Friday 3 February 2023

Xandria - The Wonders Still Awaiting (2023)

Country: Germany
Style: Symphonic Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 3 Feb 2023
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This is the eighth studio album for German symphonic metal band Xandria, though it's also kind of a second debut, given that the line-up has been almost completely replaced since the prior album, Theater of Dimensions in 2017. Vocalist Dianne van Giersbergen left soon after that release, while bassist Steven Wussow followed suit in 2019. Then long term members Philip Restemeier and Gerit Lamm did likewise in 2022. Now, Marco Heubaum had been the sole founder member almost since he founded the band in 1997 but Lamm joined in 1998 and Restemeier in 2002. I believe both are on everything the band has ever released, making this a fresh start for Heubaum and his brand new set of colleagues.

If that might suggest a paradigm shift in their sound, I should highlight that it isn't that different to the Xandria I've heard before. Now, I'm notably out of date, because I believe I've only heard a couple of early albums by them, nothing more recent than their third, India, which is closing in on two decades old now. This feels similar, plenty of power in the sound but with the symphonic more prominent. From the very opening, it builds as much through choral or orchestral swells as it does through the guitars. If there's anything new, it's a more rhythmic lead guitar, a modern fancy.

So I'd call this symphonic metal over symphonic power metal and that tends to lean heavily on the talents of the female lead vocalist. Ambre Vourvahis is the sixth such in the band's history and she seems capable without carving out a niche. It's a crowded field for sopranos, so that it's an uphill struggle for anyone new to distinguish herself. Vourvahis, who is apparently half French and half Greek, does well with a warm and approachable default voice and as well when she soars upward. That said, even after seventy-four minutes of this album—Xandria don't seem to know how to self-edit—she still sounded good, rather than like Ambre Vourvahis. Maybe in time.

She gets plenty of opportunities on Two Worlds and Reborn, the openers, bolstered by the choral efforts and by a harsh voice, presumably provided by Heubaum, to provide occasional beauty and the beast moments. The biggest opportunity ought to have been on You Will Never Be Our God, a song also featuring Ralf Scheepers of Primal Fear, because they would be an interesting duet, but he's far too low in the mix for that to happen. The opportunity was squandered.

Frankly, the best thing about the album is that it's pretty much what I expected. There's energy in this music and the vocals and choral backing add more. While the tracks did blur a little together a first, second and third time through, none of them seem like they let the side down. Yes, this is too long, notably so, but that's not because it's packed with filler. I enjoyed each song as it was playing and didn't regret any of them. But what would all I call out for special mention? Not a heck of a lot is the quick answer to that. The drum intro to Ghosts? I should be able to find more than that, even if Dimitrio Gatsios shines throughout.

I should certainly be able to find more than that on the guitar side, but the guitarwork, from both Heubaum and Rob Klawoon, fails to impress. It's not bad, I should emphasise. Both are clearly able but they don't seem entirely willing and the mix doesn't help them. It emphasises the vocals over the guitars at every step. The riffs are also too modern and staccato, even if they don't attempt a full on djenty approach, and the solos are too infrequent and too lost. So that's the worst thing to my thinking, along with the lack of will to self-edit.

If you forced me to pick favourites, I'd probably suggest the opener, Two Worlds, which sets a scene well, and some of the songs midway, like Ghosts and the much softer Your Stories I'll Remember. If we're going to focus on the vocals, then let them be ones where Vourvahis is free and clear on the sort of material where her sustains can shine. And that's a tell for me, because I don't usually pick out the softer songs on symphonic metal albums for special mention. This one shines because of a strong lead vocal and orchestrations that aren't just swells; there are plenty of strings here and I liked how they weaved in and amongst the choral voices.

And so, like the Ten album I reviewed yesterday, this is another album that I feel fairly deserves its 7/10 but didn't engage with me the way I hoped it would. I hope we're not setting a trend here for 2023. I want to hear albums doing things I haven't heard before that I want to keep on listening to, even if I have more to move onto. Ten and Xandria may well be your bag, but they're not mine right now.

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