Two For February: Serenity’s Codex Atlanticus and Megadeth’s Dystopia

For all my bellyaching about 2015 and its overwhelming amount of new releases, it hasn’t exactly been a lighter load in these first one and a half months of 2016. Dozens upon dozens of new metal albums of all sub genres have come out in this relatively short time span and of course its impossible to listen to them all. I’ve managed a hefty amount though in just these few short weeks and if you read my recent Avantasia Ghostlights review, you’ll know that the year started off rather brilliantly. Seeing as how that was such an “event” album for myself and this blog and I gave it an accordingly lengthy review, I’ll try to shorten things up for all the other albums I was listening to alongside it. Here’s two relatively shorter reviews (but only just) for two major releases in my metalsphere. I’ll have a smaller, rapid-fire reviews series coming out soon looking at Abbath, Borknagar, and a host of others!


 

Serenity – Codex Atlanticus:

So those of you with sharp memories might remember that Austria’s Serenity leaped straight into my heart and atop my 2013 Best Albums of the Year list with their satisfyingly sweet epic, War of Ages. I found it an addictive album in its own right, but it had the added bonus of being my introduction to this wonderful band and their excellent back catalog that had gone under my radar for many years. I found myself comparing them to both Kamelot and Sonata Arctica; the latter because vocalist Georg Neuhauser reminded me so much of Tony Kakko in moments —- but the former because Neuhauser and guitarist Thomas Buchberger were a songwriting team that worked so well together that I was instantly reminded of the Roy Khan / Thomas Youngblood duo. Buchberger even shared a similar approach to guitar playing with Youngblood, preferring lean, sharp riff writing with highly melodic through lines and tastefully written solos. If they leaned a little too close to Kamelot in some spots, it was okay in my opinion, because at least I enjoyed their influences and they were managing to put their unique stamp on their own songwriting.

They had also brought in their spectacular touring singer Clementine Delauney to serve as co-vocalist on War of Ages, and she made the handful of songs she was on her own, with a malleable vocal style capable of being both breathy and ethereal, yet stormy and dark at the same time. The band had made a transition to being a five piece despite original keyboardist/co-songwriter Mario Hirzinger leaving the lineup (he would continue to contribute to the songwriting in a limited fashion), and I was already looking forward to their second album as a dual female/male vocalist band. So rather out of the blue on February 3rd, 2015 while working on a review for this blog, I glanced at The Metal Pigeon Facebook feed to see that independently both Buchberger and Delauney had announced they were leaving the band. It was a sinking moment as a fan, and I hate to see bands making music like Serenity’s suffer huge blows like the loss of a major songwriting partner. And as for Delauney herself, I thought she and the band were a complementary pairing and could dish out at least a few more albums together. Fast forward throughout the year and it seemed like Neuhauser, bassist Fabio D’Amore, and longtime drummer Andreas Schipflinger were determined to forge through these difficulties, playing some support dates for Stratovarius as well as a few festivals, Neuhauser even squeezing in his Phantasma side project (with Delain’s Charlotte Wessels), and in early October surprising us all by announcing their next album Codex Atlanticus had been finished.

Its been a long wait from October til now, and this was perhaps second to Avantasia for my most anticipated album of the first half of 2016. Serenity’s lineup is radically different, going from six members in the War of Ages publicity shots to four, the new guy being guitarist Cris Tian. Some things are similar, the lyrical focus on history for example is still present, except that instead of exploring a different subject with each song as on past albums, the band has decided to change things up in devoting an entire album to one subject, in particular the life of Leonardo DaVinci. The songs on Codex Atlanticus are like entries in his diary throughout his life, arrayed in no particular order, so some songs might be from a younger or older perspective. Its a cool idea, I was instantly reminded of Assassin’s Creed II where Da Vinci was a big part of the story line and you’d actually get to see him walking out and about in Florence. Neuhauser’s day job is as a high school history teacher and he’s pursuing a PhD candidate in history as well, so this stuff is right up his alley. From what I’ve gleaned from various interviews, Neuhauser wrote most of the album with contributions from D’Amore and Tian, along with longtime producer Jan Vacik helping out on the orchestral/symphonic side (for the first time it seems they’re not working with their other longtime producer Oliver Phillips). While Buchberger was as expected a no-show on this album despite hinting that he could contribute to songwriting in the future, ex-keyboardist Mario Hirzinger chipped in with some help on the lyrics.

 

serenitycaband_zpsbw6u0v8lAlright so enough backstory, how does Serenity hold up in this post-Buchberger era? I guess it depends on what you valued more about the band in their previous era, because Neuhauser’s vocals definitely take on a larger presence here, with all of the songs now being structured around his vocal melodies. He was certainly a large presence on older albums as well, but there he was often restricted with Buchberger and Hirzinger’s more progressive metal approach. That’s not a criticism of older albums, because the compromise worked well, but without their influence the songwriting on Codex Atlanticus is less technically inclined, owing more to classic power metal stylings rather than symphonic power metal tropes. That’s going to sound like a silly statement when you’re hearing keyboard orchestration all over this album, but put it this way, this album comes across as more Sonata Arctica rather than Kamelot —- one influence of the band edging out the other. It results in some awesome songs, such as the opener “Follow Me”, with its glory-claw inducing chorus where Neuhauser gets to demonstrate his mastery of vocal phrasing in singing “Here I am, here I stand / Nothing left to say / My destiny will stay with me in sorrow”. I love his choices on another excellent track, “Reason”, where he lands on specific enunciations with extra harmony vocal layers to give the lyrics an added dose of emotion. That kind of attention to detail is what separates power metal vocalists from their peers in other genres of metal, namely, an understanding of all the elements in a vocal track.

On the more purely symphonic front (because they don’t drift away from it completely), there’s “Iniquity” and “Caught In a Myth” where both songs balance an almost swashbuckling/derring-do orchestral bombast with Neuhauser’s sing-song vocal melodies. The latter really caught my attention with a spectacular co-joining of vocals and orchestra in a triumphant punctuation mark at the 5:02 mark (“Just go / Don’t hide…”), one of those sublime once a song moments that will keep me coming back. On the ballad front, because there had better be ballads (hey if you disagree, what are you doing reading a power metal review anyway?!) we’re treated to the rather traditionally Serenity sounding “My Final Chapter” and the charmingly Freddy Mercury-ish “Forgive Me”. Neuhauser loads up both with an array of vocal inflections at well chosen moments that elevate the songs from being merely pleasant to compelling listens (Tony Kakko disease if you will). But Neuhauser’s truly shining moment comes in the Broadway-sounding piano ditty / quasi-ballad “The Perfect Woman”, a gorgeous song about the Mona Lisa of course (who else would the perfect woman be?). I’ve never heard of a song about a painting before, none that I can recall anyway, and I love the ingenuity of the lyrical approach that Neuhauser and Hirzinger take here, that of Da Vinci marveling at his own creation in awe. The vocal melody here carries everything, and its one of Neuhauser’s finest performances, full of genuine enthusiasm and a flexing display of his soaring tenor on certain lines (“There’s no chance for me to stray / day by day”); also of note here is Amanda Somerville’s welcome presence, her role as Neuhauser’s duet partner a call back to the classic “Changing Fate” off Death & Legacy.

Worth noting is that for the first time Serenity utilizes two male lead vocalists this time around, as D’Amore takes the vocal helm solo for a couple of moments, notably on “Sprouts of Terror” and “Spirit In the Flesh”. In an interview, D’Amore said that he had to deliberately try a radically different vocal approach to his normal style in order to provide a sharper contrast to Neuhauser. Its an experiment that has me sitting on the fence, because initially I thought it worked, but over time I’ve found myself growing weary of hearing his voice. I think contrast for contrast’s sake doesn’t make a lot of sense, particularly when there’s nothing happening lyrically that would demand it (ala different characters in Avantasia). I’m not so put off that I can’t listen to those songs anymore, but I’d have rather heard Neuhauser on them all the way through (he is a big selling point for the band after all). Schipflinger turns in the reliable, solid performance that he’s always managed, and more interestingly Tian manages to come through on the guitar front, even knocking out a few solos where I couldn’t tell the difference between him and Buchberger (not sure he’d like that observation but it just means that he fits in well). Overall Codex Atlanticus bodes well for the future of Serenity, and that’s a testament to Neuhauser’s growing strength as a songwriter, one whose confidence in his vocal melody development has allowed him to carry the band on his back when they needed him most… not all vocalists could manage that.

 


 

 

Megadeth – Dystopia:

Okay, so everyone knows the backstory on this one. The fifteenth Megadeth album, the new line-up aka mach umpteenth of the band (this time being Mustaine/Ellefson/Loureiro/Adler), and this being a rather pivotal sequel to the deservedly maligned Super Collider. What you probably don’t know due to no fault of your own is that I’m a longtime and rather passionate Megadeth fan. Its a fandom that’s waxed and waned over the years due to a variety of reasons but they were one of my earliest metal obsessions alongside Metallica and Iron Maiden, and seeing a poster of the cover art to Peace Sells on the wall of my cousin’s room in 1986 when I was a wee lad is one of my earliest metal related memories. One of the reasons that might be unknown to you is that I actually have never written about Megadeth on this blog except in passing references, the major reason being that I was too late and uninspired to cover 2011’s Thirteen, and well, just too disappointed to even discuss 2013’s Super Collider. I thought the two albums that preceded those two were merely average to good at best, the last Deth’ album I thought was worth fawning over being 2004’s The System Has Failed. Oh alright Endgame had a few really great moments. See… that’s what I mean about the waxing and waning.

Actually, let me do a ranking of how I rate the Megadeth back catalog just so you’ll know where I stand so you’ll be able to gauge the ultimate verdict of this review. No numbers, you all know I don’t do numerical review scores so I won’t bother with them for a discography ranking. I think you’ll get the gist regardless. Anyway this is how I consider the Megadeth catalog, from best to worst:

 

Rust In Peace: Sitting at the top where it should be, because duh, its one of the greatest metal albums of all tid! Its also on my do not listen to whilst driving list!

Countdown to Extinction: My intro to the band and one of the first metal albums I completely immersed myself in. I’ve never gotten tired of it.

Youthanasia: What?! Over Peace Sells?! Yes, because despite its Max Norman dictated slowed down tempos I still think this contains some of Mustaine’s finest songwriting.

Cryptic Writings: Put down whatever it is you’re about to throw at me, hear me out —- I listened to this thing relentlessly, and thought songs like “Use the Man”, “Trust” and “Secret Place” was the band at their most melodic, hooky best. Its an underrated album and that’s kind of a shame. Go back and listen to it, its better than you remember!

Peace Sells: The best of 80s era Megadeth, though not quite a perfect album. I was never entirely a fan of their production during this era, as I always felt Deth’ needed sonic clarity to do justice to their technical precision.

The System Has Failed: Mustaine’s return from one of the more bizarre rock n’roll injuries in history and his much needed comeback album (because there’s no way the band could’ve ended on The World Needs A Hero). It was the most ferocious they had sounded in years, full of conviction and ear worms a plenty such as “Die Dead Enough”, “Kick the Chair”, and “Of Mice and Men”.

Endgame: I enjoyed Endgame when it came out, particularly the insta-classic “This Day We Fight”, and the album was the angriest sounding Megadeth album in ages. It was thrashy and heavy, but I felt at the time (and still do) that with a few exceptions, there was a noticeable lack of hooks amidst all the aggression. Lead single “Headcrusher” was kind of sprawling, all over the place, and only “The Right to Go Insane” really had something resembling the melodicism that I valued in Megadeth. Of the two Andy Sneap / Megadeth collaborations, this was the best one.

Thirteen: As I was writing this I took a re-listen to this one and yes, I’m reminded that it was a strong album with only a few average songs, it gets this high because of “New World Order” and “Public Enemy No. 1”. Amazing to think this album was nominated for three Grammy awards in consecutive years from 2011-2013 (and won none of course). Conversely, its this low on the list because I had to re-listen to it to remember large chunks of the album, but maybe that’s more due to how little I listened to it upon its release.

Killing Is My Business: Awful production, some okay-ish songs… I was never really sold on it as a spectacular debut however, and I still don’t feel that way in light of the remixed version even though it did clear up a lot of the original production flaws.

United Abominations: Merely mediocre, though I loved “Gears of War” and thought it deserved better than it got (it should’ve had a tremendous push for its video game tie-in but apparently that deal fell through for whatever reason). I didn’t see the point of the Cristina Scabbia duet on the remade “A Tout Le Monde”, aside from a transparent cross-promotional opportunity, it certainly didn’t sound better than the original.

So Far, So Good… So What!: A step down from Peace Sells and the second worst production in Megadeth history, this still had all-time classics (you know the ones), but I was never a fan of “Anarchy In the U.K.” in general, nor “502” which rivaled Exodus’ Impact Is Imminent for boneheaded-ness lyrically speaking. I was hoping the remaster would clear up some of the awful, thin, tinny production job but it only seemed to emphasize its worst elements (leading one to believe those Capitol remasters weren’t done from the analog masters).

Supercollider: Just one of the most inexplicable decisions ever —- on the heels of releasing a flurry of relatively Megadeth-ian sounding albums, Mustaine decided to go back to experimenting with a more… I don’t even know how to describe it. The ridiculous title track for example was awful and baffling —- where in his musical history were the seeds for such a song laid? It wasn’t all bad, “Kingmaker” was a decent song, but everything else was steeped in some sort of classic/mainstream rock marinade that ruined everything.

Risk: I know I know, you think this should be last, but hear me out! This is not the worst Megadeth album, despite its transparent attempt to break into the mainstream /modern rock charts and its highly amusing choice of producer in pop-country miscreant Dan Huff. Strip all that stuff away and consider the album as an isolated collection of songs from Mustaine and Marty Friedman that explored their more pop-driven instincts. It was an experiment that resulted in some truly awful stuff like “Crush ‘Em” and “I’ll Be There”, but also some unique and interesting stuff like “Wanderlust”, “Ecstasy”, “The Doctor Is Calling” and “Time Pt. I/II”.

The World Needs A Hero: Ah, the nadir of Megadeth! A reactionary album that proves that reactionary albums hardly ever work. Plodding, re-hashed, and uncertain of itself: This was the sound of Mustaine trying to remember how to write actual heavy metal again. It yielded a semi-decent ballad in “Promises” but even that was flawed… if Megadeth was to succeed in ballads as they did with “A Tout Le Monde”, they had to avoid attempting power ballads. Consider this not only the worst Megadeth album, but one of the worst metal albums of all time.

 

megadeth_dystopia_promo_shot_zpsyct91nusSo using the list above as a rubric, where does Dystopia fit in? I’m going to say, with a relatively high degree of confidence, that I’d slot it between Cryptic Writings and Peace Sells. Yep, you read that right, I’m considering Dystopia a top five Megadeth album, and its for good reason too. This is simply the fiercest, angriest, most convincingly Megadeth-y that the band has sounded in over a decade. Were I to remove myself from my nostalgia fed love for Cryptic Writings, I’d imagine I could comfortably slot this right below Youthanasia, its really that excellent. Mustaine in particular comes across as more plugged in and motivated both vocally and lyrically, and I wonder if that’s due to the divisive political climate we’re currently in (would make sense also considering how divided the country was in 2004 during the time of The System Has Failed). Musically the band is reinvigorated by the presence of Kiko Loureiro in particular, the ex-Angra guitarist being the creative partner that Mustaine has long missed since the departure of Friedman (certainly Al Pitrelli never fit the bill, Chris Poland was a recurrent flash in the pan, and Chris Broderick never quite seemed to gel). Loureiro comes in from a power metal background, and though you can argue that he has shredder level talent, he’s had years of experience in matching technical virtuosity with major key melodies, in other words, a Friedman-esque perfect match and foil for Mustaine’s thrashy guitar tendencies.

The album kicks the gate down right from the start, with a trio of some of the band’s best songs to date (and not coincidentally, the album’s first three singles). With “The Threat Is Real”, Megadeth have delivered their best album opener since “Trust”, Mustaine’s snarling, venomous delivery paired with a ridiculously catchy riff/vocal progression. Its sibling song “Dystopia” (tied together through their animated music videos) reminds me so much of Rust In Peace. We get alarming guitar melodies that conjure up a vivid sense of paranoia and fear, and later on the tempo slows down in an almost improvisational mid-song jam session built around funky, twisting rhythm patterns that usher along a frenetic solo —- its the kind of thing I’d imagine Friedman doing back in the day. Loureiro is simply stunning on this track, and he is equally as inspired on “Fatal Illusion”, giving his leads an Eastern-tinged accent. Ellefson and Adler cook up a thunderous rhythm section throughout, always in lockstep, and I’m impressed at how balanced the bass actually is in the mix on such a wildly guitar driven album. Ellefson in particular delivers an awesome groove on “Bullet to the Brain”, a mix of thrash and rhythmic alt-metal that works because of his distinctive bass lines. Adler is a terrific fit for Megadeth, full of fills and creative snare and cymbal usage —- and he gets that one thing that sometimes fails thrash drummers, that the music sounds more energetic when it sounds like the drummer might be slightly outpacing everyone else (it conveys an excitement that can’t be contained).

And I have to give the band kudos for sheer creativity in a gem like “Poisonous Shadows”, a slower, experimental song that demonstrates that they don’t have to step outside of their wheelhouse in order to cook up something different. Instead of playing around with goofy hard rock or pop, here they elect to use atmospheric strings and bring in a female vocalist named Farah Siraj to provide those eerie yet ethereal vocals that float over the top. I like Mustaine’s delivery choice here, going for a more desperate, sinister approach rather than trying to aim for melodic perfection. If he sang it straight the song would’ve sounded disjointed (as odd as that seems), instead his altering of his vocals actually sells the overall nightmare-like effect they were going for. And I quite enjoyed the highly syncopated “The Emperor”, with trademark Mustaine sarcasm in the verses and a hooky chorus. The decision to cover Fear’s “Foreign Policy” is yet another tip-off that Mustaine seemed far more lyrically aware and plugged in this time. Regardless of what you think of his politics, you can’t deny that he might be the best at vocalizing subject matter like this —- its an awesome cover, full of panic, aggression, and rage. And its an awesome album, one that’s kinda kick started my interest in Megadeth all over again (I’ve been on a Deth’ binge for the past few days). I really hope Loureiro sticks around, because he seems to have lit a fire within Mustaine, one that desperately needed to be lit, for everyone’s sake.

 

 

 

 

Avantasia Searches For Immortality With Ghostlights

I can’t remember ever anticipating an album with such a nervous bracing for a potential disappointing letdown, as I have with this seventh iteration of Tobias Sammet’s metal/rock opera shenanigan machine. Over the years there’s been a slow erosion to my confidence level in Sammet’s output —- from the wavering quality of the past few Edguy albums from merely okay to mediocre and back to okay again, to the stunning realization that I simply didn’t enjoy most of the last Avantasia album The Mystery of Time. Once his biggest fanboy this side of the Atlantic, I’ve had to start qualifying reviews and random conversations with friends with statements such as “Well, he always delivers a few gems each album”, or the old standard, “Give it time, it’ll probably grow on you (and me)”. But if I’m honest with myself and all of you, I’ve long thought that 2001’s Mandrake was the last time Sammet released a flawless, front to back masterpiece. Its such a long time ago that we tend to forget that it was hot on the heels of his Avantasia debut, The Metal Opera Part I, an album that upon its release was widely recognized as a monumental work in power metal history and an emblematic marker that we were then experiencing the subgenre’s golden era. For those of us in the late 90’s who were aware of this golden era as it was happening, we viewed Sammet as one of a few central figures in a larger, multi-band fueled wave of classic power metal releases —- he had already ripped off masterpieces in 1999’s Theater of Salvation and 1998’s Vain Glory Opera, and in the wake of Mandrake, he seemed nigh unstoppable.

Yet suddenly Sammet missed out on perfection for the first time in years with 2002’s The Metal Opera II, which though much loved by most of us, admittedly felt inferior as a sequel. On the Edguy track, 2004’s Hellfire Club was a thrilling, inventive, yet schismatic album with a few songs that fell short (we tend to overpraise this album because of how aggressive it was, but it also had the distinction of introducing hard rock elements into the band’s sound, something a segment of fans would later lament). Post Hellfire Club, things got complicated: Subsequent Edguy releases began to infuse Sammet’s childhood roots of 80s pop-metal, AOR, and arena rock —- thus pushing out most of the traditional power metal elements the band’s earlier records were based on. When Sammet announced in late 2006 that he was resurrecting the Avantasia project, I think many of us thought that it’d be his power metal outlet, even if we weren’t getting The Metal Opera “Part III”. This isn’t intended to be a history lesson, but indulge me for a bit: Sammet unleashed a trio of Avantasia albums over the following years that were far more in line stylistically with the AOR/hard rock/pop-rock explorations he was continuing in Edguy, and power metal was limited to usage as a flavoring throughout most of The Scarecrow Trilogy. While a very vocal segment of his fanbase cried foul and openly yearned for the power metal glory days of the turn of the millennium, I found myself alongside a host of others who didn’t mind Sammet’s stylistic choices and found much to love about both Edguy and Avantasia releases during this period.

Yet even with that said, all those releases had their share of flaws (even the aforementioned Scarecrow Trilogy, which I loved), and I began to develop a theory or three on just why that was the case. First, I suspect that Sammet’s exploration into expanding his songwriting palette via stylistic change was a process that was bound to inevitably produce some filler. I have no reasonable explanation as to why crafting hard rock/AOR styled songs would be trickier than penning classicist power metal as it seemed to be for Sammet —- maybe that’s just the way he was wired. The point is that the actual process yielded positive, mediocre, and negative results, proof that he was still finding his footing while the missteps were being documented on the records. Just go back and listen to how utterly schizophrenic Edguy albums such as Rocket Ride, Tinnitus Sanctus and The Age of the Joker were. Secondly, I think that he was potentially spreading himself too thin on the songwriting front —- consider that from 2008-2013, he ushered out four Avantasia albums with two Edguy albums sandwiched in between. Thirdly, I think in that aforementioned span of years, Sammet was having trouble finding a way to separate the now musically identical Avantasia and Edguy, an array of guest vocalists being the only element separating the two projects. It made me question why he felt a need to keep Edguy around at all, considering the lopsided ratio of albums being released by both bands.

 

 

The surprising artistic success of Space Police and its showing of strength on the songwriting front was a great sign for Sammet having reestablished a connection to Edguy. It wasn’t a perfect album by any means, but it had an identity that was in sharp contrast to Avantasia, and it seemed to be a statement of what Edguy is now a vehicle for —- fun, sometimes silly hard rock / traditional heavy metal that only rarely takes itself seriously. Its guesswork as to when he came to this realization, but I suspect that subtitling The Mystery of Time as “A Rock Opera” and not a “Metal Opera” was a quiet nod to anyone paying attention that there was no going back to the power metal days (also he has now released more albums in his hard rock/AOR/trad metal style than he has of classicist power metal). I say all that to set the stage for Ghostlights, an album that I’ve been considering ever since its announcement as a potential crossroads for Sammet —- the question being, does his success in compartmentalizing his projects carry over from Edguy to Avantasia and translate into masterful songwriting once again or was Space Police the last few drops from a well of inspiration that’s potentially run dry? I’m so relieved and happy to report that the bucket was plunged down the well and came up overflowing, and not only that, but in Ghostlights, Sammet has created his first front to finish classic since Mandrake.

This is an album brimming with confidence, full of vibrantly diverse songs with their own individual personalities, and loaded with shimmering, transcendent melodies and addictive hooks. It starts from the onset, with the Eurovision German preliminaries contending (!) lead single “Mystery of Blood Red Rose”, a Jim Steinman-esque vehicle meant for Meatloaf to actually guest on but as his management railroaded those plans, Sammet lays down lead vocals and delivers a worthy performance. As a pop-laden song it sees Sammet stretching his comfort zone a bit, weaving in Bat Out of Hell styled piano pastiche instead of relying on the semi Bon Jovi-ian vibe that so often laces his singles of this type. Sure they’ve used piano before, even on another Meatloaf-y number in “The Story Ain’t Over” in 2007, but here its delivered in runs of wild, loose glissando. It works well as an intro piece, setting a playful and fun tone for the album. Its on the epic thunderstorm of the following song “Let the Storm Descend Upon You” where we get our first guest vocalist spots with the returning Ronnie Atkins (Pretty Maids), the surprising Robert Mason (Warrant/ex-Lynch Mob) and of course the King of Kings himself, Jorn Lande. Mason is an inspired left field choice, and Atkins sounds far more comfortable here than he ever did on The Mystery of Time’s “Invoke the Machine”, and of course Jorn just makes everything better. This is the monstrous epic of the album, clocking in at over twelve minutes… and it took me awhile to realize that, perhaps the best compliment I can offer towards Sammet’s songwriting on this particular cut. Its so effortlessly packed with adrenaline-kicked riffs, smartly-paced lead vocal runs, and a diving-swinging-swooping theater of the dramatic —- its classic Avantasia.

 

Wacken Open Air 2008, Avantasia, Foto Axel Heyder

Speaking of guest vocalists, this is the area from where most of my skepticism towards this album came before hearing it, and its ultimately its most positive x-factor. One of my major criticisms of The Mystery of Time was just how mismatched the guest vocalists sounded with the songs given to them —- and I understand the argument that Sammet has to walk a fine line in balancing giving a guest singer a song that sounds too much like the band they’re known for, at the risk of losing the identity of Avantasia. I tend to reject that argument however for two reasons: The first being that its only all too natural for a listener acquainted with that guest singer’s primary band to hear shades of said band bleeding into their Avantasia role, especially considering they’ve been brought on board for their known voice after all. The bigger reason is that Sammet has proven himself to be capable of writing in such a distinctive voice that his songwriting tendencies are powerful enough to balance out even the strongest guest vocalists. On Ghostlights, Sammet has righted the ship in all respects, and my initial balking at seeing the names Dee Snider and Geoff Tate seems judgmental and foolish now (I believe I audibly scoffed at them on a past MSRcast episode). Snider is nigh unrecognizable to me, but that’s likely because I haven’t kept up with him musically over the years. He sounds terrific on “The Haunting”, with a leathery yet theatrical delivery on a slow burner of a song that recalls Alice Cooper’s guest spot on “The Toy Master” off The Scarecrow.

My surprise at Snider’s excellent performance was nothing compared to the alarm I felt at truly enjoying the much maligned Tate on “Seduction of Decay”, considering my initial bellyaching. I checked out a few interviews with Sammet in promotion for this album, he’s stated that the song came together first which then spurred the idea of bringing in Tate. Its a gutsy choice but you have to hand it to Sammet, it really does work, with this being Tate’s overall best vocal performance since some of his work on Queensryche’s Tribe album. And I’m a little proud of myself for setting aside all preconceived notions and feelings I had about him overall and allowing myself to be receptive to this song. Tate sounds particularly rejuvenated vocally here, perhaps due more to the higher quality of vocal melodies that Sammet has him working with, ones that make the best use of Tate’s distinctive phrasing. He even unleashes a bit of that forgotten upper register in a surprising show of force —- more proof that Tate needs a high caliber songwriter to get the best out of him (such as his former bandmate Chris DeGarmo). If Tate is the most vivid surprise among guest vocalists, then Herbie Langhans is the dark horse that snuck in under the radar. We’ve known that Langhans has some serious vocal power from his two albums in Sinbreed (and those of you who remember Seventh Avenue), but what he turns in here on “Draconian Love” is more akin to a subdued, smoother Ville Laihiala ala Sentenced. Its one of my favorite songs on the album, having a darkly romantic, almost gothic feel that’s a perfect foil for such a tremendously catchy chorus. Sammet starts off the refrain with his questioning shout “Where are you now, where are you now / Leaving me down here, lost in the waves”, and its delivery is perfectly satisfying, an unrolled welcome mat for Langhans to finish “You shed draconian love, you shed draconian love”. Its a case study in the art of successfully employing repetition and alliterative sequencing, the sort of thing Lady Gaga built her early hits upon (in other words, this is a ridiculously catchy song).

 

Likewise just as successful a song-to-vocalist pairing exists in Marco Hietala’s (Nightwish) “Master of the Pendulum”, where we’re treated to an aggressive, uptempo metallic bruiser. Hietala is another inspired choice, not the first guy you’d think of when pondering guests on a future Avantasia album either. He delivers one of my favorite moments on the album during the lines, “I lead the horse to the water and I make it drink / I‘m here to force precision just on everything”, which is about an accurate a characterization of his force of personality vocal delivery as I can imagine. Robert Mason crops up again on “Babylon Vampyres”, this time leaning more on his rock n’ roll delivery, a combination that matches well with Sammet’s lead vocal,  and talk about catchy, that chorus has not quit my head for the better part of a week. He’s also given a small but crucial part on the album closer / five-singer barrage in the delightfully sentimental “Wake Up to the Moon”, where he sings alongside a plethora of the album’s cast. Atkins has another role on “Unchain the Light”, where he gets to showcase his more rustic vocal texture, perhaps because he’s set in sharp contrast to the legend himself Michael Kiske. Its a satisfying song, with a unique sound palette that elevates it from being just another “rocker” and into something altogether more thoughtful and resonant. And I’ve long awaited the return of Sharon Den Adel to the Avantasia lineup, and she’s here in fine form on “Isle of Evermore”, not quite the dramatic, sharply angled power ballad that was “Farewell” from the first Metal Opera, but a beautiful song nonetheless —- one that’s written more in the style of her modern Within Temptation singing voice as opposed to her Mother Earth-era pop-classical approach. Its well placed in the tracklisting, a mid-album breather that is built around delicate keys, atmospherics and a subtly haunting refrain.

I don’t normally write song by song album reviews, but Ghostlights is a veritable treat bag of Halloween ear candy, lacking skippable tracks or anything bothersome. I’ll repeat that last part again —- nothing bothered me (me!)! And saving the best stuff for last, we have a trio of titanic tracks, not coincidentally involving Michael Kiske, Jorn Lande, and the immortal Bob Catley. First up is the truly remarkable “Ghostlights”, Kiske’s greatest singular Avantasia moment right alongside “Wastelands” from The Wicked Symphony, one of those speedy, Helloween-soaked gems that Sammet molds perfectly. Kiske is the kind of singer who needs a airport runaway length of rhythmic timing for his particular delivery, especially when you’re trying to get the most power metal styled delivery out of him. He’s not a rapid fire singer, instead allowing the music to outpace him while he steadily extends syllables and enunciation in his trademark smooth half singing half belting. He soars here, and Sammet and Jorn work around him smartly, ceding the spotlight to him and only coming in as counterpoints and fills. My favorite moment here actually involves Sammet on lead as the counterpoint to Kiske in the chorus, singing “thunder and rain and the wind in my face”, a line that is syncopated so perfectly, it brings a smile to my face every time I mentally (or audibly) sing along. Its a gem of a song, a joyous blast of power metal nostalgia that could’ve easily been on the Metal Operas. With that in mind, I marvel at Sammet’s personal success in bringing his hero, the once anti-metal Kiske, back to singing music like this and apparently enjoying it more than he ever has (to such a degree that it prompted the Kai Hansen reunion).

Jorn gets his star turn on the majestic, simply stunning “Lucifer”, a piano ballad turned power ballad that might be both he and Sammet’s finest moment working together. There’s a wonderful moment where Sammet and Jorn join voices together during the first iteration of the refrain, and its just spine-tingling in its effect. Dramatic in its confident, sturdy, string-laden build up, stirring in its lyrical beauty, this is a masterpiece and the first of two early bookmarks for potential songs of the year. And somehow, fittingly, its Mr. Bob Catley who guests on the album’s best song “A Restless Heart and Obsidian Skies”, a flawless diamond that’s in the conversation for the greatest Avantasia song of all time. Bold praise I know, but here’s the thing folks —- this song is the epitome of why you and I and everyone else listens to Avantasia. Its why we keep coming back album after album with an eagerness that we reserve for precious few other artists, because of the possibility of magical moments like this. Catley of course was the co-lead vocalist on “The Story Ain’t Over”, perhaps the greatest song to be released as a b-side in power metal history and one that the band ended up turning into a bit of a live favorite during their 2008 festival tour. Sammet just seems to be keyed into what kind of song Catley would sound spectacular on, one that features earnest vocals and heartbreaking lyrics that demonstrate a palpable sense of yearning. On “…Obsidian Skies”, he and Catley join in on a surging, insistent, wide-eyed chorus with a simply beautiful lyric, “Dark is the night, scarlet the moon / Sacred the light in the haze reflecting within / Blazing the trail… Be still my restless heart / Obsidian’s the sky / Inward you look as you halt / Be still restless heart / I’m on my way”. I could go on and on about this song but I’m sure I’ll be talking about it more later in the year on the best songs list, its simply magical.

 

I experienced something while listening to this album the other night as I drove around Houston under an uncommonly clear night sky. It stemmed from feelings of utter happiness at being able to appreciate what really did feel like…at the risk of overstating it, a gift —- an album that actually thrilled me beyond mere aesthetic appeal and typical reviewer think-speak of judging an album’s artistic merit. It took me a second to realize that I was being hit with blasts of nostalgia —- that the music I was hearing was taking me there. But nostalgia is a tricky thing, something that tends to come at us in notes of bittersweet (or at least for me), reminders of not only the passage of time but of no way to return. Yet the nostalgia Ghostlights was conjuring up was a little different, in fact, it was making me remember the feelings I’d have when I was a kid and I worried about nothing and loved everything. I have these memories of specific days from my childhood, scattered across those blurry years, where everything would go right and I’d feel genuinely happy or thrilled about the sequence of events. I don’t get many of those days anymore as an adult, and I suspect many of you feel the same. It was in the middle of “…Obsidian Skies” when I realized that I was into every second of this album, that everything about it was hitting me right in that sweet spot of everything I love about music in general. I can’t speak for anyone else, but this is an album I’m already treasuring for bringing me back to that mental headspace, and I’m grateful to Tobias Sammet for that. Its been a relief to write about Ghostlights without any qualifiers whatsoever —- I’ll say this plainly, this is a masterpiece for the ages.

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