So here’s one of the little benefits that comes with working in genres like black metal: given that you have no real obligation to fit to a radio sound or song structures or topics, you can pretty much write about whatever you want and audiences will typically be receptive of it. Granted, there are certain themes that have been present in black metal for some time and you typically want to work in similar territory to avoid being branded a gimmick, but you have more wiggle room than your average overmanaged pop or country or hip-hop act.
And into this scene comes the American progressive black metal band Xanthochroid, who broke out around the early 2010s with an EP and a debut record in 2012, but actually ended up gaining more traction and notoriety thanks to a couple of covers they put up on YouTube of acts like Wintersun and Opeth. But if you only know them through the covers you’re missing a more ambitious band, one that in the grand tradition of metal groups has constructed an ongoing story arc behind their releases that seemed at least interesting. They also seemed to have a sense of humor and they made all of their lyrics readily available so I was definitely curious to check out that debut, and… well, it was certainly ambitious, that’s for damn sure. It’s also – like a lot of the black metal I’ve covered this year – pretty far away from the conventional sound, utilizing extensive clean vocals that for me can be hit-and-miss, overdubbed male choirs, acoustic sections, organ, and even flutes. And given the focus on building more of the grand narrative of their story, I was almost certain that they’d wind up in power metal eventually… but not just yet, because five years after that debut we have a double album followup, the first disc released in mid-August and the second just this week. And again, double albums can be tricky, and while I was convinced Xanthochroid could bring enough ideas to the table, it was still likely to be pushing it. So what did we find on Of Erthe & Axen: Acts I & II?
Whoo boy… okay, this is going to be one of those tougher reviews to get through – not only because this double album is pretty damn massive to deconstruct, but also because just like Ayreon’s The Source from earlier this year, it’s a prequel to an established story with the sort of lore and density that I’m sure will be right up so many people’s alley. The thing is that as a critic, particularly one who is a fantasy author himself, there’s a part of me that wants to review both lore and music… because there’s a part of me that’s unconvinced that this all holds together as much as I’d like.
Now to explain this, I’d like to start with the lyrics and writing on this record, and an acknowledgement that even if you have been able to follow the narrative across their last two projects, to really make heads or tails of the entire arc of the story Xanthochroid has attached fully illustrated listening guides with their records that show how the lyrics tell the story. Now already I have an issue with this, and it’s one I’ve stressed before: if you need additional writing to explain a self-contained narrative – which the record should be – you haven’t told a self-contained narrative, the songwriting should be enough! We don’t even get character names referenced in the lyrics, and while I’ll give credit for vaguely distinctive enough vocals to represent the different figures in both growled and screamed vocals and the inclusion of Ali Meador for the female vocals to make them distinctive, at some point you run the risk of being too abstracted to follow the plot. And sure, that does fit the style of a lot of progressive and black metal writing, but you unfortunately build some distance with the audience if you need auxiliary material to follow things. Now granted, the arc of this story as a whole is very reminiscent of The Brothers’ War by Jeff Grubb, arguably the best Magic: The Gathering novel not written by Scott McGough… but again, it’s a prequel, and the choice to split said prequel into two parts requires some weird shifts in the narrative. And while I get and appreciate that the entire story indulges in some morally ambiguous framing, I do question whether it was a good idea to have a certain character engage in heroic sacrifice near the end of the first act and thus rob the album of that distinct voice for the vast majority of the second disc – other characters could have been killed to raise the stakes. Honestly, the story as a whole feels a tad over-plotted, if that makes any sense – setting up so much that has to be in place for the existing records that the plot turns that are expected to carry the emotional weight can feel rushed, not quite given the same room to resonate or hold their impact.
And a big part of this ties back to structure. As I mentioned at the very beginning, black and progressive metal can play fast and loose with this, but one of the frustrating things about this double album is that it’s hard for any one track to stand alone as a self-contained piece. Let’s go back to Ayreon as the best example: while to understand the entire narrative you do need the full record, Arjen Lucassen always makes the effort to have most individual songs capable of standing alone with a defined hook, which makes the individual songs add up to more. Here, when you consider you need outside lore to understand the story and many of the songs do not feel self-contained, you get the exact opposite feeling – and that’s incredibly frustrating because for the most part, I really love the sound and style of this record! The drumwork is flat-out incredible, the acoustic movements have real personality and poise, especially when supplemented by the flutes, the clean singing is often very potent and shows real harmonic interplay in the choral vocal arrangements – not quite as fond of some of the screaming, I’m not sure it’s got the power it truly needs – and more often than not the guitarwork, tremolo or otherwise, is flat out nuts! By far Xanthochroid is a group that can really play, and their choice to accent black metal textures with more progressive and symphonic touches is daring but for the most part actually sticks the landing, from the more sweeping symphonic touches of the first disc to the darker callbacks to their debut in the organ! And there are so many potent moments here: the gorgeous orchestration that opens the record with ‘Open The Gates O Forest Keeper’, the acoustic and electric guitar solos anchoring ‘Of Gods Bereft Of Grace’, ‘To Higher Climes Where Few Might’ and ‘Towards Truth And Reconciliation’, the explosive male choirs on ‘Walk With Me, O Winged Mother’ that erupt into phenomenal blastbeat drumming, some great bass simmer and strings-accented atmosphere on ‘To Souls Distant And Dreaming’ and that’s before the acoustic solo that ends the track, the amazingly dense a capella track ‘Through Caverns Old And Yawning’, the tremendous symphonic drama of ‘The Sound Of Hunger Rises’ and of course the flutes wherever they show up. But what’s important to stress here are that these are moments – not exactly whole songs, and outside of the quieter ballads like ‘To Lost And Ancient Gardens’ and especially ‘The Sound Of A Glinting Blade’, many of these songs only really develop that cinematic weight within the sweep of the record. Potent, sure, but it can hurt the replay value as a whole.
Honestly, what Of Erthe & Axen reminds me of the most is the last Dream Theater record The Astonishing – another double album with an overdeveloped narrative that doesn’t really add up to more. Granted, Of Erthe & Axen has its strengths over that record: the production and composition is more organic and diverse, the harmonies are more layered, and I can’t stress how much the diversity of vocal tones helps the flow of the narrative… but at the same time The Astonishing had individual songs that could stand alone and for the most part you could follow the story, even if it felt cliched. And look, I appreciate Xanthochroid’s ambition here: this is a band with tremendous chops and the sort of cinematic vision that consistently aims high – it’s clear this is a labor of love. But perhaps a tighter focus on a structural level might bring this to the heights it deserves, because while I think this is damn, damn good, it’s not quite great for me. As such, I’m giving this an extremely strong 7/10 and definitely a recommendation: this is a band with tremendous talent and ambition I’d love to see get even better, because at least with this, they’re definitely on that path.