Let’s face it: traditional symphonic metal is a playground of melodrama that’s nowhere near brutal enough. That’s why Fleshgod Apocalypse and Septicflesh (get mad about that concretion) are such popular bands – no matter how much we complain about their loud as hell albums here, there’s no denying that symphonic death is the perfect step forward for the maligned fusion genre. Recent experimenters in their wake are also making impressive strides for symphonic metal by combining it with the even more reviled genre of djent (get mad about that as well). Last year Ovid’s Withering (Flesh) put out a great album that we embarrassingly missed, and Xerath has been making djent-influenced symphonic music, also unnoticed by this site, since 2009. Xerath is quite the rarity, a band that’s truly one of a kind. Whether you like their ‘Strapping Young Lad writes a film score’ style or not, there’s certainly nobody out there quite like them, and III doesn’t bring them any closer to an archetype than their first two albums did. They still don’t give a shit about genre lines, seem unaware of conventions, and aren’t even remotely Greek.
If you’ve listened to opener “I Hold Dominion,” you’ll know exactly why III is different from any other symphonic death album. It just doesn’t sound like any usually associated band. It’s what would happen if Devin Townsend was asked to score the next shitty Zack Snyder movie. The song is huge, dramatic and full of just plain weird twists, moving from menacing atmosphere to a powerful strut and then falling into a prog-rock groove, and though it might be cheesy at first, it’s worth plenty of attention. It’s a harbinger of things to come.
III is a huge album from a perspective of both musical content and length the songs – all fourteen of them – are surprisingly varied and even quite memorable. It’s impossible in a short space to enumerate the ways each song fits into the patchwork, but be assured that there’s an astoundingly low level of filler here – even the less likeable songs, such as “Passenger” and “Bleed this Body Clean” have their place and personality, and moments of excellence pop up at regular intervals, like the soaring chorus and melody of “Death Defiant,” the subtly shuffling intro of “The Chaos Reign,” and the cooled-down solo in “Sentinels.”
Richard Thompson puts out an excellent performance on this album, as pitch-perfect in his Devin Townsend impression as ever before. The guy’s almost a laryngeal clone of Hevy Devy, which is most certainly nothing to complain about. Keeping with Xerath’s sonic stasis are the riffs, which are as weird and unique as ever, as fans of the band are sure to note. For every Strapping Young Lad-style syncopated groove there’s a bizarre Gojira riff apparently written by Dizzy Gillespie. The strange composition and phrasing of Conor McGouran’s guitar lines keeps the album interesting, jumping between relatively predictable death metal rhythm riffs to thrashy death grooves that spill over bars like a bebop horn line or a Count Bassie saxophone soli. ”Ironclad” and “2053” (which also gets points for its subtle Oppenheimer sample) are the best examples of this. Even the symphonic elements are strangely jazz-oriented, used more to beef up chords or add emphasis to the big hits than to carry a melody or set a scene.
The biggest drawback to III is its length, and while there are no obvious songs that need removal (with the possible exception of “Witness,” though I’m loathe to throw out a bass solo), it does go on for quite a while, ending just short of 70 minutes. It’s an album best listened to in chunks, and it would have been a great touch for the band to include an obvious intermissive point somewhere around the middle of the album- a definite break just before “Sentinels” would have been nice. Complicating this issue is the homogeneity of song length; save for “I Hold Dominion,” every song sits around 4-5 minutes long. The unvaried song lengths make the album seem even longer, since endings and beginnings are so regular. That being said, it’s really not a huge drawback at all. III doesn’t seem to drag on for too long, and the last two songs, “Veil – Part 1” and “Veil – Part 2,” shake up the album’s formula at just the right moment by incorporating piano, prog rock keyboards, and stronger orchestral melodies to finish the colossus of an album on a definite high note.
I’ve never been a big fan of Xerath, but III just might convert me. It’s not very different from I or II at all, but everything just seems better. The dramatics are more convincing, the riffs more interesting, the writing a bit more varied, and the band’s performances are all measured but tight and memorable. Finally, Xerath’s bizarre music just clicks together and becomes the perfect amalgam of its tremendously varied influences. III is a huge accomplishment and one of this summers most unexpectedly excellent albums, and there’s plenty of time to give it a listen before this falls’s incredible release schedule. While it might not be everyone’s cup of tea, it’s a cup of something you want to drink.