In November 2015, I reviewed the Orphan Brigade’s first album, ‘Soundtrack To A Ghost Story’. It was exceptional, an enchanting creative cauldron. It gave me chills.

But oh my, Orphan Brigade, what sweet sorcery is this!?

The follow-up offering surpasses all expectations. Whatever alchemy is at work, they have spun a precious outcome.

Fourteen artists comprise the Orphan Brigade. That’s a lot of creative juice. The Northern Ireland connection is, of course, Glenarm’s finest and Nashville based singer-songwriter Ben Glover, teamed up once more with Neilson Hubbard, Josh Britt, Gretchen Peters and a list too long to mention.

Last time, the Brigade locked itself away in Octagon Hall, one of the most haunted old properties in Kentucky, bewildered by the horrors of the Civil War, steeped in gloom and doom. What resulted was both spirited and spiritual – but now, the second album, ‘Art Of The Cave’ takes that to a whole new spirit level.

For the second album, the Orphan Brigade took off to the ancient pre-Christian caves of Osimo, Italy. Just how or why this location was chosen is unbeknownst to me. Maybe it was just a good idea at the time, or some madcap idea spun – “let’s go into the bowels of the earth and make music”, or maybe it was the majestic acoustics.

Herein lies the tale – just like at Octagon Hall, what transpires is haunting, elevating, mesmerizing, phantastic.

As with all good spooky stories, it takes on a life of its own. During their first venture into the tunnels and cavities below the town of Osimo, they collaborated and wrote ‘Osimo (Come to Life)’. It was as if the ghosts were resurrected. They were invited back for a ten-day stay, during which they wrote and recorded most of ‘Heart Of The Cave’. The tunnels, secret societies, and saints, life, death, spirituality, transformation, and mysticism of the caves beneath Osimo found breath and a voice.

Glover describes the dust, dark and heavy air beneath the earth.

I had a profound sense that we were stepping back into the past, a mysterious and ancient world.

Carvings of angels and demons, piles of human bones, torture and the remnants of love and loss became the back drop to the thirteen songs that form ‘The Heart Of The Cave’.

It’s stark, sobering. The opening track ‘Pile Of Bones’ says it as it is, spells out the harsh reality of life and death so to speak.

We ain’t leaving but a pile of bones. We ain’t leaving no more.

Strange but true; calcium and collagen combined are what we all boil down to. Oh well, c’est la vie.

While that may seem somewhat dark, these songs are melodic, often rousing, uplifting and I found myself singing along, getting drawn in and even finding some humour therein.

For example, in a ‘Town Of A Hundred Churches’ how can you still be alone? Or ‘Flying Joe’, the fourth track, has an old-time spiritual slant, and regardless of its peculiar theme, the lyrics made me chuckle.

According to the story, ‘Flying Joe’ was one of the caves’ most notorious historical residents – Saint Joseph of Cupertino – “a 17th-century Franciscan friar who was said to have flown because his ecstatic meditations caused him to levitate… reportedly even in front of the Pope”.

These days they’d lock you up, but poor old ‘Flying Joe’ was exiled to the caves to outlive his ascetic life. Great tune and lyrics – an absolute highlight.

However, it was the next track that really stood out. ‘V.I.T.R.I.O.L’, despite its toxic suggestion, is an achingly beautiful breakup tune, with an emotionally resonant slant.

Ben Glover takes the lead vocals on ‘Pain Is Gone’, a gently melodic song about healing with evocative harmonies, swiftly followed by the more upbeat and vibrant ‘Alchemy’.

Voices rising in unison, in harmony, resonating around that tribal, sacred space is perhaps the most acute feature of ‘Heart Of The Cave’. It’s primitive, tribal, a full blown pulse, yet combined with chants, shakers, it’s almost transcendental.

Now, a funny thing happened in those Osimo caves and surrounds while the Orphan Brigade were underground. An earthquake. The earth moved. It shook things up. It inspired the next song – ‘The Birds Are Silent’. Glover again takes lead vocals, but there’s so much going on.

Possibly further fall-out from the earthquake, the next track ‘The Bells Are Ringing’ – fast paced, repetitive and rhythmic, echoing the other forces of nature and storms that often accompany such seismic shifts.

There’s a beautiful ballad about the poor, saintly ‘Sweet Cecilia’ who got a night visit from the soul-sucking angel of death. The mandolin mocks, the electric guitar gently rocks the maiden fair to the other side.

‘Meet Me In The Shadows’ is a little on the gloomy side – sad, sombre – reminiscent of medieval monks’ low-tone chants.

The closing tracks do seem to go over to the dark side. However ‘There’s A Fire That Never Goes Out’ is ultimately about the glimmer of hope through the darkest moments – an invitation to look deep inside. It’s a “dark night of the soul” sort of song.

The closing track ‘Donna Sacra’, which roughly translates as the holy woman, features mandolin and female vocals – haunting, it feels achingly sad.

Overall, ‘Heart Of The Cave’ is exceptional. Written and recorded in the caves below the streets of Osimo, I’m so intrigued now I want to go visit; have put it on the bucket list.

This one comes highly recommended.

‘Heart Of The Cave’ is released on 29th September 2017 on At the Helm Records.