This previously declared “cinematic black metal” act from California, Xanthochroid, have greatly changed their style, which might upset more than a few fans of their previous masterpiece, Blessed He With Boils. Without a doubt, their debut is one of the best extreme metal albums that I’ve ever heard in my life, so I was only expecting a greater performance with this one. Though oddly enough, I didn’t really get a heavy metal record at all. Yes, I noticed that you may have just dropped a spoon or spit out your morning coffee reading that statement, but I have to call it like I see it. Those of you expecting another Blessed He With Boils are going to be a bit astonished by the opening number (after the orchestral intro) “To Lost and Ancient Gardens” which is a folk duet between a male and female vocalist, particularly Sam and Ali Meador. Yep, I just said that. I mean, it’s a rather great duet. It’s just not anything that you’d bang your head to. That’s okay though, as they seem to be moving away from metal entirely to pursue something altogether different. Or are they…?
Rather unexpectedly, the vibe changes into that of a black metal muck mixed in with the same level of orchestration that you might find on a SepticFlesh album. In addition, several avantgarde approaches similar to Arcturus are applied. In other words, “To Higher Climes Where Few Might Stand” is closer to the kind of sound that we’d expect from this band and it delivers greatly. Though the quartet look rather approachable and completely non-threatening from their heavily glossed band photo, the track definitely contains enough of that extreme metal vibe to get your attention, even if it does come with a bit of Ayreon, Devin Townsend and Steven Wilson in tow. Oh yes, they’re playing around with actual prog rock this time and I’m a bit reminded of Disillusion’s Back To Times Of Splendor with this one and to me, I honestly couldn’t be happier with it. The album doesn’t remain that way though, as frontman Sam Meador jumps into a folk-influenced progressive number called “To Souls Distant and Dreaming” which also feels a bit Steven Wilson on the vocals, mixed in with a hint of Matthew Earl’s harsh vocals and a hint of Ali Meador’s clean vocals as well. So there’s a lot of singing here. As well as a few soundscapes that maybe remind me of the Chrono Cross soundtrack. Hmm… I wonder if that’s intentional.
As we continue, the sound shifts again to bring us a symphonic folk ballad where we may as well consider Ali Meador the frontwoman. “The Deep and Wooded Forests of My Youth” continues with her vocal touch until a very Vincent Cavanagh influenced male vocal appears from Sam Meador. It’s a nice piece, but it doesn’t strike me as much as “To Higher Climes…” did. The next track is “The Sound Of Hunger Rises” which brings back the heavy stuff, but focuses more on Sam Meador’s Vincent Cavanagh/Steven Wilson vocal style. Matthew Earl does a great Ihsahn impression, which works equally well towards the end of this piece. In the background, there are some light vocalizations that meld beautifully into one of the most epic soundscapes that could be placed on a metal album. It may come off a bit pretentious, but you need a certain degree of pomp in order to have another fantasy story standout in a genre that is chock full of them. Going all of the way back to the days when a young Hansi Kursch (Blind Guardian) penned up lyrics based on Lord Of The Rings and The Dark Tower, (Yes, it is really that grand and I personally apologize for what you saw in the theater) we have had fantasy tales in this genre. Thankfully, Xanthochroid are able to sell this one quite well.
Moving on towards the end of the album, we have another duet between Sam and Ali Meador which can either sound like opera or Disney, depending on how you categorize it. I can tell you that the next one is rather heavy, so if you’re shaking your head while listening to this, I can promise that much at least. Regardless, it is obvious that Xanthochroid have taken their sound into a completely different direction. The final track here is “The Sound Which Has No Name” and I apologize for the waiting period there. Matthew Earl comes in just at the right moment with his horrific goblin vocal approach, letting us know that the band is still some kind of avantgarde black metal. Clean operatic vocals still remain, as well as some unexpected male choral chants, but it all seems to build atmosphere which is the whole point of this thing. An Italian influenced acoustic also appears here, while hefty synths and a mixture of harsh and clean seem to take us out. There isn’t one guitar solo to be heard however and you’d almost expect at least one to appear somewhere. Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be the case here as the band really pile it on with the operatic shtick towards the end. It couldn’t possibly be anymore theatrical than this, which reminds me a great deal of modern Devin Townsend. Can someone get this album out to him?
Well, that was a thing that happened. I don’t think that any of us would have expected such a drastic change from the extreme metal style of Blessed He With Boils, but this approach could help to make black metal more accessible in the mainstream. If you even can still consider this black metal at all. That’s entirely up to you, and even I’m on the fence here. I don’t disapprove of the album and I’m looking forward to Xanthochroid’s sequel this October, but I would hope that the band haven’t completely forgotten themselves in what seems to come off like Judas Preist’s Nostradamus. Of Erthe and Axen might just be too theatrical, epic, grandiose and whatever other buzzwords I want to throw in, for it’s own good. That being said, there’s still a lot of heart here and whatever direction Xanthochroid have chosen to go, they’re definitely going that way with a notable passion. I can’t really argue with that.