The opening strains of the Orphan Brigade’s Heart of the Cave album feel ancient, sacred, and tribal. A drum beat. A shaker. A howling choir. Voices rise up in unison, chanting, “We ain’t leaving but a pile of bones. We ain’t leaving no more.” The story begins at the end because, no matter which road we take, we all arrive at the same destination: death of the physical body. Embracing that one indelible truth takes faith and gives freedom, which is why reckoning with mortality fuels so many spiritual journeys, just as it fuels this artistic one.
To support their 2015 release, Soundtrack to a Ghost Story — which documented the Civil War-era history of a haunted house in Kentucky — Joshua Britt, Ben Glover, and Neilson Hubbard toured Europe, landing an invitation to explore Osimo, Italy, and the 2,500-year-old caves under its streets. The tunnels once hosted secret societies and saints who fought for God with body and soul, leaving their stories hidden within the cave walls. “When we walked into the caves, we knew immediately that we had another story full of life, death, spirituality, transformation, and mysticism,” Hubbard says. That was the moment the Orphan Brigade shifted from being a one-off project to being a three-man band.
Of descending into the earth for the first time, Glover recalls, “The first things I physically felt were the dust, the dark, and the heavy air. I then sensed that we were being transported to another realm, one shut off from present day. I had a profound sense that we were stepping back into the past, into a mysterious and ancient world.”
Having experienced the emptiness of many religious sites in Europe and America, Britt notes, “The caves were a place that seemed to hold the true story. Carvings of angels and demons in the same place. Ancient secret societies willing to withstand torture to keep their secrets. Piles of human bones.” The caves were littered with remnants of love and loss, and the Orphan Brigade got to work.
During their first visit to the caves, they wrote “Osimo (Come to Life)” and got invited back for a 10-day stay during which they wrote and recorded most of Heart of the Cave. Rather than research the region beforehand, the three musicians chose to let the songs emerge more naturally with the help of a local historian, Simona, who served as their tour guide and raconteur.
One of the caves’ most notorious historical residents was Saint Joseph of Cupertino, the 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. Joseph lived an ascetic’s life, once exiled by the Inquisition and now exalted in the Orphan Brigade’s old-time spiritual
“Simona would tell us a wild story of Saint Joseph battling the devil and then she would take us to see his door where we touched the symbol of the devil that was allegedly burned into the wood during the battle,” Britt says. “Then she took us to a room in the church to see his bones and we sang the song for him. This was after writing in the cave he was banished to so he wouldn’t inspire people to heresy due to hundreds of people witnessing that he could fly.”
Most of the songs on Heart of the Cave lean into both the mystery and the history of Osimo. “Spirituality and history are essentially invisible, even though both leave physical evidence in the world,” Glover explains. “As a songwriter, I’m always trying to grasp the invisible and express it in melody and words, so I think I’m drawn to the enigmatic aspects of the spiritual and the historical.”
To tie it all together and tell the tales in an authentic way, the songwriters draw parallels between their own lives and those unearthed in the caves. The breezy, pulsing “Town of a Hundred Churches,” while written about Osimo, could just as easily be about Nashville. The tender and haunting “Pain Is Gone” describes a state of mind as much as it does a small Knights Templar church in the Italian countryside. The gentle sway of “V.I.T.R.I.O.L.” invokes both an ancient Masonic motto and a modern-day mantra.
“There’s a great element of projection involved,” Glover says, “but we tried our best to step into the shoes of the characters and tell their stories. Ultimately, though, we are telling our own personal stories on this album, and we used these characters as a way into finding and expressing what was inside of us.”
The fact that Italy endured three powerful earthquakes during their stay forced the musicians to face their own mortality and mission. As Hubbard tells it, “Much like the ghosts in the first project, the earthquakes became a menacing metaphor to the bigness and power of this ancient story and place — the uncertainty and danger that one must face to walk the path of true enlightenment.”
Darkness and danger, mysticism and mortality… to know these aspects of life is to also know their opposites. And that transformation is what truly beats throughout Heart of the Cave. “Being challenged with your own fears and testing your own beliefs are part of living a fulfilled life,” Britt says. “That has always been my source of enlightenment in art. It seems like it should be easy to walk into a world of beauty and write a masterpiece, but for me, it’s not. Even the beautiful places where we found inspiration, such as the ancient Knights Templar church in the hills where we wrote ‘Pain Is Gone,’ inspired me partly because I looked into a grate in the floor and it was full of human bones. That shadow side of things scares me. I’m not really inspired by the shadow itself, but what the shadow does to me when I deal with it.”
“The caves became the backdrop for our own inner explorations and our time in Osimo turned into a intensely personal, life-changing experience for us,” Glover concludes. “We literally were going into the earth to search for these songs and, in doing so, we transcended the surface of our lives and went deep within ourselves.”
Veritas vos liberabit… The truth shall set you free.