Artist: Isle Of The Cross
Album Title: Excelsis
Label: Rockshots Records
Date of Release: 21 February 2020
I honestly have no idea where to begin with this review, I really don’t. I’ve sat here for ages thinking about how I can order my thoughts into a coherent and easy-to-read review but I am still struggling. In a way, the same could be said of Isle Of The Cross. Created and led by multi-instrumentalist Je Schneider, ‘Excelsis’ is one of those records that is just plain bonkers. Not in terms of it being overly avant-garde or weird per se, but more in terms of its direction, structure and sheer breadth. Schneider clearly had so many ideas and, rather than limit this record’s scope, he has apparently decided to throw caution to the wind and put it all into ‘Excelsis’. There is just so much going on here, that it is incredibly difficult to articulate exactly what it sounds like or offer listeners a signpost or two.
The result is a huge double-edged sword. On the one side, ‘Excelsis’ is incredibly varied, daring and entertaining. On the other, it comes across as an album that is lacking focus and direction, and ends up feeling a little overwhelming and confusing. Those of a certain vintage will understand when I say that listening to ‘Excelsis’ is like listening to the mother of all mixed tapes. ‘I wonder what band/genre will pop up next?’ is a thought I had often during the first few spins.
But never one to sit on the fence, let’s explore this album a little more and see where I end up – is this a positive listening experience or one to shy away from? And importantly, are you coming along for the ride to find out? Well, either way, here goes…
It is fair to say that the roots of Isle Of The Cross are buried within the death metal genre, with heavy riffs permeating many of the compositions on ‘Excelsis’. However, that only tells a relatively small part of the story. Within the extreme metal framework, you can hear symphonic metal, power metal, prog, ambient, djent, world and theatrical/cinematic music. It really does cover all of these bases and more.
‘Sacrifice’ wastes no time in getting the record underway with a tech prog-death riff and a striking melody over the top, before settling down into a tech-death blitz, full of complexity and honed musicianship. The only thing I’m still not keen on is the affected gruff vocals that sound a little like fuzzed-up hardcore-esque shouting. Nevertheless, the song is a strong way to open, especially given the amount of atmosphere that it creates.
Follow-up ‘Tartarus’ begins in more of a progressive industrial black metal manner if I had to pin my colours to the mast. The spoken gruff vocals call to mind Arcturus, as does the strange atmosphere that flows from what is essentially a mid-paced affair until the mid-way point. Synths start to pierce the song, before all instruments drop away to leave an acoustic guitar and what I suspect are South American pipes of some kind, to send the song into jazz world music territory. The juxtaposition is marked, off-putting and unexpected, but not altogether unwelcome.
The title track is much more epic and symphonic death metal with choral effects that doff their cap in the direction of Ex Deo or Fleshgod Apocalypse for example. That said, even with a four-minute song, the deviations are impressive with a harpsichord entering proceedings, followed by a lead trade-off between guitar and keyboards which lightens the mood.
‘The Wolf’ is then split into two parts, with part one, ‘Invocation’ just a minute-long quiet cinematic atmosphere setter. Part two, ‘Sanctuary’, however, features some nice riffs and charismatic lead guitars before introducing a death/nu-metal mash-up with impressive technical musicianship laying the foundation for a White Zombie-ish death rap. Not being an afficionado of this kind of music, that’s the best I can do I’m afraid!
The head-scratching doesn’t end there though, because next up is ‘Stars’, a ballad of beautiful proportions where the vocals are clean, higher-pitched and ethereal. I’m reminded of Cynic’s Paul Masvidal at this juncture, a band who is occasionally a musical reference point too. This song is quite wonderful, despite the Disney overtones at the outset, principally in the way it builds to a glorious crescendo via great lead guitar solos, full of warm melody.
‘Empyrean’ initially seems to provide a route back into death metal realms with a frantic, heavy opening. However, before long, it tires of aggression and instead chooses more of an up-tempo symphonic power metal path, complete with female vocals. ‘Breatheia’, on the other hand, can only be described as a modern electronic prog-djent instrumental with post-rock minimalist tendencies at points.
‘Excelsis’ then concludes with the three-part ‘The 9th Circle’, where there’s plenty more theatrical/cinematic soundscapes to be heard, including the opening film score part and the Rhapsody-like ‘Part II. Judecca’ with its spoken-word fantasy narration.
I bet, by now, that you’re probably as confused as I am right now. And you should be, because this is a challenging record because of its apparent lack of a discernible and clear approach. However, I have to say that I really enjoy listening to it, despite this. It contains some incredibly deft musicianship, it is daring, it is serious but with a fun edge at times and some of the melodies are incredibly strong. The aforementioned ‘Stars’ and ‘Empyrean’ are some of the best songs I have heard in 2020 so far. So, when push comes to shove, I have no alternative but to recommend ‘Excelsis’; it may be flawed but it is still an enjoyable and strangely enriching listen. In urge you to check it out and decide for yourself.
The Score of Much Metal: 79%
Check out my reviews from 2020 right here:
Demons & Wizards – III
Vredehammer – Viperous
H.E.A.T – H.E.A.T II
Psychotic Waltz – The God-Shaped Void
Into The Open – Destination Eternity
Lunarsea – Earthling/Terrestre
Pure Wrath – The Forlorn Soldier EP
Sylosis – Cycle of Suffering
Sepultura – Quadra
Dyscordia – Delete / Rewrite
Godthrymm – Reflections
On Thorns I Lay – Threnos
God Dethroned – Illuminati
Fragment Soul – A Soul Inhabiting Two Bodies
Mariana Semkina – Sleepwalking
Mini Album Reviews: Moloken, The Driftwood Sign & Midnight
Serenity – The Last Knight
Ihsahn – Telemark EP
Temperance – Viridian
Blasphemer – The Sixth Hour
Deathwhite – Grave Image
Marko Hietala – Pyre Of The Black Heart
SWMM – Trail Of The Fallen
Into Pandemonium – Darkest Rise EP
Bonded – Rest In Violence
Serious Black – Suite 226
Darktribe – Voici L’Homme
Brothers Of Metal – Emblas Saga
A Life Divided – Echoes
Thoughts Factory – Elements
You can also check out my other reviews from previous years right here: