FeaturesXandria – Behold the Wonders

Xandria – Behold the Wonders

It’s been six years since Xandria’s last album Theater of Dimensions – and a thorough lineup haul took place between the touring cycle for that record and the latest effort The Wonders Still Awaiting. That possibly has expanded the aural horizons for this reliable symphonic metal band – as you’ll learn through our fascinating talk with guitarist/keyboardist Marco Heubaum. Beyond discussing the reasons behind the lineup changes, you’ll learn more about the work behind the new record, special guest choices for vocals, choirs, and violin/cello, thoughts on fan expectations versus personal musical satisfaction for one’s musical career, the changing touring landscape, plus thoughts on the USA and future plans.

Dead Rhetoric: Xandria’s eighth studio album is The Wonders Still Awaiting – and definitely a fresh start for the group considering you are the only member left of the band from the last album Theater of Dimensions. Why did the lineup changes take place – and was there any fear or nervousness behind this set of material and living up to what Xandria has developed and established over the years?

Marco Heubaum: I was always the main songwriter who was always responsible for the musical compositions of the band. The core of the music of Xandria did not change because of that. I just needed a fresh start, we were not on the same path anymore so we decided to separate. Which of course is not an easy thing to do, we were quite close on a personal level after all those years together. Sometimes when you want to pursue something, like an artistic vision, the surrounding that needs to work for it, you just need to have a change. I think many people know that personally from their own experience, it’s not always easy.

It was mostly a thing of just asking around, musicians I know if they know someone who could be up for (this). When I had a few names on my list, I was talking to them. It was lockdown time, we had to do everything from distance. We would meet on Zoom or Skype, just talking, when it would become clear that it would be nice to work together, we were meeting. It was instantly matching on a personal level with everyone. I was looking for great musicians who could really play their instruments, even more important for me is that the people are great.

Dead Rhetoric: Now with Ambre Vourvahis on vocals, did you want something different because of her voice and what she’s capable of doing is very different for the band compared to previous singers?

Heubaum: Yes. If you see that the first albums in the history of Xandria, they did not have classical vocals at all. We had classical vocals for some albums, and now we have a singer that can do both. Actually, there is some kind of continuation in that. And she can do even more. She can do the aggressive vocals, not just growls but harsh, belting vocals. You will hear that at the end of the second single “You Will Never Be Our God” for example. In that song she does everything – you will hear some operatic stuff, some growls, a normal voice. That really fascinated me, and as a songwriter I can practically do anything with one singer. That’s something amazing to have. It was important to have a more direct, emotional impact. Because with a classical vocal, they are all about the perfect technique and everything comes over very polished and according to the traditional technique of it. For me, that can be a little bit one dimensional. Sometimes I miss the emotional expression in it a little bit, a wider palate. It was something I wanted for Xandria, to have a wider palate of emotional facets and a more direct approach, but still being able to have some of this majestic, classical vocal somewhere when the music needs it.

Dead Rhetoric: How did the songwriting and recording sessions go for the new record? Were there any challenges or surprises that came up – and how do you feel this record sits next to the previous discography of the band?

Heubaum: No surprises, I wouldn’t really say this. It was a little bit different because I was producing (the record). While the last two albums we had a producer. This is the first time in the band’s history I’ve done this, I was writing all the music for the album. This way I could work on each detail as long as I wanted in the way that I wanted. From the start to the end, I gave everything I wanted, and it’s really great for me. It was a bit different because I did a lot in my home studio. The preparation for the choirs for example that were recorded with a Bulgarian Children Choir – that is quite famous. It’s the biggest choir we’ve ever had, it required quite some fine tuning in the arrangements to make it perfect. It’s great to have that choir that is twice as big as what we’ve ever had in the past. I love that film score atmosphere with different kinds of metal, it’s amazing what you get. The children’s choir is a new thing, it was amazing to have that for the first time.

The most remarkable thing is the personnel changed – the orchestral man changed; he is a film score composer with big Hollywood productions. This is something that the new album has benefited from, to have that film score like journey through the music, it came on really great what he did. We have a special double CD edition of the album, on the second CD you can hear the same tracks but in orchestral, film score versions with the choirs and the Celtic instruments, this is really great for all the little details. It’s worth giving that a listen, each time when he sent something he did, I just wanted to have the Xandria fans have that experience too. A lot of the details get lost when you mix them with the band.

For example, Almut ‘Ally’ Storch-Hukriede, who I got to know through our new guitar player Rob Klawonn, he plays in a solo band Ally the Fiddle – but I think she’s more known for her playing violins in Subway to Sally. That was really great for her to play violins and cello on the album, it was giving things a nice touch. It was all very exciting to work with new people, and take it as a challenge to bring my musical vision of Xandria on a higher level, to take all the opportunities I had. I hope people can hear that in the music. I think the music has more layers, more complexity. It’s a more technical thing, but there are more key changes in the songs, enhancing the atmosphere so you can do a lot with the vibe of the song. I love to take the time for this.

Dead Rhetoric: How did the guest appearances with Primal Fear’s Ralf Scheepers come about for “You Will Never Be Our God”? Do you enjoy this special flavor/coloring that can occur from record to record for the band?

Heubaum: Yeah, that was actually kind of easy. I wrote him an email, asking him if he would like to do it. I sent him the song, he loved it, and then it came about like that. First there was the idea, which came about the song “You Will Never Be Our God” has this classic 80’s metal feeling to it, especially in the guitar riff. When working on a song, we were having this rough male metal voice in our head, singing along to that. We were thinking of who could be the best to do that. For me, Ralf Scheepers is one of the best metal singers to do this, super powerful and a bit rough, like Rob Halford in Judas Priest. Now that I say that, everyone remembers that he was almost the Judas Priest singer, it just fits that association. He was a very good choice; he could do everything we wanted on that song. It was a bit difficult to mix in the end, that song is just so full with the arrangement, orchestra, choir, and the band is playing different lines all the time, plus two vocalists on top of all that.

Dead Rhetoric: You chose to work with artist Zacarias Guterres for the cover art this time around – tell us about the development of this piece, and your thoughts on the importance of imagery/cover art to set the right mood, atmosphere, and scenery as people take in Xandria’s material?

Heubaum: There is a little bit of a story about the artwork. The guy you just named, he did the cover, but the artwork around was made by someone else. We were stumbling into this picture, it already existed. We thought this was so beautiful, the vibe, the different layers, it was matching perfectly the vibe we felt in our music. We asked this artist if we could get his picture as a cover artwork.

Dead Rhetoric: When looking back at the long career of Xandria, what do you consider some of the highlights or key areas where you made more of an impact with your craft and music? Be it specific songs, videos, albums, tours, or festival appearances?

Heubaum: The first thing that comes to my mind is the Neverworld’s End album. It was a milestone musically for the band, it was much more elaborate than the music before it. More symphonic, more film score, more metal. It was very intense, the writing of the album, it was something I took my time on, every little detail. It turned out to be a dream coming into reality, like the new album. I wouldn’t change anything about that album. It had quite an impact for the perception of Xandria on the scene. A lot of people were talking about that album sounding on a different level than ever before.

Dead Rhetoric: Have your ideas and thoughts about success changed from the original conception and development of Xandria to where things stand today?

Heubaum: (laughs). When you start a band, you think once you get a record deal, you’ll go from town to town with a nice tour bus, play in different parts of the world and have nice audiences that love your music. This is the thing I remember. We did those things, and when they happened I am very grateful they happened, especially everyone that has been involved in the story of Xandria, was having the chance to do great things because the way we were going together. Nowadays, I don’t think about that too much. I am more focused on doing the music that I love, and I wouldn’t let anyone talk me into something because of business or marketing reasons. The music business is a lot about business and not as much about the music – especially for the business people in there. You have to really take care of this as a musician. You cannot go and run after the success they are promising you – because this doesn’t make you happy.

You have to follow your dream, with the music that you really love. And then whatever happens to it, whether people like it or not, that’s not as important anymore. Because you put something in the world, you made something real, which is what you really love. Not much else matters anymore. Of course you have to take care of the business side of it if you want to tour, if you want to release an album. But I’m not trying to let all of that touch me too much, it’s not that easy because there is a lot you have to take care of. Different people in the business that you need to handle, their intentions are not always the same as yours.

Dead Rhetoric: Is it also a bit of a challenge to meet fan expectations versus satisfying yourselves creatively as musicians?

Heubaum: I think Xandria has always been changing. We were never a band that always repeated a formula. Of course, it’s nice when you get good feedback for what you do. You need backup for the business and a certain kind of success to be able to do the things that you want. A big choir doesn’t pay for itself, and a tour bus doesn’t pay for itself. Stuff like that. I would not sacrifice my musical vision for it. For example, the style of the vocals – which is a bit different here and there than it had been – you can’t always go the same way unless you get a singer that sounds exactly like the singer you had before. It can be for sure because of expectations. It would feel a bit wrong for me to do things just because of expectations. I just hope Xandria fans are open to follow us on a musical journey. The core of music is not some superficial things that you can put on a list – operatic vocals, strings, a choir, this kind of riffing. It would be too superficial for me. It’s mixing all the things that I love in metal with film score atmosphere, taking the listener on a journey. It cannot always be the same journey, because then it becomes boring.

Dead Rhetoric: Do you enjoy the global reach of this movement and the development of bands from all parts of the world?

Heubaum: If that is to happen, after everything that has happened to everyone in the world over the past few years. It’s gotten more difficult to tour, many bands are cancelling tours. It’s difficult to plan, less than half of the people who were working in the business are now gone. They had to find other jobs in the meantime. Even bigger bands cancel concerts because they could not find the crew to play the show. That’s really sad to see. We are coming back with a new album; I am worried of course. We will try to make things happen, we really want to meet our fans again. We had a European tour in September/October this past year, it was really wonderful to meet all the people again. There were familiar faces that I remember five years ago. I went to them and hugged them; it was so great to see them. They are surviving this time, and not everyone did. I hope we can do this even more in the new year, now.

Dead Rhetoric: What’s left on your personal bucket list left to accomplish – either on the musical side of things or personally – that you haven’t been able to achieve as of yet?

Heubaum: Alright. That is hard to say. I am happy with the album we just recorded; I want to see where this gets us. I don’t know. I want to do some things again – in the past we toured the US, South America, going to a lot of different countries like Asia, India. This is all a few years now that have passed since then. I would love to do this again, first. I would love to have the new musicians with me to have that experience. That would be all new.

Dead Rhetoric: Do people ever seek you out at shows or online for advice regarding the music business – and if so, what words of wisdom or thoughts/ideas do you try to give them that maybe you wish others had given you in your early years?

Heubaum: Sometimes it happens – but not all the time. There are occasions when people ask about things. Not that much at concerts, but they will write me and ask some questions. Sometimes they ask specific questions so you can give a specific answer to a situation. If it may sound like something that musicians often say, to follow what you really believe you want to do. To be sure you are not unhappy in the end. Do what you really love, and not change it because you think you could be successful with it. It might not work. In most cases, it does not. We have a lot of bands even in metal nowadays that think even with a huge scene, surviving in difficult times it comes back worldwide with new bands, innovative bands, it’s become a little more commercial in the past few years. There are bands who clearly follow some kind of marketing concept that are not even founded by some people who want to make music, but rather by some management, producers who are also writing the songs for them. This is something that was surprising me a little bit – I haven’t seen that. I come from the 90’s and I was listening to a lot of underground metal back then – when you see these genres later becoming commercially exploited, it’s a little bit awkward.

I would say anyway to really do what you have to say, what’s on your mind musically. Because if you stay true to yourself, you will not have any regrets later.

Dead Rhetoric: What’s on the horizon for Xandria to support the record over the next twelve months? Are there hopefully plans in play for a return touring expedition to North America?

Heubaum: Yeah, for sure. This is something I want to do again. I have very fond memories of our two tours we did there so far in the US. The first as a support act, the second as a headlining band. Which was quite early, the second tour but it worked very well. I hope we will be able to do that again. I am a big fan of the USA – with everything as a European. A child of the 80’s I saw all the Hollywood movies, these things coming from America. Nowadays people travel much more, but back then, as a twelve year old boy my father would take me on vacation to the USA – it was a dream come true. A mystical country for children in Germany at that time – and I was the only one going there from my whole school. This was something very special, I always remember that. It’s a country that I have in my heart, I love to go back there with the band some more.

There are two festivals booked, Masters of Rock in the Czech Republic, we will return there. We have a smaller festival in the summer, and one in the fall not announced yet. We are planning for tours; at the time the plans aren’t finished yet.

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