The Helicon of too many poets is not a hill crowned with sunshine and visited by the Muses and the Graces, but an old, mouldering house, full of gloom and haunted by ghosts.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
This is a ghost story. Set to music, in a house full of life, death, love, war and unimaginable loss. In a house holding on to something that it cannot let go of. Tragedy has collected in this place. Tales and rumours of hauntings have continued to surround the Octagon Hall for years.
In 2013, a group of artists – including Glenarm’s finest Ben Glover, Neilson Hubbard, Joshua Britt, Gretchen Peters, Kim Richey and others – decided to live in the Octagon Hall for days and weeks at a time, submerging into the past, reading through memoirs, writing songs by candlelight, and experiencing the heavy spirit of this house.
Outside the comfort of studios, and into the darkness of one of the most haunted places in the US, this group started with three writers, actually working in this haunted house, and grew into a large band of musicians and artists, who took their name from the soldiers who died here – the Orphan Brigade.
To me, great music, reveals its own heartbeat. Nothing stands in between that pulse and the listener, and that kind of music, is birthed out of the depths of one’s core to where it’s cellular. There’s no veil. It just simply is. And that’s the music of this story, and that’s the Orphan Brigade.
explains Neilson Hubbard in the opening sequence from the documentary that tells the story of how and why this album – ‘The Orphan Bridge’ – came to be.
In my view, the documentary and the album must be considered together, as one – as the full depth and complexity of the 13 songs (plus prelude) that compile the album per se cannot be appreciated without knowing the story that lurks beneath.
The documentary can be found on theorphanbrigade.com. It’s just over an hour long, but is beautifully created and poetically delivered – as if the artists involved have been given permission from the past to reveal the ghosts of Octagon Hall. Some even make an appearance – and I’m not joking. Would I lie to you?
Something in these songs left me feeling unsettled and uncertain. They instilled, consciously or not, a state of unrest – I would flit from one to t’other. Maybe it was the October full moon in Taurus on the nights that I tuned in, or maybe, it was that this artistic collective had captured full force the rattling, haunting, raw emotion – and exposed it for time in memorium – like extreme unction in reverse, exorcised in chords and words exhumed but never spoken.
I can’t deny, something surrounding The Orphan Brigade gave me chills. A self-confessed sensitive sort, at times I was sure my blood was curdling. War, the very thought of it, the fear and futility, both turns my blood cold and makes it boil. These sentiments are captured with purity and stark reality throughout.
Right from the start, the opening bars of ‘Prelude’ betray such overwhelming haunting, aching sadness, before marching – with confederate drum beat – into ‘Pale Horse’ – and the opening words:
I know what I’ve done, is done; my deals with the devil, still follow me
imagery setting the scene for what is a quite brilliant ghost story, where even the horse appears to be in spirit.
Ben Glover says in the documentary
I truly believe… to sing these songs, that you have to believe in ghosts.
Easy to say when you’re from the Glens of Antrim where the woodlands whisper and the landscape is laden with folklore. Glover takes the lead on ‘Trouble My Heart (Oh Harriet)’ – the first single and a stand out track certainly. In fact, the spirited nymph actually took Glover to heart. On one of Ben’s visits to the haunted house, paranormal investigators claimed to have picked up Harriet’s presence, saying that she’d taken a shining to our Mr Glover. Raucously mixing plucked mandolin with demonic rhythm, this one’s rocking – could bring the house down live!
Imaginative titles for each tune – like ‘I’ve Seen The Elephant’ (in the room – the unspoken sights of horror and war, the ugliness we’d rather not speak about). By contrast, Hubbard’s ‘Sweatheart’ seems upbeat, but is anything but – a rhythmic, Southern gospel song that trumpets and begs “Don’t take my children away, they’re too young to see the end”, rolling into the melodic ‘The Last June Light’.
Kim Richey’s vocals ‘The Story You Tell Yourself’ – the hollow realisation that what they’re fighting for is nothing more than the story you tell yourself to justify the terror and tragedy of war. The following tracks collate that sense of futility, the empty valour and untruth in triumph or loss. A haunting Hammond heralds in the excellent, seasonal ‘We Were Marching On Christmas Day’ – heroically echoing the sentiment that no matter what continent or wherefore lay the clay, lions were led by donkeys, even on Christmas Day.
There’s a story behind all these tunes, but the tale within the jaunty ‘Whistling Walk’ deserves the telling: It goes something like this – the slaves at Octagon Hall were instructed to whistle while carrying food so that their owners would know that they weren’t actually eating the food as they walked to the big house. It beggars belief, doesn’t it?
The traditional folk ballad ‘Paddy’s Lamentation’ – is the only traditional air among this collection of original songs composed and recorded by Britt, Glover and Hubbard. It is a perfect fit, as poor Paddy’s achingly sad narrative unfurls – the disillusioned Irishman who crossed the ocean in hope of a new life in the Yankee land, only to face nothing there, but war.
The hollow, emptiness of war, that sense of betrayal in beliefs held dear but rendered meaningless are etched in ‘Good Old Flag’ and ‘Cursed Be The Wanderer. ‘Goodnight Mary’ is a haunting lullaby for a fatherless child, and finally ‘Orphans’ – the inevitable, meaningless outcome of war – wherever, whenever, whatever.
All songs are written by Neilson Hubbard, Ben Glover and Joshua Britt except for the traditional ‘Paddy’s Lamentation’, arranged by Glover and the beautiful ‘Octagon Hall Prelude’ by Danny Mitchell. The feature length documentary, which I would highly recommend watching so as to do the honesty and integrity of this album justice, can be found at theorphanbrigade.com.
As I wrote this, a cold wind howled outwith these old converted stables where I live. The hay loft door creaked open – then the internet crashed. I kid you not. Spooky or what?