I approached Xanthochroid’s Of Erthe and Axen: Act I with excitement and optimism the band could capitalize on the potential of their high quality 2012 debut, Blessed He With Boils. It represented the first chapter in an ambitious double album project, split into two separate releases, but with Xanthochroid’s intention for the two individual entities to form one cohesive whole. Act I didn’t necessarily feel half finished. Essentially, my main issue with Act I boiled down to balance and flow, as well as my belief that Xanthochroid’s strength lies in coalescing their different elements into a dynamic and energetic song-writing form, balancing hushed moments and folky turns with their proggy, symphonic brand of (slightly) blackened metal. The numerous softer moments and enchanting folk passages just didn’t hit me with the emotional resonance and mystical beauty I was hoping for. Nevertheless, the stronger moments from Act I are powerful examples of the band’s capabilities. So, here we go again with round two. Can Xanthochroid pull off this ambitious project with a worthier second act? Or is Of Erthe and Axen gearing for a spot on my “Biggest Disappointments o’ 2017” list?
Tied in with the band’s elaborate, fantasy story arc, Xanthochroid promised a heavier offering on Act II, and with this they deliver. Aside from a brief instrumental opener, along with the long and syrupy ballad “Walk With Me, O Winged Brother,” and the tedious, chanting vocal dominating follow-up “Through Caverns Old and Yawning,” Act II delivers a swifter, heavier and dynamic symphonic metal journey with loads of drama, complex orchestration, and increased aggression, riffs, raps, and blasts. “Reveal Your Shape, O Formless One” opens in a melodramatic, cinematic vein before segueing into the multi-faceted symphonic rush of “Of Aching, Empty Pain.” The over-the-top drama that marked Act I continues here and the results are patchy but intermittently gripping over its nearly nine-minute length. At its best, Act II reveals the immense musical and compositional talents at Xanthochroid’s disposal, such as the beauty vs beast majesty stamping “Of Strength and the Lust for Power.”
Act II‘s raised energy levels and heavier dynamism are welcome and most the songs feature multiple twists and shifts in tone. Divisive melodramatic cleans often intertwine with aggressive vocals, while pretty interludes and acoustic passages pop-up between the heavier shifts. “Through Chains That Drag Us Downward” wades through restrained but epic-sounding orchestral build-ups and melodies before unleashing deathly growls and an altogether more vibrant punch. A somewhat unnecessary momentum killer crops-up around the song’s midpoint, as fluttering flutes, jangling chains, and acoustic guitars intervene before the meatier section kicks in again. Elsewhere, the transitions between the mellow and bombastic heavy passages are more cohesive. “Of Gods Bereft of Grace” is a superb symphonic metal song and album highlight, captivating through its myriad of instrumental textures, versatile vocals, aggressive drumming, and Opethian acoustic break.
As with Act I, this second movement struggles to maintain consistency and my engagement with the album wanes from time to time. Sometimes it feels as if Xanthochroid are cramming too many ideas and layers into the compositions and while overall Act II is a more fluent, lively and heavier affair, it’s also a bit overstuffed and Act I arguably feature the higher song-writing peaks. Unfortunately, sparks of inspiration and sporadic brilliance combined with a couple of start-to-finish great tunes doesn’t equate to a completely enthralling album. The majority of Act II’s songs feature strong points and engaging moments but are missing that extra ingredient and bite to tip them over the edge into the essential listening territory. However, the production is once again very good, continuing the lushness and sophistication of Act I, and the multitude of instruments and layering doesn’t lead to excess cluttering in the mix.
Xanthochroid have bravely taken the DIY route to launch this ambitious project, doing so in an inventive and classy manner. Everything, from the presentation, slick production, artwork and detailed fantasy story arc are handled with the utmost care and professionalism. Yet perhaps more than any other album/project I’ve reviewed during my tenure at Angry Metal Guy, Of Erthe and Axen Act I and II have left me deeply conflicted. I want to like it a lot more than I actually do, as I’ve held the band in high regard since the impressive Blessed He With Boils and there’s plenty of enjoyment across the two albums, but not enough to justify its joint length and transport the albums into elite territory. Despite my misgivings, I’m rooting for Xanthochroid’s success and I’m confident many listeners will garner greater satisfaction and enthusiasm than what I’ve managed with Of Erthe and Axen.