Considering the furore surrounding Babymetal, it’s a wonder more people haven’t taken notice of Japan’s far more serious recent metal export. Coming to the attention of the Western world via their killer Zion EP, Crossfaith stood out among the electronicore masses thanks to the strikingly organic fusion of the heavy and the synthesised, and the aggression with which they took to their work. The band’s live shows are riotous explosions of energy, but 2013’s Apocalyze failed to bottle that lightning aside from on standout cuts “Countdown to Hell” and “Eclipse”. A return to the drawing board was in order, prompting this time around an extensive inclusion of clean vocals, which had previously occurred only sparingly in the band’s songs.
The first half of Xeno follows a rigid formula of Slipknot chug riffs, arena rock choruses, Hot Topic-core breakdowns and Prodigy keyboard splashes. Vocalist Kenta Koie shows no signs of amateurism in his melodic singing, his baritone most closely resembling Chris of Motionless in White. Replicating the same template of song multiple times over successively means the songs blend together, but Crossfaith suit this new approach as much as they did their more anarchic earlier material, and there’s little in the way of filler. “Xeno” is the perfect title track, best representing the group’s new approach while adding something a little extra through its rousing final section. That aside, the best moments come from a typically gruff Caleb Shomo (Beartooth) vocal spot on “Ghost in the Mirror” and the transition from verse strut to chorus sprint repeated over the course of “Raise Your Voice”.
It’s a wickedly tongue in cheek introduction from Skindred’s Benji Webbe that introduces a more experimental second ‘side’ to the album, and the ensuing album centrepiece “Wildfire” is absolute genius. As comprehensive a balance of metal and dance music as anything in any group’s catalogue, its fun factor is through the roof and its momentum unstoppable. Webbe’s unique Jamaican-Welsh tones offset Koie’s screams perfectly, as drummer Tatsuya Amano and keyboardist Terufumi Tamano hold the whole thing together – just. It’s so good you wish the proposed ‘Crossdred’ could be a repeated, ‘Silvertooth’-esque collaboration,
A peak of intensity is reached after “Paint it Black” cleverly reverses tradition through clean verses and a harsh chorus, its punishing double bass bridge acting as a precursor to the hell for leather “Vanguard”. Bookending this couplet are the album’s two ballads, of which “Calm the Storm” is by far the better. Though both are mawkishly sentimental and heavy-handed, its euphoric chorus and harmonic guitars distinguish it as a worthy inclusion. In contrast, “Tears Fall” gets bogged down in its radio rock structure and clumsy lyrics including “I lost they key, you lost it too”. Peppering these more three-dimensional songs among the more straightforward material may have resulted in a better album structure than the one Xeno has. Instrumental parting shot “Astral Heaven” is another unusual choice, building from a more layered take on Philip Glass minimalism to shimmering electro-blue melodic patterns but trapped in a song layout and circumlocution that would really have suited vocals.
An effective metaphor, then, for Xeno as a whole, which proves Crossfaith are wholly comfortable bringing the pop into their dance metal party but can’t quite ignite to maximum capacity because of its repetitive nature. On the other hand, it is a more accessible introduction to the group that will likely see more people take notice of a band that are thrillingly unique even after shifting a few steps towards the status quo.