Review Summary: With ‘of Erthe and Axen: Act II’, Xanthochroid complete the duology with an exceptional record full of meticulously crafted songs. Although not for everyone, fans of detailed, well thought through music will find everything they could want and more.
I am a sucker for bands who incorporate good orchestral compositions in their music. It opens possibilities that are usually impossible to do with a standard band lineup. It can take me to different places and make me feel more than a ‘normal’ band can. Therefore, I can forgive some of the tropes and the cheese that comes with most of these releases.
As a musician in a band who uses orchestral music all the time, I know firsthand the thought process, attention to detail and relentless midnight hours that it takes to create a single composition. It takes a specific kind of genius to make it all work together, have every single piece fall into place and somehow have it make sense. But not only that, you need to be able to also move the listener, or else what is all the extra trouble for. It's high risk high reward in that regard, and there are myriad examples of this going horribly wrong and actually subtracting from the potential that the band has. A delicate balance is needed, not using the orchestra’s power to drown out the rest of the band (I’m looking at you later era Dimmu) or filling up every nook and cranny to the point where it becomes a chore to listen to it for more than fifteen minutes (insert random symphonic powermetal band here). Enter Xanthochroid, a young band giving a masterclass to the old guard.
Xanthochroid are a band hailing from sunny California. After releasing their debut album in 2012, they returned last year with a double album, released in close succession. Calling their music symphonic black metal would not be incorrect, yet hopelessly incomplete. While being the basis for their music, they incorporate a multitude of progressive, power and folk elements, giving the music a certain unpredictability and dynamic. Never having heard of them and being the idiot who wants to listen to their latest effort first (starting with part 2 of the series), this came completely out of left field for me, slapping me around consistently over its 50-minute runtime.
The album is a concept record set in a fictional world in which all their albums take place. It is clear that every aspect of the songs here are in service to the greater good, the story. There is not a single element that screams for your attention, yet all get the attention they deserve, thanks to some stellar songwriting and composing. This is helped by a clear production, that allows for the dynamics needed instead of compressing it all to smithereens. The vocals, both male (clean and guttural) and female, are fitting though never exceptional. They do what is required, namely delivering the story in a way that is relatable and convincing. The musicians on display are clearly incredible at what they do, with a shout out to the drummer being an absolute monster when it is required but subtle when the music calls for it.
A special place on the record is reserved for the choirs. There are a lot of choirs, more choirs in fact than I have heard in any other comparable record, dedicating an entire song ‘Through Caverns Old and Yawning’ to display it. Having the choirs acapella allows the listener to hear the subtleties that are lost in the onslaught and also give some air after arguably the most intense song of the record, ‘Walk with me o Winged Mother’. Its display of what can be done with a metal band complemented by an orchestra is clear in its climax near the middle of the song. It is absolutely jaw-dropping, awe inspiring and frankly, quite humbling. Many attempt to reach such a grand and overwhelming sound of utter destruction, yet few ever really succeed. Truthfully, the song is one of the best crafted pieces of music I've heard in quite a while.
Enough with the praise and fanboying though, for there are quite a couple of hurdles to jump in order to enjoy the record the way it was meant to, starting with the lyrics. Even though the music is entirely in service of the story, that doesn’t mean the story is any good. If you are not a fan of, or can at least tolerate, a close to cringe worthy fantasy story, chances are you are not going to be able to enjoy this much. If you don’t mind your ‘I should have followed you... O, the warm forest floor… where I’ll dream no more’ than by all means, read on. The music itself can also be quite niche. Because of the extremities in the music, ranging from acoustic folk to guttural black metal to classical music to powermetal passages, I can completely see people being put off by one part or another. For those among us however, who can appreciate good music in all its forms, an exceptional piece of music opens up which can completely entice and leave you wanting more.
Starting with an orchestral opening and ending with a big climax hearkening back to all the songs that came before it, the album goes full circle. In between you can find a masterclass of songwriting, using but not overusing clever themes and melodies. If you can abide by cliché’s and classic tropes, an exceptionally well-crafted album lays in wait begging for your attention, where every single aspect works to make it infinitely greater than the sum of its parts.