The Wolf Bites Back is an album of orderliness.
On its shortest album to date, Orange Goblin’s ninth studio release The Wolf Bites Back is an album of orderliness. No song crosses the six minute mark, a first for the London stoner rock quartet. Vocalist Ben Ward is as burly as ever, guitarist Joe Hoare drives the songs forward with always-great riffing and a great tone and bassist Martyn Millard and drummer Chris Turner expertly keep the fury under control without getting in the way. But the album offers no surprises.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Since its excellent third outing, The Big Black (2000), Orange Goblin has largely operated using the same set of tools to consistently favorable results, and The Wolf is no different. There’s the killer opener “Sons of Salem,” the tumbling riff monster of “Renegade,” the two-minute punker “Suicide Division,” the requisite bluesy number “The Stranger,” the tidy instrumental “In Bocca Al Lupo” and even the track with a spacey middle section, “Burn the Ships.”
OG clings to its template like a religion, and when you’re as dependable as they are, it makes sense. The problem with The Wolf, though, is that while the material is fun and enjoyable, both its parts and the resulting sum are inferior to previous efforts. By trimming the songwriting and the runtime, this perhaps counterintuitively feels like a placeholder from a band that didn’t know where to go after the back-to-back career highs Back and A Eulogy for the Damned.
Or more accurately, they didn’t know how much to trim. After the world-beating ambition of A Eulogy, Back was a sleeker version, the songwriting of the same quality but with a grounded base. Yet with The Wolf, it appears that OG saw more pruning was the next move. It’s usually admirable when a band scales back anything grandiose, but that’s what OG, and bands of that scene, thrive on. When you take away the silly and the weird from stoner rock, you’re left with a routine hard rock record. Which – OK, fine. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that. It’s just lamentable to watch a band like Orange Goblin moving to the middle.
Ward’s lyrics provide some relief. His fascination with the fantastical is intact, but this time around it serves a purpose. Instead of simply singing about creatures in the fog or outlandish battle scenes, he uses a wolf’s violent tendencies and primitive man to discuss justified retaliation and religion, respectively.
This unfortunately gets him to some trouble when two songs use firearms as a metaphor. “Renegade” is about being an outsider and opens with the problematic lines, “Shoot to kill, fire at will/ You’re in the crosshairs, and I need my fill.” The context, presumably, is that of being a rock band in today’s musical climate, but that isn’t exactly a vindication. Meanwhile, the ‘let’s revolt against the system’ track “Burn the Ships” describes a revolutionary as “the man with a gun in his hand” who never backs down and has a militia at the ready. Using guns as a metaphor (twice!) in 2018—at least from an American perspective—is questionable at best. Thankfully, it’s only a small portion of the album’s content. Apart from that, Ward’s occasionally clunky writing (like “The steel that slices through the night”) can be an unwelcome distraction.
But one miscalculation and some songwriting concessions shouldn’t overshadow the overall boisterous amusement of The Wolf Bites Back. This is the sound of a band loving what they do almost a quarter century into their career. It’s not their best record by any metric, but it is a solid entry in a satisfying catalogue, and there are worse things to be.