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Metal meets Symphony and they ride into the sunset - 95%

Big_G, July 31st, 2018

This year marks the 10th anniversary of "Equilibrio". (And perhaps longer since I last wrote a review, so let's see if I still have it, heh!)

Let me start upfront by stating that this creation is to be regarded as a unique amalgam of symphony and metal done absolutely right. You might say, nah, it's been all done already. Well, you see, there was always music, and then along came Beethoven. This is lofty comparison indeed, but I am here to explain it.

Let us start by imagining you are this moderately (un)known progressive metal band, having done 2 albums, thus not a whole lot of experience, and scarcer funds. But you have this Idea. You envisioned a modern opera of frankly Biblical proportions, dealing with the creation of mankind, its corruption through loss of naivete and through death, and its eternal strife to make it right - restore the balance that was intended. You only need an orchestra of some 100 musicians, a venue like you have never played before, and the best vocalists to take the roles in your universe. All this you will marry to your brand of progressive power metal (which in itself is quite far removed from symphonic power a la "Rhapsody of Fire"), and hope for the best. Seems like recipe for disaster more than anything. (As we now know, "Therion" just tried the same, and failed bitterly, their credentials notwithstanding.) More kudos to those guys for sticking with their dream and making others believe in it.

Good that they apparently were friends with "Epica" (blessed Netherlands!), and got Simone to join the project in an all-appropriate role of creative power behind all existence, Goddess Sophia. That sure helped to get promoters interested! From there, the entry started to fill out, with charismatic George Oosthoek joining to play the antagonist Death, two well known personae of Dutch musical stage (Michelle Splietelhof and John Vooijs, who both should frankly better known abroad) stepping in as the star-crossed eternal couple, and "Xystus"'s vocalist Bas Dolmans taking the role akin to that of "Ayreon" namesake (I told you big names-dropping goes on!) singled out to set the world right.

The orchestra part was tricky, as you do not buy one on flea market. Thankfully there was this one around, called US Concert Orchestra (pretty clever, as US stands for "Utrecht Student"), that were equally available and enthusiastic to take on this project. But all would be to naught if the result wasn't any good, right?

Well, let me try to tell you how they succeeded against all odds. First, there is enormous composition talent on display here, that allows those guys clear a hurdle many do not even attempt: marrying the symphonic and metal sounds so all comes out in perfect balance (there it is, Equilibrio!), without detriment to each other. But above all - brilliantly placing it all in the service of the overall story, to a point where movie score composers may feel threatened at their game! Literally ages before, Wagner was hailed as the best leitmotif champion, which, to uninitiated, is when you have a musical motif assigned to a hero, a concept or a place in your story, and weave it into the melody ever as those appear in play. And this is exactly what the "Xystus" composers astonishingly accomplish here. The music is such a rich tapestry, held together by tiniest details which, as the action progresses, dig into your brain and suddenly make perferct sense! That is evocative art of the high order, and as such - it is unparalleled in metal. (Tell me if I missed something.) You give me Tobias Sammet's metal operas - but he never even attempted this rich play on leitmotifs, his are mostly separate songs held together by characters and the plot line. Increasing numbers of modern symph metal acts really nail the symphonic and metal interplay (forget awkward early attempts to "stack on" symphony as in "S&M") - but at that they hardly ever subject their listeners to fully-formed 80 minute libretto. "Savatage" during it's golden run came close, but not to this level of instrumentation, Sir Christopher Lee's experiment "Charlemagne" - not even close in sophistication and sheer metal impact.

Everyone seemed extremely inspired during the 3 days of live performances (so far alas the only) of this opus, like when you are part of something that you feel can make the world better - to borrow from another reviewer. There is also a DVD to remember this benchmark production. Orchestra played to their utmost under briliiant and sensitive conducting, sobbing, swelling and, yes, thundering in all the right places. It forms such integral part of the whole, where some purists might grumble that the band itself is overshadowed at times. Well, I would vouch they were happy for that, as there is still plenty of kicks left for the metal formation. And when they come, they are the more impressive, as you can feel those sublime guitar licks and solos produce succinct emotional accents, those drum patterns and bass runs form the pulse of the story unfolding. This is truly Music where neither symphony, nor the metal part could be without each other and I am still awed by the achievement after all this time.

I want to make clear that as a project, and a work of art, this is an unconditional 100 effort in my eyes. Having Simone at the top of her powers and singing her classical style that many say they prefer (although accepting her evolution) is in itself worth probably 50 points of excellence! The growling and lovable Death portrayed by Mr. Oosthoek is even beyond measure - but later on that... All the soaring vocals blend together, all the while remaining highly distinguishable, in a number of group parts - and I know I did not even mention the nicely intoning choir, so here's to them. :)

The concept and its realization is frankly worth 50 points of honor more. Be kind to inquire into the story that "Xystus" spin, and see how numerous popular opera librettos are waaay less thought-out, relevant, and simply - worse than this. You take the heady subject as the loss of Paradise, the ensuing breakdown of trust, and everlasting fight between the human factions (here crystallized into eternal dychotomy between men and women, ever meant for each other, to only be pulled apart). You want to show how we are doomed to never overcome our vices, as we succumb to our weakness for attention and power. You portray the Twilight of the Gods "lite", where they watch in anguish but cannot meddle with us. And you resolve the conflict through the one Human (religious metaphor or not), the Traveller, the Bard, who takes the calling to recreate balance with a deeper than most perception of a human soul. Now some authors wrote thousands of pages on topics like these. The magicians of "Xystus" did it in a clear and riveting 80-minute bout of poetry. I kid you not.

So why less than stellar rating for the recording? I must confess, it is hard to detract anything, but there are in fact shortcomings with the album itself. First, and foremost, this is not the integral music (or story) that you get - for reasons unfathomed, 4 tracks from show-proper have been left off the disc. With them being among (dare I say) better tracks all in all - you just have to strike a point. In the same deed, the omissions result in confusion as towards the story (for those who care, but as I pointed out - with this, you should), and its musical perception. Remember, the music here builds with the story as it goes, and, for instance some deft recurring themes are left concealed if you only listen to the CD. There goes another point. Most importantly, the take-outs hurt some of the characters, like Death, who is just underrepresented on the album, depriving us of the goodness that are Oosthoek's "deathy" parts, impressively followed by the orchestration. Similarly, one excluded track to rue - the amazing 7-minute "Powerdrunk" shows the abilities and range of John Vooijs (the original Male, Primos) - he just does not have those magnificent lines and screams in other tracks. What most baffles me, the CD came out at 56 minutes long, while full production with the outro takes like 80-82 minutes. You do not even have to split discs here, what was the problem?

I feel like I am picking nits, but also cannot help but notice the mix for the album is uneven, with the vocalists seeming somehow distant or at times weak - which the extant live DVD proves they were NOT. Curiously, the Traveller personage played by main man Dolmans is high on cheese factor on the recording, which at times can make you cringe. The DVD confirms his tendency to overact, but does not detract from overall impression. Oosthoek's Death is also over the top, but gloriously so, as you would expect Death to be larger than life. (See what I did there? :)) The last point goes off for the missed opportunity with the booklet. I get it must be due to (lack of) funds, but here you present your Magnum Opus for the posterity, and fail to include the story proper, and almost nothing in the way of a background leaving the listeners to go dig for it? Come on.

So for full experience and to see the fire in the eyes of everyone involved, I emphatically direct you to check out the uncut "Equilibrio" DVD (it is on "Youtube", too). But this is still an excellent disc (made uneven by editing decisions) of seriously over-the-top music, that is moreover great, challenging and memorable! Of course, it would be also understandable to say you came for Simone, and stayed for ever. ;)

There is a saying about if one only did one thing in their life, that would be enough to validate it. "Xystus" have that here.

A Metal Opera that actually works? - 90%

Ingeld1066, April 11th, 2009

With Xystus' 2008 album Equilibrio, the band proves to the metal community that it's possible to make a perfectly good metal album out of an opera. The best part is, the album is much more than just a good album, it's pretty much a masterpiece. I could go on and on about all this album has to offer for the listener, but instead I’ll save you all from a ridiculously long review and split it up into sections.

Musicality/Technique (the Orchestra)

Pros: The greatest aspect of this album is the orchestra that Xystus works alongside throughout each song. The orchestra sets the feel for each song and completely nails the many different moods of the album with melodies featuring many different instruments to achieve the desired sound. Brass, woodwinds, percussion, and strings can all be heard either as backups for the vocalists or taking the melody themselves. After the first few songs on the album, listeners will realize that without the orchestra this album would be nothing special.

Cons: Although the orchestra does make this album, it sometimes overpowers the rest of Xystus, which is often a good thing but sometimes makes the listener wonder where the drums and guitars are in the song.


Musicality/Technique (the vocalists and band members)

Pros: Along with their usual vocalist, Xystus also uses four others: Simone Simmons, George Oosthoek from Orphanage as a harsh vocalist, and two actors. The vocals for the album are all very good and each vocalist fits their respective character very well. As for the band, they are mostly in the background. However, this is a good thing because the orchestra is just as interesting and when the band members do take charge, the occasional double bass or guitar lead is much more memorable because of their scarcity.

Cons: As expected for a band that usually fits into the power metal category, Xystus' vocalist takes all of the usual power metal cheese and uses it throughout the album. It usually isn't a problem, except for when the spoken parts, which he completely ruins at times.


Everything Else

Pros: The story and the lyrics are interesting and much more well written than the average concept album.

Cons: Because the story is often hard to follow and/or incomplete, the album isn't long enough nor detailed enough to be an actual opera. If you're listening to this as a metal album and not an opera though, this becomes a very small problem.

Songs to Purchase: Honestly, buy the whole thing. I promise you that individual songs are not what make this album. You'll get the most out of it if you listen to the whole thing. My personal favorites however are Last Breath, Divided We Stand, and Destiny Unveiled.

Balance Perfected - 100%

GuntherTheUndying, November 30th, 2008

Comrades, welcome to musical history. You probably haven’t heard of Xystus before, as the faction was highly obscure; that is, until they tapped a rock opera with over one-hundred musicians contributing to the sole project. A zesty gambit, I must say, but don’t turn away in horror; the release is quite an opposite of pessimistic prophecies. This intense result has overweighed its worth as an album, into an actual person humanity better respect, or else everyone will have some teeth-soup for lunch, so watch it. Keeping threats aside, “Equilibrio” is one of the finest items I’ve ever had the honor of hearing. Power metal, an orchestra, five singers, and a lyrical concept so cool you’ll have bricks in your trousers? Yes, I’ll take it.

Be sure to bring some diapers in case you hate that feeling, because it shall happen many times. Now I don’t know much about symphonic music, but I do understand what makes it interesting, and that’s what this record obtains without fault. As interesting as it sounds, the orchestra compresses the spine of “Equilibrio” with galactic rings from various tools working perfectly in unison. The barrage never ceases, and everything remains fresh and entertaining. I’m no expert on this kind of music, in case you didn’t get the memo. The variety, though, between cuts like “The Traveler” and “God of Symmetry” is simply outstanding, especially when experiencing the whole effort clashing magically with these unusual instruments. At day’s end, we’ve got violins, French horns, trumpets, and a shitload of other pieces found in this incredible symphony.

Prior to this recording, Xystus was a full-blown power metal band, yet those roots within the group remain tenderly sweet throughout this experimental apparatus. The riffs, even though clashing into the symphony, are primarily mid-paced and speedy cuts of golden proportions that shriek of old-school genocide done by thy guitar. Also, those drums are fantastic! Always using those bass pedals and applying slick patterns underneath these unique formulas with steady support that just won’t quit! More so, Xystus does not let the symphony interfere with their metallic presence. But sweet symphonies, ballsy riffs, hammering percussion, beautiful keyboards, and wonderful musicianship all play a consistent role in manufacturing “Equilibrio” without leaving any promise behind. There really isn’t a need for wild guitar work or anything typically aiding an effort, because “Equilibrio” already has its own methods of mysticism that work on spellbinding territories. A tornado…it’s blowing me away…and it’s awesome! Not that an actual tornado is fun, of course.

The interesting objective, however, is achieved throughout the album’s wonderful concept, which includes five characters played by a pentagon of varied vocalists: Xystus’ Bas Dolmans, Simone Simons of Epica fame, two famous musical actors dubbed Michelle Splietelhof and John Vooijs, with George Oosthoek continuing his growling madness as the tale’s nemesis. Together sharing the microphone, these five vocalists are fantastic, singing operatic versus with valorous might, or while applying melancholic notes when growls overlap the operatic atmosphere for a singing experience unlike anything I’ve heard. Four singers and a growler? Sounds like a sitcom on ABC, or perhaps, an incredible album!

It’s so gripping though, because narrative passages, alternating singers of several diverse areas, musical backgrounds, and the lyrical concept all play essential parts in making this album work. I’d say “Equilibrio” reminds me of a clock that turns forever: Xystus starts with the orchestra on all fronts, then the hand ticks, and in comes a vocalist; once it moves again, new materials emerge until the listen ends, at its final second, always providing something new each and every moment. Everything (and I mean everything) works in that continuum, with symphonic gold and bulls-eye perfection. Kids doing meth are retreated; Xystus has the good stuff!

I honestly could never emphasize the sheer power and abstract magic obtained by “Equilibrio,” because simple words cannot power Xystus’ dynamic experiment without failing to hold on to all positives; indeed, this record is too good for human ears. The sensational concept falls into Heaven’s hands through its otherworldly gamble, and Xystus has undisputedly reached their finest hour through this unconventional experiment, played out perfectly, in every way imaginable. Yes, you may have a hard digesting it at first, but do not put that record down; once “Equilibrio” settles in, a personal haven will await you, stacked with goodies and an infinity of enjoyment. Comrades, we’ve received a grain of utopia.

This review was written for: www.Thrashpit.com