Review – Xanthochroid: Of Erthe and Axen, Acts 1 & 2

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It’s been five long years since Xanthochroid released their debut full-length, Blessed He With Boils. But now the boys are back with two albums worth of material. The question is how far up in their own asses fantasy world are they now?

Not the first band in history to make up their own world and have their lyrics narrate it, but efforts such as Blashyrkh seem outright pathetic when compared to Etymos. To give their world life they didn’t settle with a task any lesser than to create their own blend of music accordingly, dubbing it “cinematic black metal” and reaching to folk, prog, and black metal for influences. All while blending gorgeous orchestrations, forming more than simply a sum of its parts, and never just a blend. Long have I desired to return to this fantastic world, and expectations have ever so cunningly raised themselves higher than the mountains of Boreas.

In early September, the first part, Of Erthe and Axen: Act 1, the prequel narrative to Blessed He With Boils arrived. Spending its first song, introducing the Forest Keeper,  painting pictures of landscapes, of mountains and forest, of agony and deceit. And as its bombast reaches a climactic moment, it grows quiet – allowing a short, intimate acoustic song to grow from beneath its branching arms. The entwining vocals of Ali and Sam Meador placed against a more stripped down background place a different focus on the care and intricacy of the album’s mix – how well each element finds its place without conflicting. And finally, “To Higher Climes Where Few Might Stand” brings together the metal and the orchestral sides, as the guitars spurt short tremolos and arpeggios, the flutes and strings building atop them, the warm vocal performance, not without a mournsome note, the choral effect and the growls fighting for room to live. The besetting sin of so many symphonic metal acts is the lack of interesting, or worthwhile ‘metal’ moments in their music, but here the guitars never forget to riff. Though no song seems solely focused on metal, the moments are memorable and noteworthy, carrying and constructing the compositions, but also embellishing them.

Black metal is not a relevant term on this album anymore, even when Xanthochroid breaks out the heavy hammers, they never go blackened – and the last remnants of it, harsh vocals are few and far between. And in fact, Act 1 doesn’t tread many metallic roads, “To Souls Distant and Dreaming” is a beautiful, evocative half-and-half track with crowning guitar leads, and “To Deep and Wooded Forest of My Youth” another folksy bit, with it’s flute melodies reminding me of a particularly beautiful rendition of Sam’s Song. The remainder of the album follows along these intricate roads, as the sound of hunger rises with fateful choirs not all too dissimilar to Caladan Brood, until in the quietude a steel is heard, and the sound of a glinting blade becomes that which has no name.

While I would have preferred a slightly more metal focused effort, the quality of Act 1 is so insane on all fronts, I can neither complain nor bring myself to give it any less than…

5/5 Flaming Toilets ov Hell

(may god help me, this is the second full score I’ve given inside a week, first full scores in three years. It must be this fever, or the coming of holiday seasons, the time of giving. Or both, either way I’m screwed and about to lose my credit at the office)

But let us not be too hasty, for that is not all. A mere month later Xanthochroid unleashed the second act. A decidedly heavier effort that would indeed focus on the metal-side of things, I may have yearned for this very thing, but a man knows not that which he truly desires until it is delivered unto him on a platter, wearing a funny hat. After the triumphant success of the first act, I nervously wonder, how fares that which I thought I desired?

As the Shapeless One begins to reveal it’s form, I find the beauty I expected, but also ruggedness. Bigger than the Forest Keeper, but not quite as graceful – its charm a clumsy, heartwarming one. Guitars are upfront, and the orchestral arrangements feel slightly stripped down in comparison to Act 1, though still plentiful. The songs take no fewer turns, but they are less sudden, less sharp. Act 2 doesn’t quite sound as gorgeous as the first one, it is not as lush, and unfortunately less memorable. Though it does not falter, here the guitars are what move the compositions at all times, and while the orchestration doesn’t contend to merely filling the gaps they leave, more oft than not it feels they are a supportive element. Harsh vocals are more abundant, Ali featured less and overall the competition between different vocal stylings is limited. It is a rasp and aggression filled, heavier and torrential effort. A dynamic, blasting symphonic metal cavalcade that puts its kindred like Crimfall and Shade Empire between a rock and a hard place. It does not lack at any particular front, the twists, acoustic passages and tone changes – but the shadow of its ever-so-slightly elder sibling lies heavy on it.

Most truly great albums aren’t just a consistent mass of quality, there tends to be a song or two that rise head and shoulders above the rest. Giving an already good album that extra boost, anchoring it to your mind. Blessed He With Boils had “In Putris Stagnum” and Act 1 carried with “In Higher Climes Where Few Might Stand”, unfortunately Act 2 doesn’t seem to have any such song. Though “Of Gods Bereft of Grace” and the penultimate “Through Chains That Drag Us Downward” are almost there, and the closer “Toward Truth And Reconciliation” is the perfect showcase of Xanthochroid’s abilities, as it goes through moods and shifts easily, growing and diminishing as it wills – but each of these seem to be missing a special something, a hook of some kind. It never has to be a chorus, nor a riff to come and go, a mere section that finds its way to play on your heartstrings is quite enough, and Act 2 misses the point of entry very slightly.

If it were a transitional album between Act 1 and BHWB, I might be inclined to give it half-a-score more, but as it stands Act 2 isn’t quite there…

3,5/5 Flaming Toilets ov Hell

Now be a good boy and like Xanthochroid on Facebook, and tell them the Toilet says “Hi!”. Visit them on Bandcamp to acquire Acts 1 & 2 as digital albums, or their very own store, should you prefer physical copies or merchandise. And in case you don’t quite have the math-head to solve the combined score, my friend I have it for you fresh and ready to go, for a price you won’t get elsewhere.

A COMBINED SCORE OF 4/5 FLAMING TOILETS OV HELL

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