Album Review: XANTHOCHROID Of Erthe and Axen: Act I
Formed in 2005, Californian cinematic black metal quartet Xanthochroid are masters of amalgamating light and dark music, operatic vocals, and dense, literary storytelling. As their prior two studio outings—2011’s Incultus EP and 2012’s Blessed He with Boils LP—demonstrated, they’re as adept at fusing classical and folk elements with guttural foundations (like the perfect mixture of Opeth, Agalloch, Enslaved, Nightwish, Renaissance, and Jethro Tull) as they are crafting rich legendary dramas in the vein of the Song of Ice and Fire, Lord of the Rings, and Witcher series. Of Erthe and Axen: Act I, their latest offering, maintains that excellence wonderfully, giving fans a remarkably varied, touching, and ambitious work in which to get lost.
As its name suggests, this is the first, and reportedly softer, half of a two-part sequence (whose heavier counterpart will arrive in October). Furthermore, Of Erthe and Axen serves as a prequel to its precursors and gives more depth to the realm of Etymos and its central sibling conflict(s). Specifically, the narrative revolves around the older brother of the saga, Sindr (or Ereptor), “return[ing] to the island nation of Axen seven years after he left to join the ranks of the Erthen military. What follows is a tale of love, jealousy, magic, war, and deceit as younger brother Thanos learns of his brother’s true motivations.”
Musically, the record successfully takes the band’s “theatrical concepts to a higher level, evoking the grandeur, bombast, and vulnerability of a live stage performance” by offering pieces that are at once “more extreme, yet more delicate” and “more vast, yet more intimate.” Indeed, the sheer range and seamlessness of styles that the quartet (vocalist Ali Meador, keyboardist/guitarist/vocalist Sam Meador, percussionist/vocalist Matthew Earl, and guitarist Brent Vallefuoco) pulls off are impeccable, and the ways in which they use their aural abilities to represent the aforementioned plot makes the album appealing to fans of both metal and mythology alike.
The journey begins with two short pieces—“Open the Gates O Forest Keeper” and “To Lost and Ancient Gardens”—that work as a sort of calm before the storm. The former is an orchestral powerhouse that shuffles between rapturous fury and resigned fragility exceptionally well; it develops a majestic yet ominous palette of percussion, horns, strings, guitars, piano, and more to set the stage and evoke previous genre gems like the overtures to Dream Theater’s “Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence” and Symphony X’s “The Odyssey.” In contrast, the latter track is an elegant and fanciful acoustic guitar duet in which the Meadors exchange interlocking reflections ripe with fantastical actions and details. (If Arjen Anthony Lucassen ever delved fully into dramaturgical folk rock, it’d probably sound like this, and there’s nothing wrong with that.)
Of course, Xanthochroid also provides plenty of brutality along the way, such as the blistering syncopation, crushing riffs, and Devin Townsend-esque croons and screeches of “To Higher Climes Where Few Might Stand” and “The Sound of Hunger Rises.” Even at its most hellish and opaque, however, Of Erthe and Axen never lets this ferocity become overwhelming or tedious; rather, vibrant instrumentation and fascinating dynamic shifts flood every fierce section, taking listeners on a ceaseless roller coaster of dispositions and textures. As such, the LP offers plenty for fans of sonic savagery to devour despite its mostly symphonic and bright tapestries.
Of Erthe and Axen: Act I does three important things at once: entices for its upcoming resolution, enhances the legacy of its creators, and exemplifies how adventurous, fluid, and refined such stylistic mergers can be in general. Sure, Xanthochroid is far from the first act to combine black metal, folk, and classical into a cinematic sum—nor are they pioneers of fairy-tale conceptuality—but they’re easily among the best at it. The core players continue to excel in terms of technique and diversity, while newcomer Ali Meador adds a sublimely fresh and fitting layer to the formula. Because of this, Of Erthe and Axen: Act I is a benchmark release for both the band and the genre as a whole, making the wait until October that much more difficult.