In the past, I've been accused of being a Ryan Adams slut. Okay, so maybe no one's ever used those exact words, but I've always been pretty good at reading between the lines even when I pretend not to be, and ultimately, that's what the criticism boils down to. Adams has never released a (legitimate) album I haven't liked (the DJ Reggie and Werewolph e-albums were good for a laugh but nothing more, and The Finger is virtually unlistenable).
I adored Heartbreaker, couldn't get enough of Gold, found Demolition to be a suitable snack to satiate my R.A. cravings, loved Rock N' Roll (yes, I said "loved", and I meant it), considered the Love is Hell ep's to be a strong and valiant effort (although I don't think nearly as highly of them as most Ryan Adams fans do), was floored by the brilliance of the 2005 trilogy, Cold Roses, Jacksonville City Nights, and 29 (contrary to every other account I've heard about the latter, that one might be favorite of the three). Easy Tiger and the Follow the Lights ep would have benefited from a slightly dirtier sounding production, but despite that fact, they both were remarkably well-written outputs. Even the somewhat lackluster Cardinology, with its flirtations into the realm of "adult contemporary", still had some relatively lofty high-points (even if the lows were possibly the lowest of his career). Over the last several years, I've done my best to shed the "Adams' whore" tag as best I could, but with the release of Orion, sew a scarlet R and A to my v-neck T, because I gave myself to this record within seconds of hearing "Signal Fade".
The instant I heard this record existed, I bought it; partly because I knew of its limited availability and feared it might be good, mainly because I assumed it would be so horrible that I had to hear it...but it wasn't horrible. No, this record is good, damn good in fact. This record renews any lost faith I had in Ryan Adams as a viable and important, maybe essential, artist in our time.
With Orion, Adams manages to incorporate every crucial Metal movement: the breakneck pace of the speed/thrash sect, the aggressive simplicity of hardcore, the intensity and weight of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal scene, and (on occasion) the infectious hooks of the 80's/early 90's mainstream Pop-Metal acts. Of course, individually, none of these pieces should appeal to the typical R.A. fan, but when Adams fits them all together, the result is nothing short of a pure and brilliant Ryan Adams record.
The album opens with "Signal Fade", a number with churning speed that Slayer would approve of, and a guitar chug that would sound at home on a bill with Sick of It All, and the relentless speed and thud doesn't stop with track #1. For the next 25 minutes and 28 seconds, Adams rips through 12 more tracks ("Signal Fade" clocks in at 2:49 as the second longest song on the record, making the total running time of Orion 28 minutes and 17 seconds). Adams guitar work on Orion leans more towards his punk rock roots with its simplicity, but for what it lacks in complexity and classic Metal showmanship, it makes up for in ardor and ferocious velocity that could give Adrian Smith a run for his money. Still, as "Heavy Metal" as the licks may be, they somehow manage to maintain an undercurrent of the passion and rootsy-substance we've all come to know as Ryan Adams, making this sound less like a "Heavy Metal" album, and more like "Ryan Adams playing at Heavy Metal", which is good, because, well, that's exactly what it is.
And the vocals are impeccably and unmistakably Ryan Adams. It sounds simultaneously familiar and foreign. The tone and control are instantly recognizable to anyone who has bought and loved a Ryan Adams record in the past, but the fervor and force with which he sings sounds more potent and fresh than he has in years, maybe ever. Vocally, the apogee comes on the bridge on "Fire and Ice" (the standout track on the album and easily the most traditionally Adams-esque song on record). R.A. belts and wails stark and desperate words about imminent doom, "How much longer will they let us survive? All the weapons pointed as us as we die. Either way only the Sun will survive. Either way only the Sun will survive". Adams sounds more vibrant and uninhibited than he has since the Whiskeytown days.
But what's most refreshing about Orion is that, in true Ryan Adams fashion, he clearly doesn't give a fuck what we think about it. Okay, it's no secret that Adams has badgered critics who have unfavorably reviewed his records, but Adams has never recorded an album for critics. He doesn't write albums for critics to like, he writes albums he wants to and then expects critics to like them. Unrealistic...definitely, positively delusional...probably, but nonetheless, he's not kowtowing to the people who declare his merit to the world, he's expecting the those people to kowtow to him, and Orion is no exception.
Most people would probably find this behavior pretentious, bratty, erratic, annoying, but not me; I find it invigorating. Music is art, musicians are artists. Good art is an extension of the artist and it should be completely selfish. Certainly, once fans get a hold of it, it becomes a selfless gift; it begins to apply to lives other than the artist's. But if the primary objective of any art is to please anyone other than the artist, than it's not art, it's entertainment. Ryan Adams is not and has never tried to be an entertainer, he is an artist. Orion exemplifies that fact. When you listen to this album, you know there were no preconceived notions or delusions of grandeur about what he was doing; he was just making an album he wanted to make. And in an increasingly electro-reliant world where record sales mean far less than public opinion, that's about as refreshing as it gets.
That's not to say it doesn't have its weaknesses. Lyrically, if you're looking for the slightly nutty, homespun wisdom of past Adams efforts, you best look elsewhere. The lyrics on Orion are, for lack of a better word, ridiculous. With lyrics like "Evil overtakes him, The dragon speaks in tongues, The master has arisen, To swallow up the systems"...on "Ghorgon, Master of War", or "We wait in the caves, Machines do not detect the heat from our bodies, We are disguised by rocks, One leaves and investigates"...on the album's closer, "End of Days", it sounds less like a Ryan Adams album and more like the most depressing conclusion to The Terminator franchise. It's clear you're not going to find any poignant life-lessons here, but with Orion, the ends certainly justify the means.
Orion may not be exactly what we pictured for the return of Ryan Adams. It may be an insane and ludicrous concept, but the songs on Orion are lean, unencumbered, and unpretentious. They aren't molded or derivative, they are simply the product of a man trying to write and record an album that he wanted to make. Orion may be the craziest legitimate release of Adams career, but it also might be the most pure and steadfast record he's ever had the balls to dream up.