With the release of the final part of their trilogy focusing upon strong historic female characters united by the name Ann, Ex Libris took time out to answer some questions about the album concepts, the band's history, and the significance of focusing on historic events.
Guitarist Bob Wijtsma and singer Dianne van Giersbergen provide the answers and insight into the band. Stefan Hennig takes notes.
For readers new to Ex Libris, could you provide a brief history of the band?
Bob: Ex Libris was founded in 2003 by Dianne van Giersbergen and Joost vd Pas (ex drummer). We are a symphonic progressive metal band. In 2008 we released our debut album, Amygdala followed by Medea which was released in 2014. In 2015 Dianne was part of the Karmaflow live shows (a rock opera video game concert) as well as Bob Wijtsma and Luuk van Gerven. Ex Libris was searching for a bass/guitar player and a drummer at that moment. Luuk and I were very enthusiastic about the band and the line-up changed and my old high school buddy, Harmen Kieboom (drummer) joined the band later that year. In June 2018 we launched a successful crowd funding campaign and funded more than 28,000 euros. Thanks to all our fans and supporters, our new album, Ann, A Progressive Metal Trilogy is out there! Ann tells the story of three different historical woman: Anne Boleyn, Anastasia Romanova, and Anne Frank. For each character we've released an EP (chapter), telling their incredible stories.
When you joined Xandria, Ex Libris carried on, was the intention to find a new singer, or was it always that you would be the singer for the next project?
Dianne: When I was asked to join Xandria, I didn't accept the offer before I talked it over with my Ex Libris band mates. Ex Libris has been founded by me and will always be closest to my heart. I'm sure that my Ex Libris band mates at that time had no doubt about that, because they all felt that joining Xandria was a chance I had to take. There was never any talk of me (temporarily) stepping out of Ex Libris.
What are the band's main influences? Has there been a significant change due to the musicians being pretty fluid over the years?
Bob: We are a symphonic progressive metal band with an operatic vocalist. I think it's safe to say that our music is influenced by bands such as Dream Theater, Symphony X, and Nightwish. Basically not much has changed due to different band member changes. The only thing that does change is your age. When you are younger, you are often impressed by virtuosity and you want to pursue that in your music. Because we have grown older, I think the music has become more mature. The balance between the music, in relation to the lyrics, has become stronger in my opinion.
On some of the videos posted online, you have made reference to “the new Ex Libris”. Certainly since the videos have been posted, there appears to be a real enthusiasm from all members of the band. Can you give us an insight into how this new enthusiasm has come about and how the band is working with this?
Bob: When the idea arose to write a trilogy about three different historical women, we immediately became enthusiastic. We were able to make three different EPs, that could sound different in terms of sound and different moods that fit the story. The success of crowdfunding has given us all a huge energy boost. I cannot express in words how grateful we are to all the fans who made Ann possible. Thanks to their support, we were able to work with one of the most talented musician / producers in the Netherlands, Joost van den Broek. He has brought out the best in each of us and has taken Ex Libris to a whole new level. This "new energy" has made us realise that we want to keep telling history stories with our music and lyrics. It is so crazy to read reviews in which the reviewer first starts with a history lesson. We believe that these impressive stories must (continue to) be told
Featuring three historic and tragic women from the course of history is a unique musical challenge, how did this idea come together and were the three Ann's decided upon right from the start?
Dianne: In 2017 we decided that the time had come for Ex Libris to become active again. We went out together for a nice diner, lots of laughs and a creative brainstorm in which we would try to find a way be able to create a CD and deal with a full production process and all that comes with it, while I was still in Xandria. We then decided that this would only be possible if we divided our album into separate parts. This being the third album that Ex Libris would make, it was only logical to us that it would be divided into three parts, each consisting of three long songs.
During the creation of our second full length album, Medea, we discovered that devoting our music to a historic or mythological tale about a strong woman was a good fit for us, and for me as a vocalist, and so we wanted to repeat this for our third album. Choosing three different, strong female characters from history, that all shared the same name, gave us the opportunity to form unity in the three chapters, that were released separately, but do belong together under their common name: Ann.
In our brainstorm we did indeed already pick the three names and then decided that they would feature in chronological order, which would also mean that our Chapter 3: Anne Frank would be released when we in the Netherlands celebrate 75 years of freedom.
All of the song writing started with me doing research into our characters first. I then created a timeline from which I would select three key moments about which the songs would tell. Of course all the songs end with musical depiction of their deaths.
Was the idea always, once the three CD's had been released, for this to be a vinyl concept? Looking at the length of the CDs, it appears this was the intention, as all three run a similar length, just the maximum for fitting on one side of vinyl.
Dianne: Yes it was. Before we started writing the first chapter, we already knew that with the release of the third chapter we would also release the full work onto vinyl (with on the D side some vinyl-exclusive bonus tracks).
We all love vinyl a lot, and apart from enjoying it musically it also gave us the opportunity to really have the amazing artwork covers, created by Jelle Steenhuisen, shine on this much bigger format.
Having watched the series of Youtube vlogs you released about the making of the Ann, Part 3, the visiting of the Anne Frank Museum in Amsterdam appears to have been an extremely emotional time, how did this affect the composition of the album?
Dianne: Visiting the Anne Frank House has left a deep impression. Never have we been so close to one of our characters while writing about her. During the visit you are guided around by an audio tour (by using headphones) but I decided to take them off and to take a moment in silence, while people shuffled by, to stare out of the window and be able to see what the families had seen. I've stood in the middle of the tiny rooms and felt the walls coming towards me, felt how imprisoned they must have felt. Imagined the horror that overcame them during the raid. I've sucked it all in and used these emotions to write my lyrics.
Quite often our fans tell us that they get the feeling that they are there with her (Anne Frank as well as Anne Boleyn and Anastasia Romanova), while listening to our music. A huge compliment that is!
Did the music or lyrics come first, or was it more of a holistic approach?
Dianne: First there is the research, then building a timeline and choosing the right topics from that timeline to create the music around. During the creation of that music, we always kept in mind what the lyrics should be saying at that moment and how the story would get from A to B. Once the blueprint of the song was finished, the lyrics would be written, and after that arrangements would be optimised.
Have you decided whether you will present the albums in a live situation? If so, have you thought about a live presentation and how the three different historical periods might be represented?
Bob: We definitely want to present the album live in the future. However, this is a huge production in itself. We are only a few months after the release of our last chapter (Anne Frank), and thus the full album: Ann. We first have to deal with some crowdfunding "perks" and then we start to think carefully about how we can realise the live performances. But if there are parties who are willing and able to think along and to finance, then we are certainly interested!
What else is on the horizon for Ex Libris?
Bob: As I mentioned earlier, a few crowdfunding perks still have to be completed. Dianne and I will soon give a living room concert in Paris and we have to give a live stream concert in Sandlane Recording Facilities. Once that is done, we will discuss possible future plans on how we can set up a good live show production with Ann. Creating Ann has showed us that a good production needs time and a lot of research, something that should also be reflected in a live version of our album. But not to worry, another brainstorm is on the horizon!
Ex Libris — Ann - Chapter 3
Ex Libris have been around for well over ten years in varying guises, the one constant being their wonderful vocalist Dianne Van Giersbergen. After releasing two inital albums (Medea in 2014 following Amygdala in 2008), Dianne joined German symphonic metal band Xandria, and Ex Libris appears to have been put on hiatus. For me, Dianne leaving Xandria was the best thing she could have done.
For the period Dianne was a member (2013-2017), Xandria became a very poor copy of Nightwish, with her wonderful voice being so multi-tracked that her vocal talents where lost. Dianne appeared to be a singer being asked to emulate Tarja Turunen. But if you search out any videos of Dianne's operatic singing, it is evident she has a much more natural opera voice than Traja, and benefits greatly from the type of music written by Ex Libris.
This may be due to the current line up consisting some of the best Dutch progressive metal musicians around. These being Bob Wijtsma on guitar (Ayreon), drummer Harmen Kieboom (who most recently appeared with Magoria - JtR 1888), and bass player Luuk van Gerven (formerly of After Forever, Karmaflow and Robbie Valentine). Keyboards for the album have been provided by legendary Dutch producer Joost van Den Broek, who has also produced the two other albums in this trilogy.
Ann Chapter 3 is the final part of a trilogy based around three historical Anns from differing periods in time. Each of the releases would have been considered as EPs in times gone by. Each is under 30 minutes in length, the reason for this became apparent when the band announced they would be releasing the trilogy in double vinyl titled Ann The Complete Collection. So, from the off it appears the band had concocted a masterplan with the vinyl release being the pinnacle.
DPRP have only been provided with a CD copy of the final part of the trilogy, so my review will concentrate solely on Ann Chapter 3 (Chapter 1 related to Anne Boleyn and Chapter 2 was about Anastasia Romanova). The featured character for this release is Anne Frank, which is timely, considering the recent remembrance of the D-Day landings during the Second World War. 2020 is also the 75th Anniversary of the liberation of the prisoners at Auschwitz by Allied Forces.
Anne Frank's published diary demonstrates the effects of the war on an innocent victim, whose only crime was being born into a particular religion. This making herself and her family unworthy in the eyes of a madman. I remember reading the Diary Of Anne Frank while at school, probably aged 12, and the story has remained with me throughout the rest of my life.
Ex Libris have researched each of their chosen characters in great depth, and this can be seen in a number of videos released by the band centring around the creation, the writing and the recording of this project. These provide a great insight into the making of the discs. The band visited the house in Amsterdam where Anne Frank sort refuge, and that is now The Anne Frank Museum. The band even recorded the chimes of the nearby church bells, which are referenced in The Diary Of Anne Frank, and have been included on the album.
The music veers towards progressive metal, and in doing so enables the musicians to shine. Dianne is able to demonstrate the versatility of her voice, due to the ever changing textures the music provides. We travel from mellow passages, were she demonstrates a more controlled and emotional delivery, to some of the heavier moments were she is able to use the full range of her operatic talent.
While listening to the album, the closest comparison I kept finding was Dream Theater. I could easily imagine, if there was need for a male vocal accompaniment, James LaBrie being the ideal person for the job, complimenting both the music and Dianne's voice. The music is totally in sync with the storytelling, and never becomes over-indulgent, the prevalent feeling while listening is being engaged in the story being told, and feeling the emotions conveyed. This is apparent at the beginning of The Raid, where the music delivers a dark foreboding of what is to befall Anne and her family.
Anyone who knows how Anne's life tragically ends, will hopefully be grateful that the listener is spared reliving that horror. Instead, Ex Libris finish the story with an exceptionally moving and uplifting finale, based upon the sacrifice and unnecessary death of millions during the conflict. Their deaths would not be without purpose. This being a new, more tolerant world in which we are able to live.
During the period of immersing myself in both the music, lyrics and story, I did shed a tear near the end. This emphasises that Ex Libris have produced not just music, but something more, something which contains memories and emotions, and is a rare and precious thing.
Considering the emotional impact this 20-odd minute soundtrack has had on me, I can only advise you to seek this out. I just hope that you manage to experience something similar to what I did. This demonstrates the power music can have, if composed and delivered with the passion that Ex Libris have here.