Album by William Dibble, images and video by Xael
Folk metal is a genre with firm roots in the past. From bands like Arkona to Korpiklaani, the genre pays tributes to the origins of music in ancient festivals, pagan deities, and classical instruments. Many folk metal bands also hail from eastern Europe and Scandinavia, though not all of them do. North Carolina-based Xael enters the fray offering a combination of traditional folk metal themes with science-fiction concepts. Xael is the latest musical project of Joshua Morse. The Last Arbiter is a science fiction story about an entity known, among other things, as the sky ghost. The sky ghost wanders the cosmos searching for a purpose, and we join him just after his audience with the ruling counsel of a planet. There are a lot of comparisons with older bands to be made here, because Xael draws upon a diverse and rich legacy and gives it a new and powerful twist.
Our story begins with the titular track, “The Last Arbiter”. It is at this point we begin following the sky ghost, as it wanders into the wastelands of Tymeer. The song itself starts with a combination of guitar, blasting drumbeat, and stringed instruments before catapulting into an absolute wall of sound. It’s apparent from the outset that Xael has more in common with heavier songs from bands like Arkona than the softer parts of the genre, but they fit in perfectly here. The low growled vocals match perfectly with the intensity of the instruments. The song alternates between slower sections with clean vocals and blasting screamed segments in a way that recalls Dimmu Borgir’s work in the last half of the 2000’s. The synths, ever-present behind the heavier parts of the song, lend to this impression, but it is definitely a good thing. The guitar solos feel almost maniacal when paired with the rest of the song. Xael did well in pulling their long-time drummer, Josh “Nassaru” Ward as their vocalist. His diverse range is exactly what this album needs.
Next is the track “Srai”. The synth-heavy intro draws us into a track that feels very dark and imposing. Other parts of this song sound grand and cinematic in a fantastic way. Earlier, a comparison was made between Xael and some of the heavier folk bands. This song draws a powerful parallel to Arkona’s Goi, Rode, Goi! album, where they combined deep screamed vocals with higher clean vocals to great effect. Xael shows a similar mastery of this concept, with guest vocalist Rei Haycraft loaning her voice to it. The screaming does make it hard to follow the story at times, but this isn’t because of bad recording or skill. Bands like Between the Buried and Me also use similar techniques, so you may want to bring a lyrics book with you if you want to follow the story. The great thing about “Srai” is even if you don’t understand the vocals, the music transmits the sense of story with sections feeling despairing and even triumphant as the song progresses. “The Wayfarer of Tymeer” really showcases this, starting off with a melancholy guitar introduction before launching into the song’s main body, which has a distinct martial feel to sections of the chorus. The middle of the song drops away into a symphonic section that feels like a build-up leading directly into the audible confrontation that is the last part of the song.
At this point, the audience gets a bit of a break in the form of “Watchers of Xan”. Featuring heavy, echoing drums and chant-like vocals, it is both the shortest track on the album and a distinct set builder, setting up the rest of the album and the next song, “Apathy of the Immortal”. “Apathy” starts with more chanting vocals and a clean guitar, but becomes full-on death metal fifty seconds in. Launching straight into a guitar solo, this track sounds similar to The Faceless’s songs on Autotheism in some ways, while remaining uniquely Xael. Almost as soon as it assaults you with its blasting drums, it drops into another clean section like an animal toying with its prey. It’s easy to listen through the song’s five minute length and not realize it was the same song all the way through. The soft-intro is also a theme we see again with “I am Pestilence”, where it picks up a very tribal feel. There is a persistent feel of danger or foreboding in this song throughout, even when it lets the almost angelic-feeling clean vocals wash over your ears. The ending notes of the song feel fraught with fear as it takes us through a frantic guitar-and-vocal outro.
The end of that takes the listener to the spacey soundscapes that make up the beginning moments of “In the Hallows of Pathos”. The synths that give it this feel pervade every aspect of the song, giving it a very unique feel, even amongst this album. It also helps cements the science-fiction aspect of the concept, even as the vocals soar upwards in triumph. One of the notable things about Xael is that their songs never sound overly long or repetitive, despite consistently coming in at over five minutes long. This is an issue that some bands have, but not a trap that this one falls into. “In the Hallows” closes with a gorgeous piano intro. With “Secrets of the Third Tribe,” we get an introduction that is once again tribal, but feels like an approach or build-up to something. The listener can almost imagine being brought before a powerful entity for an audience by sound alone. When the harder parts of the song hit, you feel like you’ve been brought directly into a listening room of some kind before an alien voice comes through.Nassaru’s vocals have a sense of defiance and anger to them in this track, coming through clearly on every line he delivers.
The Last Arbiter completes the album with “Harvesting the Elders Genome”, which is also the longest song. “Harvesting” starts with a backdrop of throat singing and acoustic guitars, mixed with Nassaru’s soft vocals. If the first eight songs didn’t drive home how skilled he is and how well Xael uses this talent, this one will. Not only canNassaru be imposing and terrifying as in other tracks, but here he delivers a sound that is at once reassuring and calming. Throughout the song, the sound of the instruments and his voice change subtly. There’s almost a lecture-like quality to some of the vocals. While the drums and guitars do speed along in sections, this song doesn’t quite get as heavy as some of the previous songs. “Harvesting” closes the album out with a lengthy instrumental journey that feels like it takes everybody through a complete sound tour of the album.
The number of bands that can come out of the gate with a near-perfect debut album is extremely limited. Xael’s The Last Arbiter doesn’t release tomorrow. It is unleashed. Fans of death and folk metal alike will find things that delight them in The Last Arbiter, from the fantastic vocals to the technical solos. Much like Rapheumets Well, Xael keeps a flair for the cinematic and it does this album wonders. With many bands releasing albums coming in around thirty to forty minutes, this offering of forty-eight minutes of aural glee is one that you should not pass up. Pick it up from digital retailers and Xael tomorrow!