The British stoner/doom scene owes a debt of gratitude to Orange Goblin. Black Sabbath may have set the tone for doom-soaked riffing in the early 70s, but the UK had fallen behind its Atlantic cousins in the decades since, bands like Witchfinder General, Acrimony and even Cathedral existing as sole pillars adrift in a musical sea.
But by the mid-90s the tides were changing. The Peaceville Three (Paradise Lost, Anathema and My Dying Bride) established a beachhead for new British grimness, while independent label Rise Above records blew the doors wide open. Founded by Cathedral mainman Lee Dorrian in 1988, the label served as a rallying point for the UK’s underground stoner and doom talent, with Orange Goblin and Electric Wizard - formed in 1995 and 1993 respectively - leading the charge.
By 2006, Orange Goblin were a decade and five albums in and had decided they wanted more. That year they amicably parted ways with Rise Above, inking a new deal with Sanctuary Records in the hopes it would propel them to new heights. “Sanctuary was a label set up by Iron Maiden’s management and they were really supportive of what we were doing,” Orange Goblin vocalist Ben Ward remembers. “We were young and hungry so we wanted to impress them with something we hadn’t done before.”
While the band weren’t about to throw away their tried-and-tested riff-loaded sound, a decision was made early on to go harder and darker than they had previously. “The vibe of the record lent itself to a more metal edge,” Ben says. “The whole theme and the lyrics were more aggressive than what we’d done in terms of fantasy lyrics in the past, particularly on the first album, Frequencies From Planet Ten, which was a lot of wizards and dragons you’d hear Dio sing about.”
While Dio was out (for the moment, at least), Ben found another set of heavy metal icons to draw inspiration from. “Everything important I’ve learned about history I got from Iron Maiden lyrics!” Ben grins. “We’d been looking at ideas for what to do [on the album] and had gone on a few London Walks, where you get a guide to show you around historic sites in London. It was a good excuse to have a piss-up on a Friday night, get a bottle of whiskey in your pocket and go for a walk around the streets of London, find out amazing things.
“On one of those walks we went down Monument and Pudding Lane, and the tour guide explained that was where the Great Fire [of London] started and it was what brought an end to the bubonic plague. It really struck a chord with me and I thought it had some potential for some heavy metal storytelling. After that, I started reading books like A Journal Of The Plague Year by Daniel Defoe and all this other literature that helped shape the songs.”
Diving into history in a way that would do Bruce Dickinson and the boys proud, Orange Goblin set out to make Healing Through Fire as a concept record, but to also ensure the songs could stand strong in their own right. It didn’t hurt that they weren’t over- stretching too much in capturing the squalid conditions of 17th-century London. “At the time we were rehearsing in this dingy little archway under a station,” Ben says. “It was very damp and rat infested, so it made us feel we were familiar with what London was like during the plague! It was an inspiring place to write, just because it was so dirty and grimy.”
A brief break from the Big Smoke in May 2006 gave them the chance to start demoing new material. Arriving in the US ahead of a planned tour with Scissorfight, the band went into a Boston studio to demo and record the first track for what would become album opener The Ballad of Solomon Eagle. If there was any worry their change in tack would upset their new label however, it was quickly squashed.
“They loved it!” Ben smiles. “Because we were looking into the history of London, people could research and find things out for themselves, so in that regard it was pretty similar to what Iron Maiden do.”
Buoyed by label support, the band came home from the tour itching to get the last few tracks written around their new concept. Oftentimes, the songs would be based around real-life characters featured in historical records, or otherwise on incidents and places of significance during the plague. But album closer Beginner’s Guide to Suicide was closer to the material Orange Goblin had dealt with in the past, hatched from Ben’s imagination.
“The Ballad Of Solomon Eagle is a mad prophet who used to run around with a vat of boiling oil on his head proclaiming the end of the world,” he explains. “Hounds Ditch is where all the animals that died of plague were buried, Mortlake is in West London and where they buried a lot of the dead… But Beginner’s Guide To Suicide was originally just a title I liked that popped into my head. It was about people who would rather take the easy way out than get the plague and have a slow, miserable death – they’d just poison themselves.”
The song also marked a departure from Orange Goblin’s usual sonic fare, slowing the tempo right down whilst turning the bluesy fuzz right the way up to almost sludge levels.
“Oh yeah, it was a pretty big departure musically,” Ben agrees. “Joe [Hoare, guitar] had this great lazy blues riff, this dark Southern blues done in an almost Nick Cave way. The song really drove home this idea of people being so tired of living in such miserable circumstances. London at the time would most certainly have been miserable with death and famine, plague and everything else on your doorstep. The fire really was a godsend to get rid of it.”
Dour as its subject matter was, Orange Goblin still had fun while in the studio. “We recorded in a studio in London in Old Street, not too far from where the things we were singing about occurred,” Ben says. “We were in the heart of London, so we’d stop by The Crobar frequently and have guests back in the studio, which could get a bit messy. It was a lot of fun, but we got fucked up more than we should have.”
Not all of their guests were there to party, mind. Beginner’s Guide To Suicide in particular benefitted from additional touches of harmonica and keys, contributed by guest musicians Honkeyfinger and Jason Graham. “We’d become friends with this guy Johnny [Halifax] who played as the artist Honkeyfinger, so we got him to play harmonica on the song,” Ben says. “We’d never had harmonica on an album before, so it was different and exciting when he started coming out with ideas in the studio. Jason also put keys on there, so it felt more extravagant than your average Orange Goblin song.”
On the surface, Healing Through Fire didn’t particularly catapult Orange Goblin into new stratospheres of fame and fortune. It did, however, put the band firmly on the radar, affording them fresh opportunities. “People felt we’d gone quiet in that period between 2007 and 2012 because we weren’t releasing any albums,” Ben admits. “But in reality, Healing Through Fire set us up; we were constantly touring around Europe, the UK and America. We did Download for the first time and got to do Roadburn – that was all off the strength of Healing…”
The band also got to make their triumphant return to arenas, supporting Heaven And Hell for two shows in Poland. “Those shows were the highlight of that whole touring period,” Ben says proudly. “We’d just finished soundchecking in this enormous venue in Katowice called the Spodek and were going to the dressing room. As we walked down the corridor I hear ‘Ben!’ and I turned round, it was Ronnie James Dio! He not only remembered my name from when we supported him in 2001, but wanted to ask how things were going and how I was. It was bizarre, but made you realise what an awesome guy he was.”
Although for much of its release Healing Through Fire has been out of print physically (Sanctuary becoming defunct in 2007 shortly after the album’s release), it still remains beloved by fans. “Even now, we still play a lot of those Healing Through Fire tracks live because the fans love to hear them,” Ben says. “It’s really stood the test of time.”
Don’t expect the band to bust out Beginner’s Guide… itself out too often, though. “The song really relies on the harmonica and steel lap guitar parts – it’s a little too hard to play,” Ben admits. “We did do it at Desertfest in London a few years back, where we had a keyboard player and second guitarist, and people really loved it.”
Well, 2.6 million streams (on Spotify alone), can’t be wrong.
The Deluxe Edition of Healing Through Fire is out now via Cherry Red Records. Orange Goblin play Damnation on November 5th UK this December