All the extreme metal fans on the real Earth have been anticipating a return to Xanthochroid’s fictional Erthe since 2012’s immensely impressive debut, Blessed He with Boils. Taking five years to meticulously craft a two-act follow-up, the Californian band have rewarded our patience with Of Erthe and Axen, a cinematic, dynamic album pair that blends the best facets of several metal genres with orchestral folk pieces to produce something totally unique.
The band craft a story that dives deep into a universe they have created. Like their previous release, Of Erthe and Axen comes with a map that helps situate the listener in the fictional landscape; the overall appearance reminds me of Europe and its surrounding western island masses, with Erthe serving as the mainland continent. While we are given the general contours of the story – a reunion between brothers separated for seven years – the details are a bit hard to follow through the lyrical maze. It seems that Thanos and Sindr had dreams of conquering the world, but younger Thanos fell in forbidden love with a forest spirit on an island while Sindr returned to Erthe to join the military, and then Sindr returns to the island to destroy its inhabitants, and… I’m not sure where things go from there, if I even have that much right. But my lack of comprehension does not ameliorate my enjoyment of the album and the way it unfolds.
In general, Act I (released back in August) is lighter and more orchestral than its companion (released this month). There’s a greater diversity of instrumentation as well, with the two main masterminds of the project, Sam Meador and Matthew Earl, incorporating accordion, mandolin, Irish flute, and recorder into their compositions. Three of the eight tracks on Act I do veer off into metal, including the magnificent tone-setter “To Higher Climes Where Few Might Stand”, which exemplifies everything at which the band excels. The song, which follows an orchestral introduction and a male-female vocal duet loaded with linguistic interplay, kicks up the intensity with a churning riff reminiscent of the Peaceville gothic-doom ethic. When the harsh vocals enter, they utilize a strained, black-adjacent sound that’s not quite a full scream and could turn some listeners off (I had this reaction when I first heard them in 2012, but have grown to enjoy it). The melodies, shared between traditional metal guitars and pervasive orchestral string, brass, and wind elements, are complex and make intelligent use of emotionally evocative mode mixtures. Repeated motives are a huge aspect of the band’s approach, and they pay off most majestically in the closing pieces of each act. The drum performance is whip-tight and synchronizes almost impossibly well with the musical dynamics without ever sounding mechanical (Ne obliviscaris, are you paying attention? You could learn a lot from these guys). A couple of tracks bring in a guest to deliver some of the deep death growls that are evidently out of the band members’ range, and these moments flow nicely with the aggression in the music. “To Souls Distant and Dreaming” shows that the group can cycle between Dream Theater’s clean tones, Epica’s power metal sensibility, and Andy McKee’s technical acoustic guitar work without batting an eye. The way they demonstrate deep knowledge of songcrafting and structuring is eerie – really, it shouldn’t be, because more bands should figure out how to write this way – and shows especially on the dramatic transition into Act I‘s closer “The Sound Which Has No Name” and the heart-pounding climax of Act II’s “Of Gods Bereft of Grace”.
Their commitment to instrumental breadth leads to amazing juxtapositions, like xylophone-and-blast-beats on “Of Strength and the Lust for Power”. But they’re even great with little or no instruments at all, as seen in the backing vocal arrangements on the first half of “Walk with Me, O Winged Mother”, which reminds me of the Chrono Cross soundtrack, and the entirely a capella Baroque style of “Through Caverns Old and Yawning”. Act II ends with the eleven-minute “Toward Truth and Reconciliation”, easily the longest track on either album, which encompasses and summarizes the signature spirit of Xanthochroid. The track titles may look a bit odd at first glance, but when all sixteen titles align to become the album’s closing lyrics, everything falls into place. As you might expect, the album’s grand finale wraps up everything with satisfying majesty. Actually, I take that back – you might not expect that, as I’ve been burned by too many bands who failed to produce that conclusive climax after a promising album. An epic story merits an epic conclusion, but some acts shy away from it; Xanthochroid don’t, and we’re all the better for it. The record should be placed in the album-construction hall of fame, to be studied by future generations.
An album of this ambition only works if the production matches the quality of the composition, and that is pristinely done here, with heavy riffs, choral vocal layers, and cinematic orchestration blending perfectly so that everything is audible and nothing steps on another sound’s toes. When restraint is needed on the lighter interludes, everything glows; when bombast is needed as on the punchy introduction of “Through Chains That Drag Us Downward”, the heft is delivered mightily.
General comparisons are difficult because the band’s aggregate sound is so robust and majestic that no other band feels like they belong in the same sentence. But, for reference, there are strong hints of Wintersun’s orchestral grandiosity, Native Construct’s melodic progginess, Borknagar’s fusion of frosty black metal and sharp clean singing, and Blind Guardian’s soaring choral vocal performances. Another band that comes to mind somewhat unexpectedly as I listen to Of Erthe and Axen is Canadian black metallers Gris, whose 2013 double album À l’âme enflammée, l’Äme constellée… fused atmospheric black metal with richly-arranged dark acoustic folk. The album always stood out to me because the non-metal parts were every bit as strong as the metal parts, and in some cases even more enchanting. Xanthochroid has done something similar with a different set of genres here; their orchestral interludes never leave you wondering when the metal will come back, but instead sweep you deeper into the lore and mystique of their fictional world. I was initially skeptical of the two-act structure with the music being segregated into lighter and darker because of my experience with Arcane’s double album Known/Learned, which split its heavy and light material to the first and second discs respectively; I always thought the album would have been stronger if the contrast had been more interwoven. However, I don’t think Xanthochroid has stumbled into that trap here, because Act I does contain a decent amount of heavy material and Act II doesn’t dwell only in the heavy sphere either. While there is clearly a tendency toward more heaviness as the album goes on, this mirrors the intensity of the storyline rather than distracting the listener with clumsy pacing.
Xanthochroid have put together nothing short of a magnum opus here, the kind of once-in-a-career album that most bands will never achieve, and that those who do almost never follow up. I would be happy to be proven wrong in another four or five years; multi-album shared-universe concepts have proven quite fertile for bands like Ayreon and Lascaille’s Shroud, and are generally the hallmark of artists who are deeply committed to their craft, so I have no doubt Xanthochroid have many more stories of the realm of Etymos to tell. They have proven to be a band worth paying reverent attention to, far exceeding their black and power metal peers to stand alone atop their niche.
An advanced digital version of the album was sent to us.
Album: Of Erthe and Axen, Acts I & II
Release date: 22 August 2017 (Act I), 17 October 2017 (Act II)
1. Open the Gates, O Forest Keeper – 3:22
2. To Lost and Ancient Gardens – 2:47
3. To Higher Climes Where Few Might Stand – 7:51
4. To Souls Distant and Dreaming – 5:39
5. In Deep and Wooded Forests of My Youth – 4:41
6. The Sound of Hunger Rises – 6:03
7. The Sound of a Glinting Blade – 4:52
8. The Sound Which Has No Name – 7:46
Partial running time: 42:57
1. Reveal Your Shape, O Formless One – 1:35
2. Of Aching, Empty Pain – 8:24
3. Of Gods Bereft of Grace – 6:53
4. Of Strength and the Lust for Power – 6:24
5. Walk with Me, O Winged Mother – 5:54
6. Through Caverns Old and Yawning – 2:19
7. Through Chains That Drag Us Downward – 6:58
8. Toward Truth and Reconciliation – 11:23
Partial running time: 49:48
Total running time: 92:45
Sam Meador – Vocals, Choir, Piano, Orchestra, Acoustic Guitars, Bass, Accordion, Irish Flute, Mandolin
Matthew Earl – Vocals, Choir, Drums, Orchestra, Flute, Irish Flute, Recorder, Mandolin, Percussion
Brent Vallefuoco – Choirs, Guitars
Ali Meador – Vocals, Choirs
Filetype listened to: MP3
Bitrate: 192 kb/s CBR
Sampling frequency: 44,100 Hz, 2 channels