Carving a name for yourself, let alone a niche, is an increasingly difficult endeavor in this age of music. The advent of the world wide web and the consequent proliferation of media across the globe means that new music is but a quick search away. I therefore admire bands who chance their arm at cracking into peoples’ music rotation, especially where their intent is to chart a new path or weave existing genres in dynamic ways. Enter Jo Schneider and the band he leads called Isle of the Cross. Excelsis is their debut release and promised to be an “enigmatic journey of sonic power.” Enigmatic is the key word as I have been unsuccessful in my efforts to learn more about the band, including the country of origin. Further promoting itself as for fans of Opeth and Symphony X is a bold strategy indeed, so I turned to my first listen with great interest.
I’ve listened to the record numerous times and I’m still waiting for the Opeth and Symphony X comparisons to become sonically appropriate. I suppose the Opeth link is tenuously that this music is dynamic enough to go through soft and heavy passages, while the Symphony X link is that there are orchestral elements and biblical references (though biblical references are hardly virgin territory for metal). As far as reference points for the moment to moment music, neither are particularly helpful. In actuality, Excelsis is a vaguely progressive blend of symphonic and technical death metal. It sets its sights for the stars; it has the feel of an album where Schneider had grand aspirations in tying together some nominally quite distinct genres into something more than the sum of its parts. (Seemingly) bludgeoning death metal, (seemingly) soothing moment of tranquillity and (seemingly) grand symphonic arrangements all feature in telling the tale of (seemingly) Dante’s inferno.
Though it has such grand aspirations, the execution is hacky, for lack of a better word. The blocky, inorganic guitar tone and irregular song-writing lead me to believe that the ability here does not match the vision. For example, the opener called “Sacrifice” kicks things off with no introduction. While I would ordinarily appreciate omitting a meandering or ‘atmospheric’ introduction, it’s almost too immediate, as if it starts mid-riff. Similarly, the chorus in “Paradigm” hits out of nowhere; simply smashed into the preceding passage without thought of musically bridging the two. The patchy song-writing also manifests through mid-song interludes which are often discordant. “Tartarus” features a breakdown which contains an acoustic guitar and wind instrumentation which isn’t itself too shabby but which is tonally strange compared with the rest of the song. “The 9th Circle III: Inferno” further features a flute segment which confers a levity which sounds completely inappropriate for the infernal surroundings of the track. Beyond this, I had to check that the song hadn’t changed when the 70s progressive rock-influenced keyboard solo hit as it’s so out of place.
It gets worse than mere choppy song-writing as I also take issue with both sides of the core dynamic of pairing heavy and light. On the heavier end, the riffs are very bland. This is heavy metal, where riffs should be motivating, energizing tools. However, here they’re characterized by dense, blocky chugging which lack both definition and imagination. I’m scarcely able to pick apart different riffs and by the “The Wolf” tracks it was apparent to me that things were not going to improve. On the lighter end, there is a consistent theme of the softer passages and interludes not really contributing anything of note. I’m not an unspecified interlude-basher like some of my fellow writers but here they’re not worthwhile. The most egregious offenders are Parts I and II of “The 9th Circle,” (“Caina” and “Judecca”); the first of these is a bland orchestral introduction, while the second is a terrible spoken word interlude before finally cracking on with the final track. Quite why this was required after the pre-existing orchestral introduction is beyond me. Even “Stars,” which is a tranquil track in the middle of the album and which features the best guitar melodies, opens with a superfluous 90 seconds before commencing its verse proper.
I can’t fault the ambition of Isle of the Cross, just the execution. For a record with an eye for scope, it’s strangely unrefined – almost half-baked. I’ve landed on 1.5 as Excelsis is not completely without merit; there is a handful of worthwhile passages, such as on “Stars.” It’s just that this merit does not go far in balancing out the many deficiencies. Listening to this album late at night after long days at work in order to write this review didn’t feel like a welcome release. It felt more like an obligation, and that I was working very hard. I would not come close to listening to Excelsis for fun which is the final nail in its coffin.