Today's first contest pits the symphonic death metal of England's Xerath against the thrashed-up death metal of Poland's Vader. It's Xerath's third album, unimaginatively titled III, versus Vader's tenth studio effort, whose Latin title Tibi Et Igni means "For You and Fire" (or so I'm told by the Wiki Gods). Grammar Girl also approved my use of "whose" to refer to an inanimate object in the previous sentence.
Xerath's III is a difficult album to evaluate in part because there is so much to consider (it is nearly seventy minutes long) but also because there is so much going on in any given song. As a newcomer to Xerath, after listening to III once, I found it somewhat opaque. My first impression was that Xerath put their influences on such ostentatious display that it was off-putting. You can hear obvious references to Opeth (2053), Dimmu Borgir (I Hunt the Weak, Death Defiant), Meshuggah (Autonomous) and Strapping Young Lad (every song!). Richard Thomson's vocal approach is clearly heavily-influenced by Devin Townsend. However, the album gradually reveals itself upon repeated listening, and what at first seem like conspicuous references to other band's material starts to meld into a more cohesive whole. Individual songs work best when Xerath pick a single direction to point their caravan of influences, such as the riffy groove metal of I Hold Dominion and Ironclad or the spacey progressive metal of Veil –Part II. Where they are less focused in their alchemy, such as on Autonomous, the result comes off sounding like Strapping Young Lad covering a medley of Opeth, Meshuggah and Dimmu Borgir songs (which some may find appealing but I find a bit busy). Lyrically, III is at times so abstract as to be undecipherable but comes together nicely on a few tracks, most notably 2053 (on the perils of the nuclear age), Witness (on the death of the sun and the flight of man from Earth) and Veil – Part I (on the unknowns of the afterlife).
Comparing III to Vader's Tibi Et Igni is an almost comical study in contrasts. At just over forty minutes, Tibi Et Igni is only a little over half the length of III. Half the songs are under four minutes in length whereas Xerath apparently can't write a song that short. Most importantly, even though both bands nominally fall into the sub-genre of death metal, the difference in the scale of their ambitions could not be starker. While Xerath attempt to weave together diverse and progressive influences into a distinct strand of death, Vader are content to continue their decades-long campaign to wed the much more easily compatible threads of thrash and old-school death into a modern style of death that celebrates the past without too much concern for the future. Combined with Piotr "Peter" Wiwczarek's unique vocal style, Vader's tight focus on pulverizing riffs and apocalyptic lyrical scenarios accomplishes exactly what they are aiming for, resulting in a thrilling if somewhat unadventurous ride. In particular, after the difficulty and complexity of Xerath's III, Vader's Tibi Et Igni serves as a palate cleanser and thus makes a surprisingly suitable companion when listening to the two albums back-to-back.
All the albums in The Arsies are winners already, so it is in that spirit that I have to emphasize the degree of difficulty and recognize that, although Vader have expertly crafted an album that accomplishes everything it sets out to do and Xerath's latest has some obvious flaws, the latter achieves much of a far more ambitious agenda. Although the thrash kid in me is cursing violently, Xerath advance.
Tonight, it's Black Crown Initiate up against Misery Index.