Author: Jeremy Lewis
(Erthe and Axen Records, 2017)
#FOR FANS OF: Progressive/Symph Black, Emperor, Wintersun
As you can probably guess from the title, this release is part one of a two part album, and continues the story of the brothers Thanos and Sindr that was started with the band's first EP 'Incultus'. 'Of Erthe and Axen' is about the brothers' competition for the love of the lady Vera, and the eventual conflict Sindr and his armies come intowith her people the Fendwellers, as he attempts to harvest the magical powers of the swamps they inhabit. There is battle, there are tender moments between Thanos and Vera, there is tragedy and sadness... it's a fully developed fantasy saga, ending with a cliffhanger that should be resolved when Act II is released later this year. Just like their previous album 'Blessed He With Boils', the liner notes include a detailed map of the world of Etymos where the story is set, and on the band's official site there is a section with lore and backstory to provide additional context.
Musically, Act I 'Of Erthe and Axen' conveys just as vivid and vibrant a narrative as the lyrics do, and the instrumental portion follows and supports the varying tone of the lyrics perfectly. Black metal I’ll admit plays more a supporting role in their arsenal of sounds here than it does in the band’s earlier works, but that is not a bad thing. When blast beats and tremolo riffs appear, it is to create emotional climaxes in the album’s flow, and when they do that it’s exhilarating. A variety of vocal styles appear on the album, from the soaring melodic lines and the Ihsahn-esque shrieks of extremely talented and versatile primary vocalist Sam Meador, to the beautiful and delicate singing of new band member Ali Meador (she provides the voice of Vera in the story), to the stunning choral sections that include the voices of all four members of the band. Distorted metal riffs share the spotlight with folky acoustic guitars, flutes, and complex orchestral arrangements in compositions that seems to take as much inspiration from film scores and 70’s progressive rock like Jethro Tull, Renaissance, and possibly Magma (particularly with the idea of multiple concept albums combining to tell a single huge story - Magma actually took this concept even further and used an invented language forthe majority of their work) as it does from more obvious metallic influences like Emperor, Wintersun, and Opeth.
The album opens with “Open the Gates, O Forest Keeper” an orchestral overturethat introduces several musical themes that will appear later on the album (which of course is the definition and purpose of an overture) before it builds to a swelling crescendo you would expect to lead into the first eruption of metal, but instead leads into a gently sung duet between the characters Thanos and Vera. As this pleasant second short track wraps up, you get the feeling that a storm is on the horizon for the characters, and that suspicion is affirmed by the dissonant and ominous guitar riff that opens the third track “To Higher Climes Where Few Might Stand”, the first epic metal track of the album. This song alternately winds through soaring yet tragic melodic parts and intense black metal passages as Sindr tells his brother Thanosof his conquests and exploits, and tries to convince Thanos to join him in his dark ventures. The song climaxes in an intricate and explosive instrumental section with guitar and orchestral interplay that reminded me of some of the instrumental fireworks on Emperor’s 'Prometheus' album.
The next song “To Souls Distant and Dreaming” takes a calmer and more nostalgic approach as the brothers reminisce about happier times, and there’s a sense of longing conveyed in the music. “In Deep and Wooded Forests of My Youth” is another mellow song, with acoustic guitar and pan flute providing the backdrop for more dialogue between Vera and Thanos, as she warns him through beautiful harmonies of the evil influence of his brother Sindr. This leads us to my favorite track of the album, “The Sound of Hunger Rises”, which opens with a gorgeous a cappella choral vocal section before progressing through five minutes of some of the most emotionally intense symphonic metal I’ve ever heard. The tempo in this song stays relatively slow as mournful string sections rain down over Meador’s alternating cleanly sung lines and blood curdling shrieks, while in the story Thanos finally succumbs to Sindr’s malicious influence. The final two tracks, “The Sound of a Glinting Blade” and “The Sound Which Has No Name”, then build and climax in majestic black metal fury, while the story climaxes in violence and tragedy in a way that I’m not going to ruin for you.
'Of Erthe and Axen Act I' is a meticulously crafted record, with an incredible amount of attention to detail and care put into every note. I would expect it to appeal to all kinds of fans of progressive and symphonic heavy music who aren’t put off by excessive grandiosity and fantasy subject matter, and who are not coming in with expectations that the record will be exclusively aggressive for the entire 44 minutes. It’s an album that will almost certainly take multiple listens to digest, but one that is highly rewarding if given the patience and attention it deserves. I’m finding it difficult to point out any negatives, but perhaps after the intensity of the first metal song “To Higher Climes Where Few Might Stand” the next two songs feel a little long-winded, and like they drag just a bit. Ultimately though, the executionand the sense of flow in both music and story is masterful, and I can’t wait to hear where Xanthochroid goes with Act II.