Land of metal: Israeli hard rockers coming to S.F. club

When Kobi Farhi wore an Iron Maiden shirt to an Israeli synagogue in 1993, he suddenly realized what he needed to do.

At age 18, he was already two years into his journey as lead singer of metal band Orphaned Land. “Living in Israel, being Jewish, we should use Middle Eastern sounds in our music,” Farhi remembers thinking at that time. “If we were making American heavy metal we wouldn’t have done that.

“That’s how we became pioneers of Middle Eastern heavy metal.”

Since that fateful day, Farhi and his fellow bandmates have put out four full-length doom metal albums and have been featured in multiple documentaries and books on the influence of international metal. In May in Tel Aviv, they opened for the ultimate legends of the hard rocking genre: Metallica.

Kobi Farhi (foreground) with the rest of his band, Orphaned Land. photo/ abe

“In many ways they were heroes for us. We saw them play in Israel when we were teenagers, so getting to perform with them now was a great compliment,” Farhi says excitedly.

Now in the midst of a full U.S. tour, Orphaned Land will make a stop in San Francisco on Sept. 24 at Thee Parkside.

Chatting via cell phone from the backstage area of the band’s New York concert earlier this month, Farhi says this tour has been full of well-wishers celebrating the High Holy Days along with the band.

“I’ve been getting so many Rosh Hashanah greetings,” he says. “People were screaming ‘shanah tovah’ and ‘chag sameach’ in Philadelphia and Baltimore.”

Given its deep connections to its roots in Israel, the group knew it took a chance when it first began incorporating both rearranged Jewish liturgy and Arabic sounds into its music. It was an initially controversial idea because the band, whose members are all Jewish, included sounds and themes that could be viewed as sacred to Jews and Muslims.

“We were frightened at first,” the long-haired singer admits. “But people liked it — it takes spirituality and mixes it with heavy metal culture.”

Orphaned Land’s arrangements have since included Arabic melodies, traditional Yemenite chants, biblical verses and a reworked Yom Kippur poem.

While Farhi growls and chants as lead vocalist, Uri Zelha plays bass, Matan Shmuely plays the drums, and Matti Svatizky and Yossi Sassi Sa’aron play guitar. Sa’aron also performs on a handful of Middle Eastern instruments such as saz, bouzouki and chumbush. There’s also occasionally some female Yemenite vocals help from Shlomit Levi, who tours with the group.

Together they’ve explored themes such as commonality between religions and positive coexistence between Muslims and Jews. On the 2010 album, “The Never Ending Way of ORWarriOR,” the concept was a battle between darkness and light, religious tolerance versus intolerance. On it, Farhi sings in English, Hebrew and Arabic.

While Orphaned Land has now been playing its particular brand of Middle Eastern folk-infused metal for more than a decade, Farhi says he has recently seen a spike of interest in the style.

“There are a lot of acts that have begun following what we’re doing. I think this is going to be the next big thing in the heavy metal scene, mark my words.”

Farhi describes Orphaned Land’s music as a tribute to the diverse culture of Israel. Having grown up in Jaffa, he was exposed to people of Jewish, Muslim and Christian faiths on a daily basis. “[Jaffa] is colorful and inspiring but also hardcore,” he says. “There’s a lot of crime and drug addicts, but there’s also rich culture and always music playing in people’s houses.”

It was that mix of different neighborhood sounds that got Farhi into making his own music — his neighbors listened to Arab music and he heard Sabbath hymns in the Jewish homes. In his own home, his parents listened to Greek, Italian and synagogue songs.

He discovered heavy metal after reading a newspaper article about Iron Maiden as a young teen in the late 1980s. He was drawn to the band’s obsession with Satanism because, at the time, he was “rebellious and curious.”

“Ever since, this is my life,” he says. “Without the Satanism.”

Orphaned Land
will play at 6:30 p.m. Sept. 24 at Thee Parkside, 1600 17 St., S.F. with Katatonia.