Æxylium are a folk metal band from Varese in the very north of Italy, right on the Swiss border, so I was eager to see what local instrumentation they'd bring to bear. Mostly it's flutes and violins, a mandolin often joining them and some bouzouki too. However, their sound is certainly not sourced only from Italy, because there's a lot from much further north, as this often moves away from the pastoral mindset to sea shanties and Viking metal.
It starts out heavy, with The Bridge, which layers folk instrumentation over melodic death metal. There are sections for the flute to shine and the violins and the bass, but it's mostly a heavy song with the harsh male voice of Steven Merani leading the way. He sounds good, raspy but accessible and intelligible. And I should point out before moving onto Mountains that he's the band's singer, because it suddenly seems like he isn't just one song later.
That's because there's a guest vocal on Mountains from Arianna Bellinaso, a clean soprano, who's so well woven into this song that it's very easy to think of her voice as the lead and Merani's as an agreeable texture behind her that steps up to duet with her at points. I don't know who Bellinaso sings for regularly and I have a feeling that she doesn't, because she may only sing metal on the side of classical performances, but Æxylium ought to sign her up permanently because she's just perfect here.
Mountains may be my favourite song, though there's so much variety on offer that it's difficult to compare some of these songs with others. It begins with solo piano then heavies up, though it's a flute that takes the lead. The melodies are excellent and it's this one that stayed in my head over a couple of days. It's just as obviously a metal song as The Bridge but it feels like it's folk metal at its core rather than melodeath. Immortal Blood does much of the same but without Bellinaso and it works well, if not quite as well because of her absence.
And then we start to move around the genre. Battle of Tettenhall begins with sounds of warfare and turns up the choral aspent. There's a male guest here, Samuele Faulisi of the Italian epic folk metal band Atlas Pain, who sings clean; I believe he returns for Vinland and Spirit of the North as well. Skål is a sea shanty in the Alestorm style but folkier and less crunchy. Yggdrasil is very Norse and very emphatic. There's nothing small about it and it's happy about that. Vinland sounds like it ought to be Norse too and it is, with the most obvious call to dance yet. It's a wild and lively one, with accordion and mandolin at the fore.
Even while they shift around the genre, they do a surprisingly good job of defining the core sound of the band, which I'm thinking of as being built around those flutes and violins. Once we get past The Bridge, they're the focal point even above the guitars and harsh vocals. In fact, each half ends with an instrumental piece of folk music, where those other elements notably take a break and it falls to the flutes and violins, with some drums, to really strut their stuff. Am Damhsa Mór could be called an interlude and On the Cliff's Edge a postlude, but they're substantial pieces, not much shy of three minutes each. They're really the bedrock of what Æxylium do, merely without guitars and power and vocals layered over the top.
I think it's Mountains for me over everything else here, with its fantastic female soprano that I'm hoping to hear more of. There are eight musicians in this band; what's one more? I like Yggdrasil a lot too, as the biggest and heaviest song but with its delicacies too, and Vinland following it. And I love those instrumental pieces and could happily listen to an album comprised only of them. Given that I've just highlighted five very different pieces of music, I guess I've underlined how much this album does.
It's only the band's second release, after 2018's Tales from This Land, and, as those titles suggest, they've sung in English throughout. I do wonder what they'd sound like with vocals in Italian, but I wonder more what a full album would sound like with Arianna Bellinaso fully incorporated into its sound. I think that's what I want for Christmas.