It’s frankly amazing that Black Orchid Empire have lasted this long, and that isn’t said to be deliberately gauche or anything like that. They’re currently on their third album, though beyond the heavier alt-rock and melodic prog scene where they’ve sort of hung around, you’d be hard pressed to find a real legacy attached to them. For what it’s worth, they’re not bad necessarily, but between a forgotten debut in 2016’s Archetype and a pretty middle-of-the-road follow-up in 2018’s Yugen, they’re a band for whom adequacy has become a defining characteristic. In a way though, that can be harder to push through than simply being a bad band; a band can at least stand out in that respect, but for Black Orchid Empire who seldom seem to lean one way or another at the best of times, it just becomes difficult to pay attention. That’s why Semaphore arrives as something of a surprise, on the pure basis of Black Orchid Empire actually having the mileage to release it. That’s not to preemptively judge it, but a less-than-stellar track record can leave some conspicuously long shadows in its wake.
And after all, a gut feeling can have its merits, such is the way that Semaphore continues a lineage of profoundly adequate material from Black Orchid Empire, as an album that’s fit for purpose but is rarely, if ever interesting in doing so. It almost perfectly fits the bill for a modern prog album; Black Orchid Empire seem to be adept at pronouncing the scope and expanse of their vision, and giving it a heavier, meatier crunch to emphasise it further, but not a lot of sticks amidst all of that, and what’s left is an album that could potentially impress in the moment but has next to no chance of sticking around longer. That’s not particularly new for this band, but it can still be disappointing, especially when it makes Semaphore feel less like a progression, and more like a band holed up in a very limited pool of ideas.
It’s difficult to know what to say apart from that, as for an album that’s shooting for tremendous expanse and grandeur, it’s not like any of that translates beyond scope and a sci-fi lyrical bent that doesn’t necessarily pay off too much. It’s reminiscent of Starset in quite a few ways, in how striving for enormity and a thunderously weighty concept is put down on paper but rarely followed up on, with Black Orchid Empire’s one notable leg up coming in the fact that Semaphore isn’t as chronically bloated. At least there’s that, and while the hammering tone and downtuned guitar crunch can make moments on this album feel more overweight than they rightfully should, they’re at least consigned to manageable enough packages that it’s not outwardly infuriating to listen to.
That’s not exactly a reasonable substitute for quality though, especially when there’s still a good amount to tedium to be found in Semaphore thanks to a lack of real modulation or memorable progressions. The reason that Natural Selection and Winter Keeps Us Warm stand as this album’s best moments is because they shift away from trying to sound as thunderous and monolithic as possible, the former moulding itself into a poppier context that’s still loud but a lot more agreeable, and the latter being the customary big ballad that’s actually allowed to breathe (even if its underlying guitar tone can still be a bit too heavy for its own good). Elsewhere though, Black Orchid Empire’s efforts are valiant in how they’re trying to capture that arena-rock aesthetic, but none of this is memorable and by about the halfway mark, Semaphore really can run together. It really is the lack of diversity that kills this album as well, given that the band seemingly don’t realise the limits of the mileage that can gleaned from a sound like this, and while they can occasionally stumble upon a hook or chorus that can leave an impression like on Motorcade or Faces, there’s otherwise not much that really does anything of note.
But honestly, that’s pretty much that standard for Black Orchid Empire at this stage. They’re not a band that look to be expanding their horizons beyond superficial scope, and Semaphore serves as a perfect example of how limited that approach can be. There’s enough for plenty of prog fans to get out of maybe a handful of listens, but after that, the likelihood that this will end up falling into the same limbo as every other Black Orchid Empire release is almost guaranteed at this stage. And even then, it’s not exactly awful or incompetent for what it’s trying to do, but this is absolutely not the right way to make albums like this with a chance of lasting, and it’s a shame that Black Orchid Empire are yet to properly realise that.
For fans of: Biffy Clyro, Tool, Deftones
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘Semaphore’ by Black Orchid Empire is released on 12th June on Long Branch Records.