For the wise ones hath spoken that the events chronicled in Of Erthe And Axen: Act I by the sage’d minstrels of Xanthochroid were not complete; that such a musical tome of stunning beauty the world hath known since August of 2017 would be continued on October 17, 2017. Know thee, that we now hath heard this libram of amazement, Of Erthe And Axen: Act II, so that of it we might speak to you, here.
Get That Blowhard Outta Here and Review the Album Already!
Hats need to go off (or rather, hormed and winged helmets need to be removed) for Xanthochroid. When the Californian progressive symphonic black metal band decided to make Of Erthe And Axen a two-act work, they took a risk. Oh, so massive a risk it was and oh so massively it has paid off for them. Act II is lush, gorgeous listening.
The Of Erthe And Axen saga takes place in a fictional world of medieval fantasy created by front man, multi-instrumentalist, and only original member Sam Meador. Broadly, it is a power struggle between brothers, laced with a hint of romance. Act I ended with a battle in a swamp (i.e., the heaviest song on that album).
The album begins with “Reveal Your Shape, O Formless One,” an orchestral instrumental funeral dirge. This sets the scene for “Of Aching Empty Pain,” a heavy song that nonetheless layers some wind instruments on top of the raging guitars.
This sets up “Of Gods Bereft of Grace,” another heavy song that attenuates it with a more prominent role played by the orchestral elements. Towards the end, the clean vocals share the spotlight with the kvlt screams and the drums acquire more of a groove to them. Such a delightful blend of elements all at once reveals the vast talent in Xanthochroid.
“Of Strength and the Lust for Power” is about halfway through Act II and gives some much-needed respite from the sonic assault of the previous three songs. Orchestral sounds dominate this song, with Xanthochroid’s female clean vocalist singing solo for the most part.
This continues in “Walk With Me, O Winged Mother.” Of course, the double-bass drumming and the drilling riffs surface two-thirds of the way through. It slows down and multi-layered voices underlie Meador’s lead vocals.
“Through Caverns Old and Yawning” is formatted as a duet between male and female choirs. The use of Devin Townsend-level reverberation lends the song a dreamlike quality. It ends with some piano work, only to give way to “Through Chains That Drag Us Downward.” That song has a deliberate buildup through varying levels of heaviness. Hypnotic clean singing is deliberately pushed back in the mix to give the blackened screams more impact. The two sing together as the song speeds up with an ascending melody that builds deliberate tension. The tension is released with a slow passage that has an Irish whistle solo, followed by another heavy passage that employs a church organ. Far from cheesy, this part recalls some of the heavier moments on Maudlin Of The Well’s earlier albums. Xanthochroid show mastery of layering, texture, and pacing in this song, the album’s penultimate one.
The album ends with the epic length (11m23s) “Toward Truth and Reconciliation.” It begins with an eighties-esque acoustic passage before giving way to a slow, heavy shuffle passage. This does not last long. The song evolves through sections that alternate between jazziness and varying degrees of heaviness, orchestral depth, acoustic interludes, and various vocal styles. The song ends, in a suitably epic, satisfying way. “Toward Truth and Reconciliation” is Of Erthe And Axen: Act II, and, indeed, all of Xanthochroid, in a nutshell. It can be said that every progressive-minded band aims to make their own “Xanadu,” their own “Stairway to Heaven,” their own “Metropolis,” or whatnot. Xanthochroid succeeded along those lines in this album’s final song.
Most bands reviewed on It Djents focus on a linear aspect of writing: what to put first, then second, then third and so on, along the duration of a song. Xanthochroid definitely did that on Of Erthe And Axen: Act II and they had to do that in order to manage the considerable length of most of the songs (Only 3 of the album’s 8 tracks last less than 6 minutes).
Other bands reviewed on this site focus on technicality: which arpeggios should the guitarist play and how can he play them? While technique is important for every musician, choosing to display it in a serial fashion in lieu of melody, texture, or mood is demonstrably not writing. It is Lego® work, the assembly of musical blocks that have existed literally for hundreds of years. Fans of some of the scene’s more obnoxious and overrated bands might take issue with this and they are quite allowed to do so, but they will not find any technical razzle-dazzle on a Xanthochroid album (or at least not the kind that they cherish above all others).
The most overlooked aspect of technicality comes in the form of layering, texture, and timbre. The combination of sounds vertically within a given moment requires a nuanced ear and a form of judgment that cannot be explained in technical terms alone. It is in this neglected area that Xanthochroid show their true brilliance.
So while Of Erthe And Axen: Act II might not be skull-bashingly heavy or “ooh listen to him shred” flashy, there are plenty of albums like that reviewed on It Djents. Xanthochroid’s supreme care for true compositional technique elevates both acts of Of Erthe And Axen into the running for album of the year.
Score: 9/10 (and so much better if you listen to Act I immediately before it)
Notable Tracks: “Toward Truth and Reconciliation”; “Walk With Me, O Winged Mother”; “Of Aching, Empty Pain”
FFO: Emperor, Dimmu Borgir, Moonsorrow, Ne Obliviscaris, Epica