Saturday, 25 February 2017

Xandria's 'Theater of Dimensions' - Album Review

Despite being around in some form or another since 1997, German symphonic metal band Xandria still seem to be confined to the genre's edges and have always failed to compete with some more the established giants of their field. Founding member and guitarist Marco Heubaum has been the band's leader and principle songwriter since the band was formed, and he has been joined by a variety of others during the band's history. Guitarist Philip Restemeier and drummer Gerit Lamm have appeared on all of the band's albums to date and have formed the band's core along with Heubaum since 2001. The band's early career, which co-indices with frontwoman Lisa Middelhauve's tenure with Xandria, was characterised with an ethereal, gothic-inspired sound that certainly set them apart from the crowd. More similarities could be drawn with bands like The Gathering and Stream of Passion than bands like Nightwish and Epica. This changed in 2010 with the arrival of frontwoman Manuela Kraller, and the album released two years later Neverworld's End. It had been five years since 2007's Salomé - The Seventh Veil, and the change of vocalist and the passing of time had clearly influenced Heubaum to take a new direction. Neverworld's End saw Xandria enter the world of symphonic power metal, with more than an early nod to early Nightwish. With Nightwish long moving away from their synth-heavy early sound, Xandria clearly felt they could fill that void. To some extent they did just that and Neverworld's End was a success for them. Kraller and long-time bassist Nils Middelhauve departed the band in the intervening period after the album's release and tour, which seemed like it would halt any potential momentum the band had gained during the Neverworld's End tour. This was not to be the case however, as frontwoman Dianne van Giersbergen and bassist Steven Wussow were added to the band in 2013, and this line-up of Xandria has been rocking the world and gathering even more momentum since. Sacrificium, released in 2014, built on the symphonic power metal sound of Neverworld's End but it just seemed to feel more natural and less forced this time around. Quite a lot of touring followed, which is possibly why it took three years for the band's seventh album Theater of Dimensions to materialise, but it was worth the wait as this feels like the album the band have been working towards since Neverworld's End. van Giersbergen really comes into her own on her second studio album with the band, and co-writes half of the album here along with Heubaum and producer Joost van den Broek. As with all of van den Broek's recent production efforts, Theater of Dimensions sounds huge and heavy, and is a great representation of the band's sound. There are a few guests vocalists used at choice moments throughout the album too to mix things up a bit and give van Giersbergen someone to bounce vocal lines and ideas off.

The album's opener, Where the Heart is Home, wastes little time getting things underway. While van den Broek's orchestral arrangement in the beginning is certainly basic and follows melodies and rhythms heard countless times, it still works well to establish the album's mood. When the chugging guitar rhythms come in however, things really take off and the song transforms into a strong mid-paced rocker with van Giersbergen's operatic vocals really dominating the sparse verses. She has a very diverse voice, and can do the straight ahead rock vocals just as well as the classically-trained warbles, but in this song she sticks to the latter and really helps to give the song some class as the two guitarists riff away beneath her. Guitar solos are something rarely used in symphonic metal, but Xandria have always made roof for them in their sound. A short burst of shredding here really helps to mix things up, and give the song some true metal pedigree at the same time. Built on a strong rhythmic base from Lamm's drumming, Death to the Holy really brings the power metal element of Xandria's modern sound to the fore. The song picks up the pace from the previous one, and makes strong use of more upbeat melodies, especially those that van Giersbergen sings. The song's chorus is the first really catchy moment of the album, and the large choir gives van Giersbergen something to compete with, and it helps to really bring out her power. Lamm's drumming throughout the song is excellent too, with lots of little off-kilter fills and rhythms that sit well alongside the more tried-and-tested double bass attacks. Forsaken Love starts off as a ballad, with beautiful piano and uillean pipe melodies, the latter played by Johannes Schiefner, that act as a perfect backing for van Giersbergen's subtle vocals. While the song does get somewhat heavier as it moves along, it still retains the early beauty as the piano and pipes still dominate the mix. Wussow's bass is actually more of a driving factor than the guitars here, and helps to provide some weight below the folkier overtones of the song. Call of Destiny, chosen by the band to shoot a video for, is also full of all the power metal trappings that they have embraced really. The flashy keyboard run, set to a grinding guitar backdrop, in the song's opening comes out of nowhere to add a huge chunk of melody, and the chorus is a real winner with powerful hooks and an excellent vocal performance from van Giersbergen. This is an uncomplicated song, and one that screams single as soon as you hear it so it is no surprise that the band shot a video for it! We are Murderers (We All) is heavier and makes use of the vocal talents of Björn 'Speed' Strid (Soilwork) throughout to help with this vibe. The quasi-death metal riffing, backed up by doomy piano chords and some furious drumming, sets the tone for the song, and there is clearly a big influence taken from Epica's recent work here with dramatic orchestral sections and a huge choral arrangement. Strid's vocals are used sparingly, but his deep growls are a great contrast to van Giersbergen's clear vocals and the pair work well together. There is a fairly lengthy guitar solo here too, which helps to really add to the overall metal feel of the song. After the heavier overtones of the previous song, Dark Night of the Soul pairs things back somewhat and is a extremely beautiful piano ballad with some emotional vocals from van Giersbergen. The song is extremely well placed on the album, and works in perfect contrast to the previous heavier number. There is even a lengthy bluesy guitar solo which sounds so different to anything else on the album. The phrasing of the solo works perfectly within the context on the song and really seems like an extent of the vocal performance rather than anything else. When the Walls Came Down (Heartache Was Born) is one of my favourite songs on the album, and this is due to it's simplicity and big, catchy melodies. The chorus is easily the album's best, with playful melodies that really sink deep into your brain and stay with you after only one listen. There is nothing particularly fancy about the song, it is just packed full of great songwriting ideas and enough hooks to make it really stand out.

Ship of Doom is more of a mid-paced rocker, with the vocal talents of Ross Thompson (Van Canto) used throughout. I have to say, his strange vocal sections stick out like a sore thumb however and add very little to the song. van Giersbergen's parts are great, but his almost rap-like vocal patterns just clash with the orchestral metal of the rest of the song and I fail to see what Xandria were attempting to add with this strange vocal sections. I feel this is one of the album's weakest moments, and the strange vocals play a big part in this. Céilí is the album's shortest song at just over three minutes long and it is also the album's only instrumental. Metal guitar riffs are mixed well with folky instrumentation to create a jig-like piece of music that is uplifting and extremely catchy. Flutes and violins drive the piece, while the guitars, bass, and drums provide a solid backing. There are plenty of short bursts of lead guitar too, highlighting the talents of the band's two guitarists. Song for Sorrow and Woe, despite sounding more like a My Dying Bride song title than a Xandria one, is surprisingly uplifting and full of epic orchestration than you might expect from a song with that title. van Giersbergen relies heavily on the operatic side of her voice here, and it works wonders as she competes with the large choir and gigantic symphonic arrangements. She owns the song's mid section too, where she sings with only a subtle symphonic backing, and demonstrates what a powerful and diverse vocalist she is. Burn Me features the excellent vocals of Zaher Zorgati (Myrath), and his Eastern-tinged vocals help to influence the entire direction of the song. There are quite a few melodies here that have that Middle Eastern tint to them, which makes Zorgati's unique vocals feel right at home, but there is enough bombast here to appeal to anyone who likes early Nightwish too. The pomp-inspired synths and huge choral backing make the song feel huge, and the vocal interplay between van Giersbergen and Zorgati is great. He even gets a section to himself where he sings what sounds like an Arabic chant, and it works really well. Despite a slow start, Queen of Hearts Reborn is another Epica-inspired song. While the comparisons might be a little too close for some, van Giersbergen's melodies are very similar to Simone Simons' phrasing, the song is packed full of strong performances that is barely seems to matter. Slower paced, heavy sections with crushing guitar riffs and dramatic spoken word sections mix well with more upbeat, orchestra driven sections with a wall or choral vocals to add extra drama. The album's final song is the 14 minute plus epic title track, which, like all long song certainly takes quite a few listens to fully appreciate. It moves through many different sections, heavy and mellow, throughout it's run time. Guitar solos, strong vocals, epic orchestral atmospherics, over-the-top spoken word sections, and guest vocals from Henning Basse (Metalium; Sons of Seasons; MaYaN; Firewind) all add together to make for a great progressive symphonic metal song that is a great way to end this strong album. Basse's vocals, right off the back of his excellent debut with Firewind on last month's Immortals, really hams it up here and his dramatic vocal delivery really fits the mood of the song. Overall, Theater of Dimensions is another strong album from Xandria what has been a bit of rebirth for the band since 2012's Neverworld's End. The band has never been as experimental or forward-thinking as they have on this album (despite some close similarities to Epica and Nightwish in places) and hopefully they continue this trend on their next album.

The album was released on 27th January 2017 via Napalm Records. Below is the band's promotional video for Call of Destiny.

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