Isle of the Cross – Excelsis
These are crazy times with lockdown, isolation, ever-changing rules and zero live concerts. In this rubbish existence where your rubbish bins get to go out more than you, one-man multi-instrument projects would seem to be an ideal solution to producing new albums. To be fair, this album by Isle of the Cross was released in February 2020, just about the time this whole pandemic disaster was kicking off. This was pretty much the same time that I attended my last concert (little did I know at the time), and who knows when the next one will be.
“Excelsis” is the work of composer and multi-instrumentalist Je Schneider. It is a blend of avant-garde, extreme, symphonic, melodic, and technical death-metal. As with many of these types of projects, it is a concept album. This one lays out the story of two lovers, involving the tragedy of betrayal and murder. The tale does not finish there though because the couple attempt to reunite in the afterlife.
Je composed, produced, mixed, and mastered the album, and although there are guest musicians on some tracks, the first two ‘Sacrifice’ and ‘Tartarus’ appear to be just him, playing everything and doing all the vocals. Both these songs are heavy, that is, until halfway through the second track, when suddenly the mood changes, evoking something far more melodic, almost Peruvian in nature, complete with pan flutes.
Isle of the Cross – Sacrifice (click here if the video does not play)
Isle of the Cross – Tartarus (click here if the video does not play)
Title track ‘Excelsis’ is more symphonic, and introduces Diane Lee on vocals along with Eric Gillette, shredder extraordinaire. Eric will be known to many as the guitarist for Neal Morse’s band amongst other things, including playing lead guitar for Mike Portnoy’s Shattered Fortress on their series of live shows in 2017. I was fortunate to catch them at the now defunct ‘Be Prog My Friend’ festival in Barcelona.
This is followed by the two-part suite ‘The Wolf’. Part I (Invocation) is short and eerie leading into Part II (Sanctuary) where we are once again treated to some excellent guitar work from Eric G. This follows a mysterious middle section that has an almost ritualistic feel to it. There are lots of changes in this track, including a spoken piece at the end. Also featured on this song is Italian singer Eric Castiglia.
Isle of the Cross – The Wolf (click here if the video does not play)
‘Stars’ is slow and plaintive and reminds me a little of Pain of Salvation. That man Eric is here again, with some spine-chilling lead breaks in the liveliest part of what is the mellowest track on the album. Diane Lee gets a bigger singing part in ‘Empyrean’ trading verses with Je, in a fast and catchy number. ‘Paradigm’ is another fast and heavy number featuring another whirling guitar solo from Eric. For me, the better tracks are the ones with the guest musicians. That is not to take anything away from Je Schneider, his talent is obvious on every track.
Isle of the Cross – Paradigm (click here if the video does not play)
“I’m waiting for you” is whispered at the start of ‘Breatheia’, but apart from that it is an instrumental track that takes us comfortably into the final part of the album. ‘The 9th Circle’ is a three-part suite based on Dante’s Inferno. Inferno is the first part of Dante Aligheri’s epic poem Divine Comedy. Ninth Circle (subtitled Treachery) represents the centre of Hell. ‘Part I (Caina)’ is symphonic with a choir. In the poem Caina is named after Cain (as in Cain and Abel). ‘Part II (Judecca)’ is named after Judas Iscariot in the poem. It is short but dramatic with spoken verse, culminating with a chilling voice (perhaps Satan) asking “What are you doing here?”. ‘Part III (Inferno)’ (the title speaks for itself), features all three guest musicians and begins with a blistering solo from Eric Gillette then continues, on through many changes. One of several spoken parts is in Italian and, I suspect it is perhaps lines from the original poem. A strong track to round off a varied album.
Isle of the Cross – Inferno (click here if the video does not play)
This tale has an air of mystique, and it is not clear whether it has a happy end or not. If it does, it involves a trip to Hell and back first, just like Dante and his guide Virgil. This is not Je’s first involvement with the Inferno, he deals with the previous eight circles in one of his other projects The Divine Comedy/Dante’s Inferno. More details can be found at: http://jeschneider.com/the-divine-comedy-dantes-inferno/. I now need to get hold of a copy of Dante’s poem, as I am intrigued, and this has whetted my appetite for a bit of culture.
There seems to be a trend with these multi-instrumentalists, to give us multi-genre music on their albums. I like that because it keeps the listener interested. There are many parts of this release that I love and other parts that I am not so keen on. That is just my personal taste, and there is going to be favourite bits for everyone here. It is a well thought out and well executed album and I hope we see more of this project.
- The Wolf, Pt. I. Invocation
- The Wolf, Pt. II. Sanctuary
- The 9th Circle, Pt. I. Caina
- The 9th Circle, Pt. II. Judecca
- The 9th Circle, Pt. III. Inferno