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Xanthochroid - Of Erthe and Axen Act II Award winner

Xanthochroid
Of Erthe and Axen Act II
by James Peterson at 07 December 2017, 7:42 AM

XANTHOCHROID are a band that I initially found out about almost exactly half a decade ago when I was still reviewing albums in a video format on my Zyborggian Youtube channel. It was them who actually approached me and sent me a promo of the debut full length “Blessed He With Boils,” instead of me discovering them on my own. And I’m glad they did so because now, with the release of this new double album “Of Erthe and Axen,” they’ve cemented themselves as one of my favorite bands in the entire metal scene. Fellow Metal Temple writer “JOGANEGAR” has already written a write-up of the first Act, (I totally would have asked if I could do that review as well had I noticed that it was available in our promos), so I won’t reference the music there more than a bit to establish how this album relates to it, but will instead be focusing on “Of Erthe and Axen: Act II,” as the title above suggests. It’s gonna be a little weird talking about an album that I’m… performing on.. (in very small part, though… I’ll get to that), but regardless of that I’m now going to elaborate on my thoughts and analysis on all of this material as best I can.

I knew I was going to love this album right from hearing the opening track, because it’s so well orchestrated and instantly gave me the the same impression as did the orchestral/instrumental sections on AQUILUS’s masterpiece album, “Griseus.” This transitions seamlessly into the first metal song on here “Of Aching and Empty Pain,” which kicks in with a very straight-rhythm march of heaviness but quickly contrasts it with an acoustic guitar and an absolutely immaculate section of piano playing. "Of Gods Bereft of Grace” evokes moods that are both immensely sorrowful but somehow strangely uplifting as well, and perfectly balances more dense and “notey” orchestrations with more stripped back layers and textures. It’s at this point that you realize that “Of Erthe and Axen” essentially expands upon and improves everything that was great about the songwriting of the debut record. In particular…

The musical dynamics. This has always been one of XANTHOCHROID's two greatest strengths among many that they possess as a band that I feel they execute better than almost every band out there. They damn near seemed to 50/50 balance forte sections with piano sections on “Blessed He With Boils,” so their decision to make the follow up be a double album with the first act being more on the calmer side (with some absolutely perfect songs like the folky “In Deep and Wooded Forests of My Youth” where Ali Meador really shines vocally) and the second act being their more metallic and heavy side is a suitable progression. However, there are some songs that defy the 50/50 split between the acts a bit, such as the bombastic and relentlessly heavy closer to Act I “The Sound Which Has No Name” that, before having finished Act II, I thought may be the most powerful song the band has ever written with no rival. The opening mood set by the string arpeggiation (which I believe is playing a G#MajorAug7 as a cinematic substitution for C Major) immediately gives the listener a sense of finality and effective “epic-ness” that carries through the song’s various changes and in it’s over seven minute duration. While also on the topic of dynamics in sound, Matthew’s mixing and mastering is insanely professional on this newest work from his band. He’s definitely someone I look up to in multiple regards as a creative person, and someone with a career in music, including in this department.

Everything simply cuts through and is set at, for the most part, the right levels for overall dynamics from section to section. I’m such a huge stickler for more headroom in masters and higher bass guitar audibility in mixes, neither of which seem commonplace in metal nowadays, but that’s seriously the only things I can criticize here. Like I implied, they’re things I can criticize in the vast majority of records I listen to so the engineering alone definitely still warrants a 9. Sam’s vocals sound in large part as good as they ever have, with the sung melodies being executed on here with an extreme amount of passion and tact. Sam's harshes on whole still sound great too, but at a few points I have to say they sound like they’re losing the rasp and grit in the high register that really gives them an enjoyable “bite” and extra bit of aggressive edge to the music. At the end of the aforementioned “Of Gods Bereft of Grace,” for example, near the end of the tune he sounds as if he’s doing more of a yelp than the IHSAHN-esque shriek he’s so impeccably good at. Perhaps this is intentional and to serve the intensity of what is going on in the story lyrically, here. Especially when you consider (if you have access to the listening guide) this is the point in the story where it’s revealed why the band’s name is “XANTHOCHROID" and how it ties into the lore. Or, maybe his voice is just changing naturally with age. This certainly what happened to Mikael Akerfeldt of OPETH by the time “Watershed” rolled around, almost as if he lost some of his lower formants in his screams, but still managed to sound incredible.

“Of Strength and Lust For Power” didn’t really stand out to me as doing anything particularly of interest, and sounded like a leftover track from "Blessed He With Boils” until the pick up in the middle with the blasts, gutturals but more importantly the choice of notes and orchestration with the torrent of xylophone. The second half of this song is definitely quite strong, not because it happens to be when the song gets more complex, but because the composition becomes more emotionally satisfying. XANTHOCHROID have always been comprised of A+ class performers and musical technichians, so it’s with no surprise that I can inform you that therefore the playing on here is ridiculously solid… (Well, except for that one baritone from Georgia in the choir in the sixth track on here who wrote this review. He kinda blows ass, but I’ll get to that a couple paragraphs down.) Sam Meador is not only an accomplished vocalist and keyboardist, but he also lends acoustic guitar playing to this recording and he has almost scary chops there… as does Matt behind the drums and with his vocals and flute playing. It wouldn’t really make sense to call this a “technical” metal record as seems to be thrown around, because all of the ability of the performers suits the music so well that nothing comes across as flashy.

Orchestrations here show a significant amount of learnedness on behalf of Sam and Matt. You know it’s quality stuff when not only is more of the orchestral palette being used than only using the strings and brass you hear oft in symphonic metal (there’s also some organ and celtic flutes on here, and strings/brass is still used plenty here but in a very skillful way), but also when it convinces you it could work in a film score. A good example of one place where this is apparent is in the first of a string of three tracks (5-7) which flow together seamlessly as one 15 minute portion of this album. A string of tracks that is so masterfully composed that I can’t decide if I like them or “The Sound Which Has No Name” more as my favorite thing the band has composed to date.

The first of the tracks, “Walk With Me, O Winged Mother,” has that aforementioned particularly expert orchestral section preceded by folky acoustic section which is almost strong as “In Deep and Wooded Forests of My Youth" with a leitmotif from track 2 returning in this piece in a choir style of backing vocals, and followed by breathtaking extreme metal. The choir style is heavily expanded upon in the following track “Through Caverns Old and Yawning,” which I mentioned a couple times above that I’m on in small part. I’m only one of eight voices in a full SSAATTBB “internet choir” of sorts, so you can’t even really hear me, but it’s definitely for the best that way as the recordings I submitted were horribly pitchy. You can’t hear any pitch problems in this piece whatsoever, and I imagine the recordings were treated with pitch correction software even if most of the people who submitted sang in tune. I believe this is the case, as you can also already hear heavy effects processing via a lot of fittingly cavernous reverb here, and the band has been open about use of pitch software before. Honestly, given the circumstances of using vocalists from far away, this is understandable. The composition of this choir piece is lush with close harmonies and tight chords, and ends in a piano transition and signals the start of “Through Chains that Drag Us Downward,” which is one of my favorite parts of the album. What I love here is how the indescribably powerful motif at the immediate start of this track on clean and distorted guitar returns on the vocals about a minute in, then on acoustic guitar towards the song’s end. I think Sam’s best harsh vocal performance is in this track as well.

Before touching on the final track on here, I need to describe what I meant by the word “leitmotif” above, and why this is the other thing that XANTHOCHROID do better than every other band out there in the entire metal scene that I’ve heard. A leitmotif is a "recurrent theme throughout a musical or literary composition, associated with a particular person, idea, or situation.” Obviously, given that this band is extremely conceptual in nature, world-building a story told across every release, utilizing such a writing technique makes sense. It’s the fact that you can hear it without even listening for it that is a testament to how memorable and truly touching their music is. If you’ve heard “Blessed He With Boils,” you’re guaranteed to hear melodies come back from that record on the various parts of “Of Erthe and Axen.” I can’t say this of pretty much any other metal band.

Anyways, given that I’ve more than begun to blabber on more than long enough about this I’ll just say a few things about the final song on here. It definitely has more of a laid back and melancholy feel throughout, similar to how “Rebirth of an Old Nation” closed the debut full length, and I wasn’t as wowed by the song for the majority of it after being blown away by the preceding set of tracks and also my favorite songs from Act I. However, I love that in the middle of the song you hear another of the band’s leitmotifs followed by a really nice passage with Sam’s acoustic guitar and the bass doing some musical interplay. Like I said, it’s a fantastic song (Hell, I can even envision someone in the world saying it’s one of their favorite songs), but it didn’t wow me as much…. until it got to the very end. What the music does in tandem with the lyrics at the end… completely floored me. I’ve never heard anything like it on a metal album. I’ve never heard anything like it in all of music albums. Don’t spoil yourself. If you want to hear what I’m talking about please listen to both records and wait patiently for that climax at the very very end of the double album.

I found it so hard to pick just one song to show you below, but I’ve settled on “Walk With Me, O Winged Mother” because it summarizes not just Act I but Act II as well as being some of the best music this band has written to date. Really take the time to listen through this whole song if you can, then both albums if you like what you hear. These records may be in a genre that doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but they’re done with so much heart and brilliance that I can’t possibly give a shit about that. This is definitely a step up from the last record. Number ratings on a scale of 10 don’t do this justice literally at all. The only reason I can’t give this a 10 on any accounts is because in my 8 years of being a metal fan I’ve heard too many things I find more perfect in such regards. Regardless of that, I recommend “Of Erthe and Axen” very very highly. Utterly phenomenal stuff.

Songwriting: 9
Originality: 8
Memorability: 9
Production: 9

4 Star Rating

Tracklist:
1. Reveal Your Shape, O Formless One
2. Of Aching Empty Pain
3. Of Gods Bereft of Grace
4. Of Strength and the Lust for Power
5. Walk With Me, O Winged Mother
6. Through Caverns Old and Yawning
7. Through Chains That Drag Us Downward
8. Toward Truth and Reconciliation
Lineup:
Sam Meador - Vocals, Choir, Piano, Orchestra, Acoustic Guitars, Bass
Matthew Earl - Vocals, Choir, Drums, Orchestra, Flute, Percussion
Brent Vallefuoco - Choirs, Guitars
Ali Meador - Vocals, Choirs
Record Label: Independent
     


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