To the uninitiated, it may appear that on the surface, the field of cinematic and symphonic metal is thinning. Following Wintersun’s embarrassing crowdfunding flop that was The Forest Seasons, an album through which Jari Maenpaa and Co. mishandled and squandered the good graces of fans of the sound by releasing an admittedly inferior album to the one that was promised for half a decade ago, it might not be immediately obvious who would pick up the mantle of epic prog/power/black/folk/whatever. The sound of Wintersun is highly ambitious, after all, and it could be forgiven if it was assumed by some that the breadth of scope offered (or promised, anyway) by Wintersun was unique to them.
However, 2017 is the year where the students have officially become the teachers, and the quality of releases that fill the void are beginning to fall into place, and in an interesting and turn, the torchbearers are all American. Earlier this summer, North Carolina’s Aether Realm (who have been referred to in some circles as “American Wintersun” with tongue firmly in cheek) dropped Tarot. You might not have heard of it, because we completely slept on it on a coverage front [apologies to Vincent Jones; we love you, truly -Ed.]. If you like your epic metal with plenty of party-friendly swashbuckling flair, then Tarot is the album for you… to have sought out back in June.
Though the focus of the present writing is to deliver the good news of the return of California’s Xanthochroid. Much like Wintersun, it’s been a good five years since their last record. But unlike Wintersun, Xanthochroid can actually deliver on such a long absence and pent-up hype, and it’s safe to say that no amount of money in the world could have allowed Jari to craft an album as incredible as Of Erthe and Axen: Act I.
The record has all the makings of a quality musical, initiated by the opening orchestral overture “Open The Gates O Forest Keeper”, which hints at some melodic themes that appear throughout the record. The follow-up track “To Lost And Ancient Gardens” is a straightforward and endearing folk ballad that highlights the band’s prowess with acoustic passages and the interplay between the band’s various vocalists. This folk style returns later on with the Celtic inspired “In Deep and Wooded Forests of My Youth,” rich in texture thanks to the intricate acoustic guitars in addition to flute and accordion.
As the record unfolds and the darkness rises, shades of Emperor, Opeth, and Devin Townsend alike meld in a grandiose display of extreme prog. Frontman Sam Meador’s operatic vocals soar over bleak dissonant guitars “To Higher Climes Where Few Might Stand” and is often a larger-than-life presence across the record. “Higher Climes” drops in and out of the band’s various modes across its eight minutes and offers a summation of what to expect from Erthe and Axen moving forward with its labyrinthine structure and dynamic songwriting. The indisputable highlight that makes Erthe and Axen: Act I a must-listen though lies in “To Souls Distant and Dreaming,” a heart-wrenching song that opens with a haunting atmospheric bass melody and a passionate guitar solo.
Erthe and Axen, even in its first half as presented here, shows itself to be an incredibly powerful double album that proves Xanthochroid to be one of the most dynamic and versatile bands around. Act II (which releases in October) is expected to double down on the black metal influence, so there’s no doubt that Xanthochroid will cement themselves as a leader in the genre, capable of weaving intricate soundscapes, technical compositions, and crafting a complex conceptual universe worthy of obsession.