Album Review: Xandria - Sacrificium
There was a time when the way a metal band could stand out from the pack was to be symphonic, to play with classic sounds and textures that most metal bands didn't have the musical skill to incorporate in their arsenals. Adding loads of strings and choirs into the music was not just a way of sounding bigger than your contemporaries, but was a way of standing apart and giving yourself a unique identity. But like all things, the sound has been usurped by legions of bands that have learned from the originators, and today symphonic metal is one of the more heavily congested areas we have to consider. Symphonic bands have sprung up in all corners of the globe, and it has become nearly impossible for any of them to stand out from the pack without relying on some further gimmick.
That is the pressure that Xandria faces; how do they rise above the crowd of competitors without anything tangible to set themselves apart?
Ambition might be the answer to that question, as Xandria makes a statement by opening the album with a ten minute slice of epic metal, complete with spoken word introduction, a classical buildup, and more symphonic flourishes than you can shake a stick at. They are surely swinging big with this album, but the hit rate doesn't always justify the scope of their music. The aforementioned opening title track may be trying to be all things at once, but it suffers from the common problem of too much adding up to not enough. The band throws everything they can at the song, but the individual pieces aren't strong enough to support such a massive statement. The riffs and the vocals aren't sharp, they linger in the air, making you wonder where the real meat of the song is. It turns out those moments are the glue holding the adornments on, and while the symphonic flourishes are impressive, they're not unlike putting a fancy hood ornament on a K-car.
The shorter tracks on the album are the better ones, because the brief running times force the band to focus their songwriting. “Nightfall” and “Dreamkeeper” immediately follow the bloated opener, and are far more engaging tracks, pushing the symphonic elements back in the mix a bit, while adding more muscle both to the guitars and the hooks. It's the same approach that has worked for everyone else, but there's a reason that formulas are established. These songs simply work.
Throughout the album, Xandria reinforces what I've thought all along about this sort of music; metal musicians are not well equipped to take on classical music. Coloring their songs with strings and choirs is fine, but every time the band tries to write a song that is more based in symphonic music than metal, it winds up feeling flat compared to what it should be. Composing for a symphony is an entirely different skill than writing metal songs, and there aren't many people who are able to do both of them, let alone find a way to seamlessly blend them into a cohesive whole.
Xandria isn't quite at that level, though they have their share of high points. When they stick within the formula, they write some very nice embellished metal tracks that are easy to enjoy. I can understand why they want to be more than another formulaic symphonic metal band, but that's what their strength is. “Sacrificium” is a good testament to that fact.