Thursday, March 12, 2015

Sacrificium | Xandria

The German symphonic metal band Xandria has been part of the music scene for a while now, and even though I've always heard of them, I've been hearing more and more unabashed praise ever since they released their 2012 album Neverworld's End. Praise continues to stream with their latest release, Sacrificium, which is the first of their albums to include Dutch singer Dianne van Giersbergen (who is also a member of Ex Libris). This operatic soprano has one of the most beautiful-sounding voices in today's world. While Xandria definitely has the right ingredients to make wonderful music, Sacrificium doesn't exactly leave a lasting impression overall.
The title track is the true masterpiece from this album. "Sacrificium" is a ten minute piece that opens with an epic orchestral section that just builds and builds. It includes a short narration before the choir cues the band in. There are definitely quite a few heavy riffs to be found in this song, but Giersbergen makes the entire piece quite graceful. Her vocals come to an operatic climax in the chorus: "Hold my hand wherever you are / My end now is just a new life for you all / This is my promise, my sacrifice." All the while, the choir is singing something a bit different at the same time and the vocals intertwine wonderfully. The orchestra and choir blend with the guitars to create cinematic intensity throughout, but this blend really shines in an especially bombastic way during the middle eight between guitar solos. Giersbergen is left with a piano and violin at the end singing goodbye softly as the song ends, a perfect way to end it. The only issue I had whatsoever with this track is some of the mixing: There are times when the guitars sound a little too fuzzy, particularly when the guitars first start to really get going and when the section repeats in the chorus. I wish it sounded clearer and less two-dimensional... I suppose after hearing the production on Epica's The Quantum Enigma, we're a little spoiled and have higher standards.

"Stardust" also shines as one of Sacrificium's best with its amazing riffs. When van Giersbergen's vocals start in the middle eight, the guitars nearly take the place of the classical strings stylistically - if Vivaldi was making music in this century, that section would be one of his pieces. The breakdown towards the end of the middle eight is heavy and epic, and the song as a whole is ear-catching. I have no complaints to file.

Aside from these two tracks, there aren't a lot of full songs that really stand out. "Dreamkeeper" is a mid-tempo track that's sort of reminiscent of Nightwish, and it has potential, but the chorus ultimately does not do anything exciting. Sometimes the duller songs have great moments in the midst, like the intense middle eight of "Until the End" or the chorus of "Temple of Hate," and there are plenty of moments where van Giersbergen steals the show with her amazing high notes. The only ballad from the album, "Sweet Atonement," breaks the heavy pattern right at the end as it is led by piano and violin. It's a nice song; van Giersbergen's vocals are gorgeous as usual... I really don't have anything to complain about, but nothing draws me to the song. It sort of reminds me of high school solo and ensemble selections, and I don't know how I feel about that.

The lead single, "Nightfall," certainly brings a level of intensity with its fast-paced, bombastic chorus led by van Giersbergen and the choir even though it isn't necessarily a favorite of mine, and "The Undiscovered Land" isn't bad with its folk influences. "The Undiscovered Land" is a song that builds throughout, but unfortunately the only parts I really loved were the middle eight and the soft outro.

In short, Xandria seems to be one of those bands that has all the tools - the heavy guitars, van Giersbergen's voice, the epic orchestra and choir - but they just aren't utilized that creatively much of the time. I wasn't crazy about Sacrificium. This album seems to suffer from its concept - while albums that revolve around a specific concept can be completely perfect (i.e. Epica's albums, Within Temptation's albums, and Nightwish's albums), they can also ruin themselves by concentrating more on having a theme and less on the music. This results in a lot of songs sounding the same or just not being very unique in general. Regardless, I'm sure Xandria's sound will appeal to many even outside of regular symphonic metal fans because the guitars and orchestra get equal face time, which means that there are guitar solos galore in addition to bombastic orchestral moments. Blandness is the only enemy they have to conquer.

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