Released By: Napalm Records
Release Date: January 27th, 2017
Genre: Symphonic Metal
Dianne van Giersbergen – Vocals
Marco Heubaum – Guitars
Philip Restemeier – Guitars
Steven Wussow – Bass
Gerit Lamm – Drums
1. Where the Heart is Home
2. Death to the Holy
3. Forsaken Love
4. Call of Destiny
5. We Are Murderers (We All)
6. Dark Night of the Soul
7. When the Walls Came Down (Heartache Was Born)
8. Ship of Doom
10. Song for Sorrow and Woe
11. Burn Me
12. Queen of Hearts Reborn
13. A Theater of Dimensions
Five years ago I heard an album that pulled off what I thought may have been impossible: Take the classic Nightwish sound and make slight tweaks to it, while also modernizing it just a bit, to create something even better and more exciting. That release was Neverworld’s End, by German band Xandria, and it ranks to this day as one of my absolute favorite symphonic power metal albums of all time. In between albums they made slight lineup changes, and the following album Sacrificium came across as a nice continuation, but it didn’t seem to add much new the way its predecessor did, so I was left wondering if the band would ever be able to approach the same level of brilliance again. Well, the band has retained the same lineup since Sacrificum and are now set to release their seventh full-length release Theater of Dimensions. Even though the previous album never hit me as hard as its predecessor, I still thought the current lineup had a lot of potential, and I was excited to see whether or not the band could release another masterpiece this time around and the answer is a definitive yes!
The biggest difference this time around is that while Sacrificium felt like a direct continuation of Neverworld’s End and seemed specifically focused on one aspect of the music, Theater of Dimensions retains many of the same elements but uses them in different ways at times, while also adding in some new elements and just overall being a much more varied and dynamic release. Stylistically, this album is much more grounded in symphonic metal specifically, with an ever increased focus on the orchestral elements and a heavy use of choir vocals, and compared to the previous release in particular, it feels like the band wanted to do as many different styles of songs as they could pull off while letting the symphonic elements lead the way, and so there’s a lot happening on this album. As a result, the power metal elements have been reduced a bit and aren’t as much of the main focus as before, though they still show up on quite a few tracks, most notably “Call of Destiny” and “Song for Sorrow and Woe”.
At the same time, while the symphonic elements dominate, there are a ton of other influences on display here, such as small traces of neoclassical metal on “Call of Destiny” (really, that track has a bit of a late 90’s Stratovarius sound to it with the guitar leads and is sure to be a crowd-pleaser) as well as an increased use of folk elements, most notably on the instrumental track “Céilí”. I also noticed some progressive elements, most notably on the monster length title track, which I will cover in more detail further into the review, but needless to say, it doesn’t disappoint. Perhaps most surprisingly, there’s also a more modern sound to the album, even sometimes hinting at extreme metal elements, with the guitars, in particular, having more of a harder edge than one would expect at times, and of course Soilwork vocalist Björn “Speed” Strid provides some growls on the track “We Are Murderers (We All)”. And of course, there’s some balladry as well, with some tracks having extended softer sections, and there’s one full ballad on the album, that being the outstanding “Dark Night of the Soul”. For all the album does, though, and for how varied the tracks are, the most impressive thing about it all is how consistently amazing everything is, and just how good a job the band does of making different sounding tracks that are equally amazing in different ways, and it’s in that area especially where the album manages to match Neverworld’s End.
A very important aspect of Xandria is their vocals, and they have one of the best singers in the genre in Dianne van Giersbergen. I was initially blown away by her performance on the Ex Libris album Medea, and while I thought she sounded very good on Sacrifium as well, I was left with the feeling the band hadn’t used her to voice to its full potential. This time around, that isn’t the case, though, as not only does Dianne still shine while delivering her smooth operatic vocals as before, this time around she gets to show her full range, sometimes singing very powerfully and more explosive, while other times using the more theatrical vocals she used a lot with Ex Libris, and the way she fluidly switch between styles is something I’ve always been impressed with, so it’s exciting to get to hear her do that on this album. Obviously, there are some excellent guest vocalists on this album as well, with the aforementioned “Speed” as well as current Firewind vocalist Henning Basse, Van Canto’s Ross Thompson and Myrath vocalist Zaher Zorgati, all of whom do an excellent job on their respective tracks.
Moving onto songwriting, and I already mentioned it as being a huge strong point, but let’s dig in a bit deeper. Opening track “Where the Heart is Home” begins with an extended orchestral opening, before the choirs join in and this serves as excellent intro to the album, until eventually, the crunchy, modern sounding guitars make their first appearance and the song turns into an epic, mid-tempo symphonic metal track with an outstanding chorus, great riffs and a really nice guitar solo in the middle. The track also serves as a great showcase for Dianne’s vocals, as she uses her huge operatic voice throughout the track, but the near end is a great softer section where she uses much calmer vocals and that section is an early highlight for sure.
Next up is “Death to the Holy”, an early album standout that has a slight folk feel with its guitar leads, and it’s a very upbeat, happy sounding track that moves along at a pretty fast pace, and is certainly one of more power metal based tracks on the album. It also has an extremely fun chorus, which is pretty much par for the course on this album. Other faster songs include the previously mentioned “Call of Destiny”, which feels like the band took a classic power metal track and gave it some modern touches, with some heavier guitars and using the orchestral elements and choir, and this results in an instant winner of a track that stands as one of my favorites. Along with that track, we also have “We Are Murderers (We All)” a track which gets very fast and explosive during the verses, though it’s hard to call it a full power metal track due to how heavy the guitars get at times and because of the chorus, which alternates between Dianne’s operatic vocals and the previously mentioned death growls. It’s quite the interesting track, for sure, and shows how the band has taken the sound they started on Neverworld’s End and evolved it to the point where they do some more unique tracks. Lastly, we have the more traditional symphonic power metal tracks “Song for Sorrow and Woe” and “Queen of Hearts Reborn”. The first of these is mostly fast paced and straightforward throughout, aside from one softer section in the middle where Dianne uses some of her more theatrical vocals, while the latter starts off with a nice softer section before speeding up for most of the track, and then Dianne does some great voice overs towards the end.
On the slower side, we have the more folk influenced track “Forsaken Love”, which starts off feeling like a folk ballad for a while, though it does get heavier as it goes along, and the choirs show up later into the track to help make it more epic. The last run through the chorus, in particular, is just stunning. Another folk influenced track is “Burn Me”, a nice mid-paced track which has an extremely fun and catchy chorus, while musically it’s folk elements at times remind me of Myrath, which isn’t a coincidence, because it also happens to be the track with Zaher Zorgati, who does an excellent job as always and adds his unique flavor to an already insanely addictive track. But the most folk influenced track is probably the instrumental track “Céilí”, a very upbeat sounding track which uses a ton of different folk instruments and it has some very nice melodies. In fact, it stands out as quite the unique track in Xandria’s discography, both because it’s an instrumental and also because it just sounds so different from anything else they’ve done, and is certainly another highlight.
Moving away from the folk elements but still sticking to slower tracks, we have “When the Walls Came Down (Heartache Was Born) and “Ship of Doom”. First up, “When the Walls Came Down” is a heavier track and has some excellent riffs as well as one of the strongest choruses on the album, and it also has an amazing explosive section towards the end where it speeds up and the guitars get even heavier. The second of these, ‘Ship of Doom”, is an interesting track in that the main riff is quite heavy and suggests a darker tone right from the start, but then the majority of the track sounds much lighter and there are some nice folk melodies during the verses, as well as some pretty cool guest vocals from Ross Thompson who also gives the track a bit of a folk feel, while the chorus is just beautiful as Dianne and the choirs sound amazing. Lastly, “Dark Night of the Soul” is an excellent piano driven ballad, that serves as an excellent showcase for Dianne’s vocals, and there’s also an excellent guitar solo in the second half.
In case the rest of the album wasn’t already impressive, the band saved their most ambitious track yet for last, that being the 14-minute title track. There is a whole lot of stuff happening on this track, though in many ways it feels to me like they took the kind of epic length track Nightwish has done in the past and gave it their own unique spin. It goes through all the twists and turns you’d expect, starting off feeling like a ballad, with some beautiful vocals from Dianne, before giving way to a huge, epic chorus where the choirs are in full force, and then this leads to a dramatic middle section, before the track eventually comes back to that epic chorus. Structurally, it reminds me a bit of something like “Ghost Love Score”, in how it starts calm, gets epic, calms down again, and then gets, even more, epic towards the end, but it’s that middle section where it manages to really surprise. The band brought in Henning Bass to do some guest vocals on this track and the middle section takes a surprisingly dramatic turn, at times feeling more like a musical than a metal track, and both Henning and Dianne alternate between voiceovers and some very theatrical singing, with Henning, in particular, sounding much different than anything I’d ever heard from him before, and this section is very epic and feels totally different from anything else I’ve ever heard on a metal album before. Then you add in those epic choirs and the beautiful ballad like passages from Dianne that bookend the track, and you have something truly special.
It’s still very early in the year, but I can say now I’ll be extremely surprised if I hear a better symphonic metal album this year than Theater of Dimensions. It takes what Xandria started on Neverworld’s End and expands on that sound, adding in new elements and exploring different styles, all while delivering the kind of epic symphonic metal the band has become known for on recent albums, and while still maintaining some of their power metal elements. The album is one of the most varied yet consistently entertaining albums I’ve heard in quite a while and I’d highly recommend it to all fans of symphonic metal, looking to hear the absolute best in the genre. I said last year I didn’t think Epica could possibly be matched, and while their track record speaks for itself, if anyone else in the genre can challenge them at this point, it’s Xandria.
Reviewer: Travis Green