Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Xanthochroid - Blessed He With Boils (2012)

It’s not often, or rather often enough, that a band manages to sound intrinsically unique, particularly in the realm of symphonic black metal. This is especially true when the majority of their disparate elements are inspired by other well-known entities generally within the same aesthetic sphere. Thus, it’s my genuine pleasure to present Xanthochroid, a group of Californian lads that have struck me rather dumb with their pleasurably, legitimately epic amalgamation of melodic/symphonic/progressive black metal. Blessed He With Boils is the band’s first full-length release, and a monstrous one at that, both in terms of composition and general ambition. This is a concept album based on a self-created fantasy world, with well-written lyrics from the point of view of multiple characters, dealing with issues like power and betrayal. It’s the music here, however, that really lends majesty to their conjured universe, as this is a diverse, exciting album literally full of ideas. Even if many of these are harvested from more visible groups, the approximation of it all is immensely pleasing, and quite distinct at that.

I’m most heavily reminded of Ihsahn, both in the progressive, wintry nature of much of the riffing, and the fantastic vocals of also-keyboardist Sam Meador, a vibrant scowling rasp that sounds kingly and violent, with points garnered for both extremity and pronunciation. However, the entirety of the group must be lauded for the vocals, as they trade off leading positions to marvelous effect. There are the aforementioned Ihsahn yowls, Abbath-like croaks, some ravenous death growls, a bevy of choral arrangements, and even a generous host of soaring, avian cleans, lending favorable comparisons to ICS Vortex or Vintersorg. These don’t just take turns leading, but are often intelligently and passionately layered to create engaging, often dualistic sensations. When the reptilian scowls reach an apex over momentous, resonant chorus sections, or overlay the atmosphere-piercing cleans, it feels fucking good.

The level of compositional differentiation is not limited to vocals, either, as the music itself shows a similar attention to variety and detail, utilizing a host of techniques to manifest exciting, dynamic songs that manage to feel distinct from each other while still serving the over-arching motif of royal, almost classical darkness, of forlorn wintry majesty. There are sections of snow-storm tremolo blasting, creeping valleys of dense atmospherics, and colorful crescendos. Aesthetically, it most resembles the later works from Emperor, but not nearly as avant-garde. Not so much black metal, as it is blackened metal, if you will. Whatever tone or pace the band shift to throughout this near-on hour of music, however, it’s always compelling, and moreover, has an impeccable sense of flow. By virtue of variety and well-composed structuring, Blessed He With Boils actually feels like a story, each song a chapter unto its own, building and releasing a great amount of tension with ease. Xanthochroid remind me of a black metal answer to Rhapsody, if more in concept than delivery, an epic fantasy metal journey laced with choruses, keys, pomp and vibrato. Xanthochroid, however, rather than feeling punishingly cheesy, hold true to the classic fundamental feelings of their chosen genre, conveying both ornate grandeur and stirring, snow-blasted chaos in equal quantities. For these reasons, they will also strike the fancy of those enamored by groups like Borknagar, and even Wintersun.

Assisting the structural integrity in remaining dynamic are a number of more spacious, relaxed interludes, both in the form of legitimate interlude tracks and effective down-tempo sections within some of the more lengthy compositions themselves. This can make the album feel like a bit of a slow starter, admittedly, as only roughly 7 of the first 15 minutes are actually metal, but everything is just so well-written, performed, and produced, that it’s a negligible concern. Through minimal, brooding choir segments, acoustic guitars, and atmospheric keyboard summonings, the material all feels exciting and natural, and you just know something awesome is around the next corner, without fail. It also sounds damn good, as this journey is conveyed through an extremely polished production soundscape. The riffing swirls, ripples and pulses like bright, icy energy, ornamented in the classical-minded keys as they intertwine to emanate vast vistas. The drumming is punchy and creative, and as mentioned prior, the layering effects of the vocal styles feel great. The bass tends to get overshadowed during the more harried moments, and could have been mildly more pronounced in general, but its pulsating curvature is satisfying enough, its lines hovering just below the surface like bulbous pockets of warmth in the icy tundra.

As for other knit-picks, a few of the riffs in and of themselves weren’t equally exciting or memorable, but it's realistically the difference between great and awesome, and given the amount of interesting happenings at any given point, I’m totally reaching here. Really, I never got a sense of boredom or disappointment with this album, at any point. Blessed He With Boils is just so good. It’s just so absolutely fucking good, any mild complaints fall by the wayside as you’re swept off into this land of blackened escapism, of royalty and winter, into battling storms and warm, creative piano embellishments. Xanthochroid have proven their music to be utterly engaging, and moreover, exciting, not a sensation I get often with this genre anymore. Though many will likely disagree with the exact tag, as this is effectively closer in spirit to Blind Guardian than it is to Gorgoroth, this is absolutely one of the best black metal releases of the year (or black’ened’, if you prefer), standing nearly shoulder to shoulder with Eremita from the mighty Ihsahn himself. It’s that good. Is there room for improvement? Of course, as just with virtually any other album, some parts feel stronger and more memorable than others, but the quality here is so consistent and pleasing that it’s become a fast favorite, and likely will not leave my ‘go-to’ rotation for years to come.

Blessed He With Boils is one of the biggest treats of 2012, an unknown band knocking it right out of the park on their very first album. It’s classy, explorative, varied, and addictive, not to mention incredibly musical. It often feels transcendental of metallic borders, tastefully dipping its toes into many classical streams, and integrating those influences with passion and care. Those of you with inclinations toward epic, progressive, blackened textures in your extremity will definitely want to give this band your attention. I’d even recommend it to open-minded power metal fans who can handle some harsh vocalizations, as the flavor of fantasy runs hot through these veins. I’m ridiculously stoked this band sought me out, and I’ll be spinning this all winter long, a perfect companion for the cold lonely months. Bands don’t often reach (or even come close to) the level of quality of the bands they emulate, but in Xanthochroid’s case, we could be looking at one of the brightest futures in the whole genre. Hopefully they can get out on tour with some bigger bands and show the world what they're made of. So, with finality, I tell you to go buy this fucking album, because that way maybe we can get a follow-up, and I’d positively love to see this spark of creativity and ingenuity become a legitimate inferno, rather than just another funeral pyre.

9.5 / 10 - Born of Ashes, Born to Rule