Isle of the Cross's Excelsis is the newborn of seemingly bemused singer, songwriter, artisan, enlightenment personality, and multi-instrumentalist Je Schneider. The richly textured album displays the product of what could only be expected from someone of Schneider's background. "I grew up playing drums and piano - following in the footsteps of my Dad. I was introduced to a lot of great musicians of various genres from prog-rock to classical to new age to jazz to metal to folk to Latin to soundtracks/plays etc... it was always a diverse and inspiring collage." Excelsis is too a diverse and inspiring depiction. It veers from big loud dark moments a la Meshuggah or Gojira to soft candid piano interludes and classical motifs. Minimalism is something apparently Je never quite studied. There are absolutely moments which can sound jumbled and claustrophobic but they are not as common as I expected. How did Je ensure that for the most part the album steered clear of these common hiccups? "I actually didn't take any caution which has been noted by quite a few!" He also knows that the complexity present has its disadvantages. "I agree with most that it isn't an easy listen."
It's this composite of influences which can be found on Excelsis, yet the album as a whole is nevertheless coherent and rewarding on a purely textural level; an atmosphere captured seemingly for a purpose and with a definitive goal in mind. Schneider, however, is more keen to pin this on luck, even when given the opportunity to elaborate if he had a specific atmosphere, soundscape, or sound design in mind when making the record. "The honest answer is no. I was throwing a lot of everything into the album and enjoying a bit of the freedom as it was clearly an experimental album." The album sounds like standing in an oasis deep in an arid land - there is a dry wind carried through in heavier songs like "Tartarus", opener "Sacrifice", or "Empyrean" and yet at the same time, a lush overgrowth of melody and rhythmic layering; it's all very modern in sound and ancient in atmosphere; Babylonian. I didn't press Je on this atmosphere further and I was disappointed by the rather wishy-washy response; an album with such a poignant ambience purposefully and carefully crafted would elevate Excelsis. Apparently this spectacular aura was the result of simple luck. For me, there isn't much that I would call experimental about the album sonically, but in terms of Je's individual experience in terms of creation, I can see why he would feel a sense of experimentation coursing through.
I found the album completely coherent, especially once I delved into the thematic content. Lyrically, I found two halves of the record, with songs after fourth track, "The Wolf, Pt. II. Sanctuary," more inwardly focused and the opening four tracks a passionate plea against a larger societal force. Spirituality, and Religion are key themes, tempered by a call for Love as a replacement for heaven. Je was more responsive regarding the lyrical content. "Most of that was based on the loose theme of the album where two are trying to reunite somewhere in the great beyond - as they have now both died on Earth and seek to honor their vow of eternal love. 'The Wolf Pt. I and II' were pointed directly at a specific church, yet also contains some universal thoughts for those who promote / teach religion bondage. The final words of 'Sanctuary' (some of my favorite lyrics personally - Orion) are really to allegorically challenge all those who lay their hope in a specific church building or Sanctuary; to cut off this reliance and rather, more importantly, do what's right and make amends with those they have hurt through their religious fanaticism." A strange subject for a progressive death metal album... but the intricate concept blends well with the previously described spontaneously manifested auditory environment.
But is it a progressive death metal album? It is being promoted as such by the label. There are some elements of death metal, but in truth, to call Excelsis a death metal album is like calling a taco a sandwich. Even Je's 'death metal' vocals aren't really growls or gurgles, but more like jets of heavy whisper propelled from a larynx much more apt to sing a ballad like "Stars", which exists also as a music video more befitting of a Singaporean boy band than an LA based progressive death metal band. Other "official videos" exist of the heavier songs, but they are essentially karaoke, and so I consider "Stars," the only official video I've seen. It's not winning over any metalhead I know, depicting Je singing in front of a background of stars and nebulae. In truth... the genre doesn't apply at all and Rockshots is doing Schneider a disservice by miscategorizing it, causing it likely to be maligned by the wrong audience. Excelsis is a progressive hard rock / modern metal album far removed from the extreme ends of metal. Je agreed in a, now expected, abbreviated clarification: "Probably moreso ‘Progressive Metal’ alone vs Prog Death...Excelsis has some death’ish elements". I asked Je about the two guest singers on the album, expecting him to explain how he was so impressed with Diane Lee's vocals (her vocals on "Inferno" are a highlight for me) that he had to get in contact, or that he was floored when he originally heard Eric Castiglia on this song or that album. "I just contacted them by email and the rest was history." Well OK then.
So ultimately, I have mixed emotions regarding Excelsis and Isle of the Cross. In one pocket, we have a deep sack of unique influences and interesting motifs, shuffled around by Schneider who proves his musical background to be stalwart as his guitar playing and leads are as exceptionally performed as his piano parts, seemingly held together by just enough left over lint to keep the album taught and tied in such a knot that each part seems inseparable. In the other pocket, I can barely squeeze my hand in to grasp any of what should be really interesting music because Schneider, even with poking and prodding, is keen to vaporize his own rich musical background and efforts by explaining away purpose and artistry with the same aloofness Diderot attributed to Rameau's nephew in his (1805) posthumously published satire. Diderot attempts to portray Rameau as a free-spirited debutante with little concern for the world around him and even less morality but Rameau's nephew proved to actually be an intellectual adept capable of long-winded and varied conversation worthy of an entire manuscript. Je Schneider is the antagonist Diderot failed to ultimately portray. From Rameau's nephew, the irony of one of his claims comes to mind: "I would not like to guarantee that a good speaker will sing well, but I should be surprised if a good singer could not speak well. Believe all I say on this score, for it is the truth." Oh is it?
It's interesting how my opinion of the album changed based on Je's responses regarding his creative process and sonic goals in it's creation; originally impressed and intrigued and now ambivalent. Je was quick in returning answers for my questions, which was great, but I've never sent questions to someone who was so keen to not want to extrapolate on their own music. Apparently he's done other interviews for the album, so it's possible he was simply tired of answering questions, but even in other interviews, at least to me, he comes across as curt. Nonetheless, I could see plenty of people enjoying this, just not fans of death metal. I think Excelsis is best suited to listeners of more modern progressive metal like Dream Theater's most recent albums, Orphaned Land, and other heavier European symphonic heavy metal. The best song on the album for me is either "Tartarus" or "The 9th Circle. Pt. III - Inferno," which is a truly impressive work, especially considering it was written entirely experimentally, with all thought and purpose thrown to the wind, and reliant entirely on luck.