California’s Xanthochroid doesn’t do things in half measures. The ambitious young band impressed with their accomplished debut LP, Blessed He With Boils in 2012, creating a detailed fantasy world and narrative to complement their self-described “cinematic black metal.” Despite some flaws, it was an exciting debut, blending grand film score orchestration with progressive, folk, and blackened elements, while boasting a solid metallic kick. Finally, Xanthochroid return with a detailed prequel narrative to the storytelling events of the debut, split into two albums to be released in 2017, beginning with Of Erthe and Axen: Act I. Do they have what it takes to craft a prequel story with the musical output to match their ambition? Or is Act I destined to become the metal equivalent of The Phantom Menace? I can imagine Xanthochroid’s interesting vision landing them lots of support and critics alike, in a similar fashion to other divisive and theatrical modern outfits, Wintersun and Ne Obliviscaris.
From the graceful early notes through to the album’s gripping finale, it is abundantly clear Of Erthe and Axen: Act I is a strong labor of love for its creators, befitting of the band’s complex and ultra nerdy fantasy narrative. Featuring strong production values, lush instrumentation, gorgeous orchestral embellishments, and striking vocal harmonizing, the album is carefully crafted. And whether you become invested in the band’s rich fantasy storytelling or not, Xanthochroid nail the mysterious and otherworldly atmosphere of their enchanting fantasy tale confidently, from both musical and lyrical standpoints. However, it’s important to note that Act I represents a shift away from the band’s overt metal tendencies, with a stronger emphasis geared towards the progressive and folky elements of their sound. The melodic black metal attributes that previously framed their music are diminished, with the few and far between heavier moments entrenched in symphonic prog metal bombast, an aspect that will turn off some listeners. Although the execution is quite good, I feel the band has shifted slightly away from their strength of combining the progressive, folky, and symphonic elements into a more forceful and dynamic metal package.
Following a dramatic, film score-esque opening sequence, “To Lost and Ancient Gardens” brings forth the first extended taste of the band’s delicate, acoustic-based folk. Beautiful, and a touch cheesy, the song features pretty harmonizing and the first of several impressive contributions from female vocalist Ali Meador. Mental images of picturesque forests in unknown fantasy lands are conjured up on similarly adorned and peaceful offerings, “In Deep and Wooded Forests of My Youth,” through to the urgent dramatic swell of “The Sound of a Glinting Blade.” The mystical songs are driven by intricate and emotive male/female vocal harmonies and carefully decorated with flute, acoustic guitars, and keys. However, the melodramatic vocals and fanciful nature of the softer songs may prove too much to swallow for some. And while I enjoyed aspects of the folksy fantasy ballads, the pacing is a problem and I occasionally found myself on edge waiting for the band to explode.
Fortunately, when the heavy material arrives it generally succeeds in its sweeping majesty and symphonic glory. “To Higher Climes Where Few Might Stand” deftly balances gradual dramatic builds with sweeping melodies, multi-faceted clean and rasped vocals, and aggressive turns, maintaining cohesion throughout a twisting structure. The grand orchestral scale in which Xanthochroid operates sacrifices a meatier, riff-based mindset, but rarely feels gimmicky, retaining a pleasing level of uncluttered detail and authenticity, accentuated by the lush and dynamic production. And the guitar work still shines, especially the superb blues-tinged leads and melancholic prog garnishing “To Souls Distant and Dreaming.” Meanwhile the lavish symphonic metal and epic hooks on “The Sound of Hunger Rises” represents a strong mix of the band’s melodic and livelier metal urges, but a toothier guitar attack would have helped hammer home the otherwise impressive impact of the album’s heaviest track, closing epic “The Sound Which Has No Name.”
Xanthochroid’s long-awaited return ranked highly on my most anticipated albums list of 2017. And though I’ll save full judgment for Act II to follow, Act I represents a mostly positive, if uneven beginning, to the double album venture. The sophisticated production, imaginative storytelling, and excellent musicianship are slightly marred by pacing problems, a lack of metallic thrust, and a divisive helping of fantastical cheese. Nerdy, theatrical, and ambitious to a fault, Of Erthe and Axen: Act I is a consistently good, intermittently gripping, and occasionally frustrating listening experience. However, I eagerly await Act II to hear if the band manage to glue this ambitious project successfully into a joint package.