Boy Howdy Does This Isle of the Cross Album Blow Ass

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You ever listen to an album and wonder why you’re subjecting yourself to it?

I didn’t have to click on this promo. I didn’t have to listen to Excelsis four times front-to-back. I didn’t have to spend time digging into Isle of the Cross to figure out how this abomination came to be. But unlike other bad albums, I know why I listened to this, why I’m writing about it: I hate it. I loathe it. It makes me angry and I want to bury it in a thousand words of impotent bluster, because let’s be real, Je Schneider is probably never going to read this review and is even less likely to take away anything constructive in the event that he does.

Anyway, Excelsis tries to sell itself as a high-concept rock opera about two lovers separated by murder and betrayal who are reunited in the afterlife and good lord is this ever inane. It advertises itself as progressive death metal album, but leans way harder into the “prog” than the “ressive death metal.” You know the “prog” sound, the kind that apes the late 80’s/early 90’s progressive metal bands, the sound that has been rehashed and redone so many times that it’s stripped the idea of “progressive” music of any real meaning. It’s that, but modern. Slick. Heavy. That’s what people want these days, right? Whatever, let’s just jump into this thing.

“Sacrifice” opens up with something that could almost be mistaken for a lost Nevermore riff if you weren’t paying close attention; the chugging, bouncy cadence of that first riff is very Loomisy, and it wouldn’t be entirely out of place on a Dreaming Neon Black song if it weren’t for that horrid wailing over the top. It serves its purpose as an album overture fairly well, though, as it introduces us straight away to the three most glaring and fatal issues this stupid album faces. First off are the riffs, which, aside from that very first one, completely miss the mark on the feeling they’re trying to create. The heavy syncopated ones have predictable rhythms and rote, tired melodies that fail to create the tension you want from that type of riff. The obligatory “prog” riffs are similarly predictable and laughably simple, very much a Baby’s First 5/4 song, playing to every genre cliché in the book. There’s a small handful of Euro-power metal kind of riffs (particularly on “Empyrean”) that could almost make for some cheesy fun if the vocals didn’t ruin it.

This brings us to our second issue: the vocals are atrocious. The clean singing is flat and lifeless, and the melodies they carry are uninspired and boring. Props to the vocalist (vocalists?) for being able to sing on key, I guess. Most of the time it’s just dull, but on power ballad “Stars,” they grate like little else. The vocalist seems to have been going for the soft, breathy timbre that James LaBrie does in every Dream Theater ballad ever, and it just comes out as a nasal wavering mess. For their part, the death growls are equally pathetic, a weak and flaccid bark. The vocalist goes for some Archspire levels of speed on “The Wolf, Pt. II” which is, as you might expect, a complete disaster. The guy just can’t keep up with the rest of the music, leading to moments where he ends up having to speed up to end his phrases on time. But hey, at least it’s so far back in the mix that you might not even notice.

And there’s our third problem; the engineering. The whole affair was mixed, mastered, and produced by project mastermind Je Schneider, and it shows. Everything is compressed to hell and back, squashed into nothingness to accommodate all the extraneous layers of synth. I question the choice of synth voices, too; there’s a particularly cringe-worthy section in the middle of “Tartarus” where a PS2-ass flute sample does its best to drown out a poorly-conceived, poorly-performed acoustic passage. The guitar tone is somehow both too polished and too muddy; it has that clinically clean sound endemic to modern progressive and technical music, but the low end is nearly incomprehensible.

The only redeeming factor of this entire mess- and I do mean only– is that the lead guitarist (Eric Gillette) is really fucking good. The solos are slick and flashy, immaculately executed displays of instrumental showmanship that are written perfectly to the riffs they complement. They are far too good for this stupid album, which leads me to believe that their sole purpose is to remind you that you’re in hell by tormenting you with brief glimpses of heaven.

Oh, and the entire concept is derailed at the end by the artist shoehorning in a musical interpretation of Dante’s Inferno, because of course he fucking does.

I’ve spent enough hours of my life on this stupid album (it’s over 60 minutes long) to be able to say, entirely without hyperbole or irony, that Excelsis is one of the worst albums I’ve ever listened to. Yes, you can point to all manner of crappy basement black metal demo or overproduced deathcore record and find worse production and riffs, but Excelsis is something else. It embodies everything bad in prog metal, all the bloat and bombast that comes from some guy who writes a rock opera and surrounds himself with people who won’t tell him “no.” This album is somebody’s Citizen Kane, and that just makes it so, so much worse.

Excelsis comes out on February 21st through Rockshots Records, because they’ll just sign anyone apparently.

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