15th September 2014 – Candelight Records
01. I Hold Dominion
03. I Hunt For The Weak
05. Bleed This Body Clean
06. Death Defiant
10. Demigod Doctrine
11. The Chaos Reign
13. Veil Pt. 1
14. Veil Pt. 2
Whilst many metal bands have flirted with adding orchestral elements to their sound, few have embraced the concept as completely – or successfully – as British quartet Xerath. 2011′s II built on the groundwork laid by 2009 debut I to deliver on the band’s ambitious promise. It may have taken them a little while, but now they are back again with the imaginatively titled III.
Part of the reason for the delay has been the amicable departure of guitarist Owain Williams, and the search for his replacement. It doesn’t take long for Conor McGouran to prove that the extensive search was worth the effort. Conor does have a slightly different approach to his instrument, but there’s no discernible drop in quality, and those differences may not be picked up on first listen.
That may also be due to the fact there is a LOT to take in during those initial spins of III. The music is dense and richly layered from beginning to end. The word ‘epic’ has been much over-used in recent times, but it’s difficult to think of a more appropriate description. Taking orchestral cues, as Xerath have in the past, from the big, sweeping movie soundtracks of the likes of John Williams and Hans Zimmer, III sounds like it has been recorded in widescreen.
Whilst Xerath’s orchestral passages have always sounded remarkably credible, they are given an additional boost in this department thanks to the decision to employ live strings in the recording. The results are particularly luscious, so we can only hope that one day circumstances will allow the band to perform with an actual string section as well.
The band’s overall sound has developed and matured, and though it remains huge and bombastic, III is noticeably less heavy than its predecessors – at least in the most straightforward sense. The influence of Devin Townsend has always loomed relatively large in the list of discernible influences, but where previously Xerath have tracked more closely with later Strapping Young Lad, III draws more from the likes of Deconstruction or Epicloud. Conor’s rhythmic guitar work also bears some of the hallmarks of James Hetfield‘s glory years, producing some particularly satisfying, lip-curling riffs. The influence of what could now probably be called middle-era Opeth - Ghost Reveries and Watershed - in particular, can also be felt. But nevertheless, Xerath’s sound is immediately distinctive, groove-driven and clearly their own.
Perhaps the biggest surprise, and not an unpleasant one, is the increased prominence of Christopher Clark‘s bass playing. This particular breed of metal is not a natural home for slap techniques, but their occasional deployment works remarkably well, adding some unexpected textures into the mix.
The collection of songs on III also prove without doubt they are a force to be reckoned with, and more than just a band with an orchestral gimmick. Should the band suffer some kind of catastrophic technological malfunction on stage, these songs would still stand up without the backing tracks. While the quality is high throughout, “2053” and “Passenger” are particular highlights, and – saving the best for last – the two-part “Veil” is III‘s crowning glory, complete with a genuinely triumphant choral accompaniment.
III is a practically unqualified delight. It is richer than a triple chocolate cake and cinematic to the point of panoramic. It is achingly beautiful whilst retaining the heaviness to keep juices flowing and heads banging. It is uplifting and bombastic without lapsing into hackneyed cheesiness.
From the dynamic peaks of III, the view is simply awe-inspiring. Strap on a pair of headphones and lose yourself for an hour or so in it. You won’t be disappointed.