Released: 2009, Candlelight
I have to say that my expectations were pretty high after reading the press blurb about Xerath. Their ambition to “combine film-score with syncopated guitar rhythms” sounded interesting to say the least, and was very eager to see whether this young band from Basingstoke, UK could pull off this unlikeliest of marriages.
It’s a yes and a no. Their obvious influence is Meshuggah, specifically the nihilistic, angry, monotonous, rhythm driven CATCH THIRTYTHREE album of Meshuggah. The Meshuggah where the right hand does all the work, while the left hand presses a fret on bottom B and stops the rest from buzzing. It’s syncopated riffing alright, this is Palm Mute Boulevard and Post Thrash Central, and for those of you who absolutely love Meshuggah, Xerath is a band you need to check out. Singer Richard Thompson even sounds a little like Jens Kidman, with the tortured and twisted screams and howls. The drumming by Michael Pitman is absolutely top-notch, and while he won’t be challenging Thomas Haake just yet, he steadies the chaotic ship piloted by guitarists Owain Williams and Andy Phillips. The two axemen show little signs of variation in their style of riffing, throwing in a few touches of Gothenburg melodeath and hints of straight-up thrash, but mostly their influence is mainly drawn from Fredrik Thordendahl.
But let’s talk about the ‘unique’ bit of the band – the orchestral work. Now there’s a reason why keys and synths are rarely used in death metal and its variants, and that’s because it invariably softens and rounds out the percussive element of the guitars and the vocals. Xerath avoids this trap. The guitars sound wonderful and really punch through and above the background synths. Ditto the drums, vocals and even bass. In fact, this album is wonderfully mastered and mixed. No, this is not where the problem lies.
The problem is that most of the synth work sounds rather trite. Granted, there are great moments scattered throughout the album, especially the acoustic interlude in ‘Nocturnum’, the tail-end of ‘Right To Exist’, and the rather Lord of The Rings sounding ‘Abiogenesis’ (one of the better tracks on I). But nowhere else on the album am I hearing much film-score influence. It sounds like what it probably is: harmonious chords and progressions arranged and played on a keyboard with limited sound samples. Most of the keyboard work is strangely derivative of stuff from Dimmu Borgir, ie mostly weak ‘violin’ or faux choir samples that lack dynamics or definition. If they could take a cue from bands like Virgin Black or Septic Flesh to see how orchestra and symphony can be incorporated successfully into the fabric of metal without losing the 'metal-ness', Xerath could have hit upon a great formula.
I think this is an ambitious first album and great praise should go to the guys for coming up with such a concept in the first place. Two things however. I’ve never been a big fan of Meshuggah’s music, and the riffing, while supposedly complex, starts to bore after a while. I’d like to see more thrash and less post- from Xerath, especially when Meshuggah themselves toned down that aspect on 2008’s obZEN. Secondly, the ‘film-score’ aspect of songwriting needs to be ramped up. At present, it feels gimmick-y, but if they can take the good parts of I (of which there are many), I’d definitely pick them to go far. I’d love to see them get the cash to record with real classical musicians…