Monday, February 27, 2017

album review: 'theater of dimensions' by xandria

So I've talked a little before about the rise and growth of symphonic metal on this channel, but one thing I haven't touched on as much was the very brief moment in pop culture where it crossed into the mainstream, specifically in the early-to-mid 2000s. Of course, it was the sort of crossover that was driven by one of the absolute worst entries - yes, I'm talking about Evanescence, and you'll get the full extension of that rant if they ever release that next album they're threatening - but for a brief segment of time, acts like Nightwish and Within Temptation had a chance to at least snag attention on the fringes of rock radio, and you definitely saw their sound on albums like Century Child, Once and The Silent Force pivot slightly in that direction.

But one factor that tends to get overlooked is like with any other trend, there arises bands that want to copy or at least get a taste of that same success, and symphonic metal was not an exception. You had obvious wannabes like Delain which continue to this day or bands like After Forever, which disbanded only a year or so after the boom collapsed in the mid-to-late 2000s. And somewhere in the middle falls Xandria, which despite forming in 1997 didn't release a debut album until 2003. And for the next five years, right in the heights of the subgenre's boom, they released four albums, none of which I'd argue are all that memorable or well-produced, with India probably being the best of them. And yet as the 2000s ended, rotating through singers and bassists and guitarists, you could easily make the statement that the band might not last.

And then something strange happened. After a fairly solid release in 2012 with Neverworld's End with Manuela Kraller fronting - the only record for which she was frontwoman - the band seemed to stabilize their lineup with the recruitment of Dianne van Giersbergen, arguably their best lead singer to date - of no relation to Anneke van Giersbergen, I should stress. And with the release of 2014's Sacrificium, I started noting a marked improvement in the arrangements and writing, to say nothing of some more spacious production. This was even further enhanced on the sharper EP Fire & Ashes, and thus I had reason to hope going into Theater of Dimensions that the improvements would continue - was I right?

Honestly, it's a little tough to tell, because I've gone over this hour-plus Xandria album several times now and with each additional listen I get more and more lukewarm on it at best. And the frustrating thing isn't that it's bad symphonic metal or nakedly ripping off other bands in the same way that Delain can - no, Theater Of Dimensions just feels very much like a b-list act, with the ambitions to rise to the big leagues along with Epica and Nightwish but unable to execute with the same consistency. Again, it's decent enough, but it's also becomes very plain why Xandria doesn't get mentioned in the same sentences with the best of the genre, not matter how hard they try.

And again, it's not exactly easy to point out where things go awry, but the first big piece comes in the production and instrumentation. Dianne van Giersbergen is an expressive and potent singer, and the range of emotions and swell she's expected to handle, from operatic singing to a more theatrical delivery to even a harsher brand of rock vocals, she is indeed impressive. The problem, which is definitely a shift from the last album and EP, comes in that she's often singing opposite a symphonic choir or bagpipes or the arranged symphony for the melodies and not an actual electric guitar line or keyboard. Of course, the exceptions come in the ballads like the piano and pipes of 'Forsaken Love' or the dreary pianos of 'Dark Night Of The Soul', but for the most part the main guitar lines tend towards a rattling low-end and only seem to pick up more melodic heavy lifting on the solos. Part of this has been an issue with Xandria for years now - Marco Heubaum has always been a frustrating guitarist in composing some impressive technical pieces that don't always resolve well - but I had hopes with the EP and Sacrificium that they had managed to fix this foundational issue. Turns out that with rare exception - 'Death To The Holy', which reminded me a lot of a cut from a Rhapsody of Fire album, the instrumental piece 'Ceili', and a few solos scattered across the album - Xandria relies a lot more on the symphonic choir or other arranged instrumentation to drive the melody, and I've never been a fan of this approach. It never quite picks up the same groove or momentum that an act that has a more prominent mid-range melodic tone like Nightwish or Avantasia use to anchor great hooks. And that's before we get to the drumwork, which for the most part is pretty meat-and-potatoes but especially in the case of the kickdrum lines seem less progressive and more just weirdly offkilter for no discernible reason.

Now that's not saying Xandria doesn't experiment - again, the increased use of bagpipes might show a passing glance at Nightwish but not a brazen ripoff, and songs like 'Forsaken Love' make them work. And I have to give credit for some pretty impressive bass smolder that works beneath the seething rhythm guitars and solo on 'We Are Murderers' to play off the welcome growled vocals from Bjorn Strid, even if I'm left wishing some of those backing horns exploded forward a little more aggressively to match the grimier groove. Hell, 'Ship Of Doom' is outright pirate metal with added vocals from Ross Thompson - I do think the groove is overall a shade too compressed and basic to really do the subgenre justice, even if the bagpipes to help, but again, it's a step in a different direction. And then there's the multi-part, fourteen-plus minutes of the closing title track...I'm not going to say it doesn't work, given that Dianne van Giersbergen works opposite Henning Basse remarkably well, and I do think some of the theatrical shifts are well-executed, but for a closer of that length, it could have been better paced, and I'm not sure it needed to stretch as long as it did.

Of course, a big part of the lyrics and themes... and I'll be blunt here, for as much as I've gone through this record, I can see and appreciate Xandria's ambition, the writing just doesn't come together. Granted, it's not bad - as I've said a number of times in the past, power and symphonic metal doesn't exactly need great lyricism - but I've also seen that assumption challenged by Epica and Avantasia, in the first case bringing more intellectual heft and the second opting for more of a coherent story. Xandria brings neither, so for Xandria we get songs that can stand on their own decently but don't really connect with each other beyond that. We get the expected broadsides at the corruption of organized religion on 'Death Of The Holy', 'We Are Murderers', and 'Burn Me', the romantic angst of 'Where The Heart Is Home', 'Forsaken Love', and 'When The Walls Came Down', and a few more cryptic attacks against a shadowy tyrant on 'Queen Of Hearts Reborn' or the more underwritten 'Song For Sorrow And Woe'. If you were to stretch you could make the argument that there's a bit of a connection to the title track, which sketches a pretty epic battle between Dianne's explorer character to the evil mastermind played by Henning Basse who seems to control multiple dimensions as a puppetmaster, but if this record was looking to use this song as a dramatic album climax, I'm not seeing the connections. And a big part of this is the writing itself - the metaphors and ideas are okay, but no real turn of phrase or bit of poetry here surprised me or caught my attention, and when you concoct this sort of dimension-spanning adventure, you'd like to hope it'd pick up a little more colour along the way.

So as a whole... look, given where we are at with symphonic metal in 2017, I can see a desire to give this praise simply for continuing the sound competently, but there's very little here that stands out to me, or that I haven't heard done with stronger hooks, sharper writing, and more dramatic swell. Xandria has talent and ambition, but I don't think this is as strong as either Sacrificium or Fire & Ashes, maybe not even Neverworld's End, which leads me to give it an extremely light 7/10 and only recommended if you're a big fan looking for a symphonic metal fix. Not bad stuff - and again, I really did like tracks like 'Death Of The Holy' and 'Ceili' - but I think Xandria needs to focus on refining the core of their sound rather than spreading themselves too thin. I get wanting to open that theater of dimensions, but if there's not much there holding them together, that theater will probably close.

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