Its been just a little over three years since Tobias Sammet released Ghostlights, an album that stunned me and stayed with me during what turned out to be a darkly turbulent year, enough for me to call it 2016’s album of the year. In my personal Avantasia pantheon, it often tops the Metal Operas as my favorite album of all time (though sometimes when I get nostalgic, dips below them however briefly). It had some bold guest choices on there, with Tobias taking chances on the shaky Geoff Tate, a relatively obscure talent like Herbie Langhans, and Dee Snider (long before his Jasta helmed metallic resurrection) in addition to strong regulars like Jorn Lande, Ronnie Atkins, the great Bob Catley, and of course Michael Kiske. More impressively however, all thirteen of its songs landed knockout punches, each with their own unique sonic identity and sometimes strikingly distinct style —- it was Tobias’ most expertly crafted batch of songs in ages. I was completely surprised, seeing as how my expectations were as low as ever considering my lukewarm appraisal of 2013’s The Mystery of Time (I’ve gone back and listened to it recently, that opinion still stands). I think being surprised when you have low expectations doesn’t necessarily make a good album sound better than it would have had you heard it out of context, but it does make you appreciate whatever’s surprising you more.
With that mind, the opposite can also be true, and it seems to be the case with Moonglow, which has the misfortune of following the impeccable Ghostlights. But I wanna be clear, Moonglow is a good, at times even excellent album that actually distinguishes itself by having its own unique album spanning cohesive sound that seems to originate from its lyrical and thematic concept. That may seem obvious at first, but with post-Metal Opera era Avantasia the styles and songwriting approaches tended to fall into Tobias’ songwriting tropes (for better or worse). Here I’m referring specifically to the “roundness” or softness of the edges on this collection of songs, which largely tend to lack the sharp, hard angles that made up the sheer catchiness of the Ghostlights songs. This works for the better on a song such as album opener “Ghost In The Moon”, where a bouncy Jim Steinman-esque melody is carried along not by the guitars, but rather the rolling piano underneath all the vocal layers. Aside from the post chorus outro, the guitars in this song seem reactive, playing off the vocal melodies, which result in a more rock n’ roll affair than anything close to power metal. Its the album’s most poppy moment, and one of its best because those vocal melodies are simply awesome. The addition of gospel backing vocalists Bridget Fogle, Lerato Sebele, and Alvin Le Bass give the song a sense of joyful enthusiasm and uplifting energy. Tobias has of course used backing vocalists before to great effect (particularly on The Scarecrow trilogy), but this is noticeably different and refreshing.
Likewise I hear this rounded, flowing feel on another standout track, “Moonglow”, where Tobias engages in a duet with Blackmore’s Night vocalist Candice Night. This is one of the smartest guest picks Tobias has nabbed in awhile, eyebrow raising in its reach outside of the metal realm and steering away from obvious choices that we’ve all come to expect. Its a pretty song, again built on piano lines, this time sparsely performed in such a way that conduce a feel appropriate to the nighttime imagery of the song. It strikes me as a cousin to “Sleepwalking” off The Mystery of Time, the dreamlike verses and sunlit choruses for both, but I might love “Moonglow” just a touch more because Night’s vocal approach and clear ringing tone seems particularly suited to Tobias’ power balladry. The background keyboard atmospherics here are something that producers Sascha Paeth and Miro Rodenburg have used often in Avantasia, most notably on songs like “Lost In Space”, “Carry Me Over”, and the aforementioned “Sleepwalking” (basically, the poppier cuts). At this point its something of their production trademark, because you’ll hear variations of it on nearly every band they produce, and it could be tiring if overused (ahem… *stares at Kamelot*), but Tobias’ seems to know when its most effective and when he needs to keep the atmospheric wash at bay.
Similarly the Bob Catley star turn on “Lavender” is another piano driven affair, a drama rich slice of pomp rock that takes a more choral driven approach than his Ghostlights appearance on the masterful “A Restless Heart and Obsidian Skies”. Where the latter was all heart stopping arcing melodies and gut wrenching epic starts and stops, “Lavender” is a rather more subtle tune. The chorus is well defined and appealing, though it lacks a magical transition from the verse/bridge sequence, and you get the feeling that Catley might’ve been underused. He’s a home run hitter, the guy who made “The Story Ain’t Over” such a spectacular why isn’t this on the album fan favorite. I actually like “Lavender” a good deal, and I don’t think its verses nor its chorus are lacking, but I suspect there’s something missing in terms of a powerful buildup, that maybe Tobias misfired when writing the bridge. Its partially redeemed by that magnificent dramatic mid-song detour at the 2:38-3:02 mark, and maybe I’m wrong but if he used that moment just a few more times throughout the song, it might’ve made the difference. Then again, as we’ll see on “The Piper At The Gates of Dawn”, that singular moment might be that much more appealing because of its rarity. In the case of “The Piper…” we’re treated to a magical musical moment at the 5:30 mark, one of the more gorgeous guitar solos on the album and in Avantasia’s history overall. I wish its opening motif were longer, or repeated a few times throughout what is a largely lackluster song, with verses that are strangely devoid of anything musical besides production wash and a drum beat. Its the weakest song on the album, yet has one of its most lovable moments. Strange.
The album’s preview/hype track was the guest vocalist monster “The Raven Child”, which has one of the more gorgeous opening sequences that sees Hansi Kursch and Tobias trade off lines. We got to hear these two together on Ayreon’s majestic “Journey to Forever” a few years ago, and this is spellbinding in similar ways, and a fitting return for Hansi to guest one of Tobias’ songs since his much loved appearance on Edguy’s “Out of Control” way back in the day. His vocal performance on those opening verse sections is the kind of bard-like balladry that we all have come to love him for, particularly in that little “woah-oh-oh” bit towards the end before the big dramatic musical exclamation mark. He and Jorn are a dominating presence on this track, with Tobias serving as the glue guy. Its an album highlight, continuing Tobias’ winning streak of lengthier Jorn-infused epics that will likely be concert staples ala “The Scarecrow”, “The Wicked Symphony”, and “Let The Storm Descend Upon You”. I was also surprised by how much I liked “Starlight”, a song that makes the best use of Ronnie Atkins vocals in a compact, aggressive rocker. I say surprised because I wasn’t that fond of Atkins’ previous solo turn on “Invoke The Machine” off Mystery, so its nice to have my doubts erased as to whether he could deliver as a standalone partner to Tobias. Its also one of the few songs here that really breaks free of that smooth, rounded feel, it being built on urgent tempos and some well timed quiet-loud dynamic shifts.
If I was surprised by Ronnie Atkins, I was reaffirmed by Geoff Tate’s once again excellent performance on a Tobias’ penned tune, because just like his debut on “Seduction of Decay” on Ghostlights, he sounds like his old self on “Invincible”. This is equal parts Tobias being unafraid to write Tate into his higher range that he seems to have avoided in his latter day Queensryche and now Operation: Mindcrime albums, and also just giving him a fully arcing chorus melody that is actually emotionally affecting. And on its direct follow-up track “Alchemy”, Tate sings over a rhythm structure that sits right in that mid-tempo pocket that allowed him to sound so convincing on so many Queensryche gems. The only downside here is that the chorus doesn’t match the intensity of the verses, and ends up feeling a little half-baked, an ugly negative drawback to the rounded, dare I suggest softened approach that yet again makes it presence known here. As far as other songs that suffer a bit in the songwriting department, I wasn’t wild about “Book of Shadows” even though it features Hansi and even Mille Petrozza. Just something about that chorus where it doesn’t seem to get the proper amount of lift under its wings. I do enjoy the contrast of Petrozza’s vocal part, and ultimately I wish he was given a larger role for the album, perhaps a song of his own to kick up the overall heaviness factor a bit. I also liked yet didn’t love the Michael Kiske “Requiem For A Dream”, and its largely due to a remarkable bridge/chorus that makes up for some pretty uninspired verse sections. Tobias has done better with Kiske before, and “Wastelands” is really the benchmark to my ears… unfortunately he didn’t quite get there this time.
I don’t know what to say about the Michael Sembello “Maniac” cover, because we’ve all heard the song before and if you’re like me you always thought it sucked and likely didn’t want one of your favorite artists touching it with a ten foot you know what. But its done, and I hate it and only listened to it long enough for reviewing purposes. I actually really love the bonus track for the deluxe editions in “Heart”, which was written as a tribute to Steve Perry era Journey and sounds the part. The roundness of this album that I’ve been vaguely harping on about throughout the review is both a blessing and a curse, dramatically shaping some songs for the better and hurting others. I think for me personally, this album faced a bit of an unfair uphill battle following up a record I loved so much, but at the end of the day lofty expectations don’t determine whether or not a song feels underwritten or that a chorus lacks some punch. I’ve enjoyed Moonglow for the most part, it has an interesting concept and sonic palette, and I definitely didn’t feel anywhere near the level of discontent as I did with The Mystery of Time. Something I was thinking about earlier was that its going to be well over five plus years since the last Edguy studio album, and having had two Avantasia albums in a row unexpectedly, I find myself longing a bit for his other songwriting side lately. I’d love something shockingly heavy, rollicking, and aggressive in the vein of Mandrake or Hellfire Club, it would be the perfect way to veer in the opposite direction.