,” and a vitriolic bemoaning of an arch enemy in “Ghorgon Master Of War,” its easy to see Adams’ preconceived image is not meant to be taken lightly.
By the middle of the album, the true musicality of Ryan Adams begins to seep through the cracks and subsequently exemplifies his innate ability to transcend genre without coming off as completely contrived. On the opening lines of “Fire And Ice,” Adams’ breathy warble soars as he sings, “Over the rainbow/ Beyond the land of time/ The nuclear warheads/ Get disassembled by baby lions,” and we find his usually twang-infused croon sounding like Bono if he spent less time worrying about the state of the human race and devoted more thought to intergalactic warfare. Though the ridiculousness of his lyrics cannot be overlooked, as the band cools off with a duo of a thumping bass drum and a moving piano line, Adams’ gift for quality instrumentation becomes more and more apparent.
The reality is, it’s impossible to write off this album as a failure simply because Orion isn’t full of songs by the Ryan Adams we’ve come to know and appreciate. While the sound itself is oftentimes off-putting and bizarre,Orion‘s take-no-prisoners attitude cannot be knocked. If the genuine hilarity behind the heavy metallic casing of this album isn’t glaringly obvious, it’s because of a failure to appreciate the most redeeming quality of truly masterful musicians — their versatility. In the broad scope of the Ryan Adams canon, this album will most definitely come to be seen as a mere novelty. On its own, Orion can be respected as a well crafted work to be held up amongst others in this seemingly deceased style of play.