Album Review: XANTHOCHROID Of Erthe and Axen: Act II
This past August, Californian quartet Xanthochroid released the first half of its new two-part saga, Of Erthe and Axen: Act I (which, narratively, was also a prequel to 2011’s Incultus EP and 2012’s Blessed He with Boils full-length). An extraordinary blend of orchestrated black metal and folk (with plenty of operatic singing), its tonal variety and cinematic weight matched its storytelling depth, making it quite an impressive aural adventure. Fortunately, its follow-up, Act II, preserves that excellence. A heavier outing overall, it’s not quite as melodically engaging or dynamically balanced as Act I, yet its subtle intricacies and grander scope make it a more epic and emotional affair. As such, it’s a slightly weaker continuation that still amazes in many ways and further solidifies Xanthochroid as a highly unique and valuable outfit in today’s metal scene.
According to the band, the record is “a deeply personal and tragic journey” that “picks up after the cliffhanger ending of Act I, in which a massive battle leaves brothers Thanos and Sindr separated, and their beloved Vera dead”. Whereas the former collection prioritized beauty over brutality (for the most part), this one effectively “delivers the . . . onslaught” of guttural outcries, powerful riffs, and hectic percussion that genre devotees adore. That said, it still offers enough gentle moments and colorful theatricality to appease listeners yearning for that side of Xanthochroid’s persona. Together, these divergent elements unite once again (alongside more rich Tolkienian lore and Shakespearean drama) to yield a great a work of art.
“Reveal Your Shape, O Formless One” — like Act I’s “Open the Gates, O Forest Keeper”— starts the sequence with a gorgeous symphonic instrumental. In contrast to how the former piece’s fanciful robustness insinuated troubled relationships and a rigorous battle to come, this one feels more like the morose aftermath of these conflicts, as a bittersweet collage of strings and piano chords instills a sense of defeat and hopelessness. It’s a very powerful and beautiful composition whose parallels to the Act I introduction (in terms of both sounds and title) immediately convey a shared world between the two halves.
The fiercer nature of Act II follows with “Of Aching, Empty Pain,” a sophisticated amalgam of frenzied syncopation, classical foundations, angelic chants (a feature that’s given more emphasis in general on this LP), affected laments, and of course, plenty of devilish screaming. As usual, it’s the relentlessly quick yet always poised ways in which Xanthochroid juxtaposes these styles that make their music shine; it changes constantly without ever losing its focus and accessibility. Later on, songs like “Of Gods Bereft of Grace” and “Through Chains that Drag us Down” capture a similar vibe with a stronger penchant for elegant acoustic guitar strums and arpeggios, as well as complementary woodwinds and challenging rhythms.
While the entire set is filled with heightened complexities and sentiments, two songs in particular —“Walk with Me, O Winged Mother” and closer “Toward Truth and Reconciliation”— really bring those aspects to light. The arguable centerpiece of Act II, “Walk with Me, O Winged Mother” soars thanks to its initial ingenious use of interlocking chants (that evoke Gentle Giant) to mirror and aid the reflections of vocalists Sam and Ali Meador (both of whom give incredible performances). Not only does the arrangement enthrall on its own, but it provides a stunning contrast to the orchestral chaos that follows. As for “Toward Truth and Reconciliation,” it essentially packs everything you’d want from a Xanthochroid finale into a tour-de-force of shifting melodies and scores, granting it a remarkably moving, engaging, and ambitious air. Best of all, it cleverly recalls previous passages to bring the tale home and overwhelm you with conceptual continuity. You can’t help but smile as it unfolds.
Of Erthe and Axen: Act II may not be quite as engrossing and diverse as Act I, but it comes extremely close due to its heartfelt lyricism, energized singing, and ceaselessly fascinating and elaborate instrumentation. While it may take a few more listens to fully unravel than its predecessor, it’s ultimately almost on par with it, making it yet another spellbinding effort from Xanthochroid. Of course, its greatest strength is how well it connects to Act I and completes the saga, allowing the full Of Erthe and Axen epic to rank as one of 2017’s best metal offerings.