It's fair to say that the line-up of German symphonic metal band Xandria has been a bit unstable in the last decade, at least regarding their lead vocalist role. While they were fronted by Lisa Schaphaus-Middelhauve for their first four records, up until Salomé: The Seventh Veil (2007), the next two albums Neverworld's End (2012) and Sacrificium (2014) each featured a different vocalist. However their line-up seems to have finally settled down now as the band's seventh album Theater of Dimensions (2017) marks the first time in a decade that a new Xandria album features the same vocalist as the previous one, Dianne van Giersbergen. The album features a number of guest vocal appearances, from Björn "Speed" Strid (Soilwork), Zaher Zorgati (Myrath), Ross Thompson (Van Canto) and Henning Basse (Firewind, MaYaN).
Having performed a brand of symphonic power metal akin to that of Nightwish circa the albums Oceanborn (1998) and Wishmaster (2000) on the two previous albums, Theater of Dimensions sees Xandria diversifying their sound. Keeping their epic symphonic elements the main part of their music, they still have some pretty strong power metal in them as tracks like the excellent Death to the Holy demonstrate, but they also shake things up a lot with others influences. Both previous albums also used some Celtic folk influences and that's true here too, but there are also influences from genres such as progressive metal creeping in, especially during the finale epic A Theater of Dimensions. The guitar lead during Call of Destiny is additionally decidedly neoclassical. Björn "Speed" Strid adds his growl and thus an extreme touch to We Are Murderers (We All), which features such pretty heavy and fast guitar as well.
The album still feels like the Xandria who made their last couple of albums, but it shows a lot more growth as band than they did going from Neverworld's End to Sacrificium, where the latter felt like more of the same as the former, while not being quite as good (though it was still an excellent follow-up). Theater of Dimensions feels like a step up for the band. Producing a varied symphonic metal album isn't actually done that often, but I'd say Xandria have pulled it off here, as track after track they manage to change the tone and feel of their music, while keeping the album coherent and flowing. Considering that at 74:25 in total length it's a long release, pulling this off was doubly important.
I'd also say that Dianne van Giersbergen sounds more settled into her role as the band's lead singer here too, and outshines her previous performances with the band, which were great to begin with. In fact I dare say this is one of the best vocal performances on a symphonic metal album I've ever heard, right up there with the best performances of Tarja Turunen, Sharon den Adel, Simone Simons and Floor Jansen (who I tend to think of as the Big Four of all the female symphonic metal vocalists). It's just a very well done album all round, by all involved including the guest vocals who each add yet another different aspects to the songs they appear on. I especially enjoyed Henning Basse's parts on A Theater of Dimensions. I'd say that this is definitely one of the album's highlights, along with Death to the Holy, Call of Destiny, We Are Murderers (We All), Ship of Doom and Queen of Hearts Reborn.
Given that Epica delivered an album last year I can't see Theater of Dimensions being topped as the best symphonic metal album of 2017, despite it's January release date. I usually use Epica's work as the standard these days that all other symphonic metal bands have to beat but this album actually proves that I should stop doing that for Xandria as with their last three albums they've shown themselves to be of the same calibre as the Dutch band. Those who wish Epica wouldn't use so many growls will probably even like Xandria more. Highly recommended stuff.