One of the year’s biggest releases, at least in the prog/power metal world, The Shadow Theory is Kamelot’s third album in the Tommy Karevik era, and their twelfth overall. It was on their third album Siége Perilous where they first introduced the much loved Roy Khan as their vocalist, but it wasn’t until its follow-up (The aptly named The Fourth Legacy) where Khan’s inclusion as a co-songwriter finally created the Kamelot magic we all love. The Khan/Thomas Youngblood songwriting duo wouldn’t suffer the expected sophomore slump either, delivering in succession albums that ranged from excellent (Karma, Ghost Opera) to downright masterful (Epica, The Black Halo). Similarly, Karevik’s first album with the band mirrored Khan’s nearly non-existent songwriting presence on Siége Perilous, as Silverthorn was an awkward, clunky affair that really could’ve used more of the new guy’s input. But just like Khan’s true unveiling on The Fourth Legacy, Karevik’s ground floor role in crafting the songs for his sophomore effort in Haven resulted in the band’s strongest album in a decade. I mention this emergent symmetry not only to point out just how much time I have on my hands to think about such things, but also to sketch out just where my expectation level was for The Shadow Theory.
Now I know what some of you are thinking, that this symmetry only works if you consider Haven on par with The Fourth Legacy, and truth be told Haven suffered from a few noticeable flaws, despite its largely excellent collection of songs. I wrote about this at length in my original review for that album, but the gist of it was that the band sounded inspired and reinvigorated when their songwriting leaned into Karevik’s ability to sing in higher registers. The songs that ended up being duds were the few that seemed to lack major key melodies and power metal lift, and seemed to lean more towards an approach that I referred to as “faux-heaviness”. I’m thinking specifically of cuts like “Liar Liar (Wasteland Monarchy)” and the dreadful, industrial tinged “Revolution” (my nominee for most disappointing Kamelot song of all time). But fears that maybe the album hadn’t aged well were dispelled when I was playing it in the weeks leading up to the release of The Shadow Theory, if anything, these recent spins have reinforced my belief that its one of the band’s strongest albums. Two weak songs aren’t enough to dislodge that status, but I might have been naive in thinking that they were simply vestiges of the downtuned, minor-key driven later Roy Khan era that Youngblood and keyboardist Oliver Palotai had gotten used to writing in.
What I’m realizing after the umpteenth listen through this new album is that Karevik’s mighty vocal power and ability to sing sustained vocals in a higher register weren’t quite enough to completely shake those darker tendencies from Kamelot’s songwriting approach. Not only does The Shadow Theory not hit the same major key heights as Haven, but it doesn’t hit the same sustained emotional heights either as a result. My theory last time around was based around the possibility that Youngblood and Palotai were in the process of breaking out of songwriting tendencies that were built up over time that naturally resulted in darker albums —- their way of adjusting to Khan’s increasing preference (and controversial speculation here, his declining range) for a lower to middle register vocal approach. But I think I may have overlooked something else entirely that smacked me in the face when I went back recently to read/watch a bunch of interviews with Youngblood. He said in response to several questions over those interviews that the band moved away from their more mythological/fantastical lyrical imagery because they found it limiting over time. In interviews for the new album, he was keen to discuss the Carl Jung based conceptual angle behind The Shadow Theory, relating it to the state of the world at present and how we relate to it (ie social media, etc). In one interview he even defended the band’s name, acknowledging the Arthurian mythology influence, but effectively brushing past it by suggesting the band had moved on topically (and that basically its just a brand name).
While those comments might hurt the heart of many an old school Kamelot devotee, I can see where he’s coming from. Its fair that the band would want to gradually evolve away from those types of lyrics, imagery, and concepts. I’d argue their first foray into really dark territory occurred as long ago as 2005 on the second half of their Faustian concept with The Black Halo, a darker, less playful affair than Epica, but perhaps more intense and haunting as a result. But even on those records, they framed the darkness in a literary landscape that put its characters in a relatively fantastical and mythic setting and time period. Even Silverthorn was set in the 19th century amidst the intrigue of a wealthy family (if the “Sacrimony” video was anything to go by), its gorgeous ballad “Song For Jolee” referring to a “…princess captured in a wooden frame”. The lyrics on some of the best songs on Haven also invoked this kind of old world, fantasy-steeped imagery, “Fallen Star” pleading to “the kings and the queens of the dawn”; “End of Innocence” sees Karevik invoke Prince Charming with “A kiss on the lips / Turned the toad to a prince”. There’s more examples, but my point is that this kind of romantic, melodramatic, renaissance tinged imagery has continued despite the change in album art from royal purple hand drawn covers to more modern, metallic gray sci-fi inspired artwork; its a fundamental part of the band’s DNA, a part of their genetic code that pushes them towards rich melodicism, soaring choruses, and a sense of high drama.
Thematically and to a certain degree lyrically, The Shadow Theory sees the band attempting to try something entirely new by framing the album in a very modern, nearly science-fiction setting. In some sense its their music catching up to the visual style we’ve seen in some of their recent music videos, and its certainly reflected heavily in the dystopian drenched video for the first single “Phantom Divine (Shadow Empire)”. Its a wise choice for a single as its one of the album’s best cuts, a spiritual cousin to previous storming album openers in “March of Mephisto”/”The Great Pandemonium”, and like those songs it uses strong imagery rooted in the band’s DNA to offset its larger, more abstract lyrical matter: “…In ambrosial grace / No applause for the old pantomime…”. Its a small thing to fixate on perhaps, given just how bracing this song is from a purely symphonic power metal perspective, but its also the introduction to The Shadow Theory’s far more modern lyrical concerns. The Jungian Shadow is a complex and in depth topic, worthy of being used as the basis for a thematic album (important to note that this is not a traditional concept album), but Kamelot very much use our modern day, real life problems of social media anxiety, technologically induced disassociation, negative group think, and media manipulation as the vehicle for exploring these ideas.
When they are able to strike a balance between this modern setting and the old world Kamelot DNA, they strike gold, as on “Ravenlight”, a song where Karevik sounds as close to Khan as he possibly can (perhaps a byproduct of said DNA…?). His lyrics during the verses are pure classic Kamelot, “Silent tears / In a sea of sorrow / If only God would talk to me / And promise me tomorrow”, and reinforced by beautiful imagery in the refrain, “In Ravenlight, you came to me / From silence rose, a symphony / of coming winters white”. Its a dark song, but it reminds me of the balance they were able to strike on the best moments on Poetry For The Poisoned, matching that darkness with decadent caramel drizzles of bright melody. We hear more of this on “Vespertine (My Crimson Bride)”, an epic symphonic ushered romp that sounds refreshingly like something from the Karma era, propelled by dueling vocal and string melodies that careen gracefully through the air. Karevik’s lyrics here are gorgeous, painting the portrait of a sunlit memory breaking through the oppressive hazy darkness, “Come day, come night, my crimson bride / Is dancing on the fields of gold”. I love this song, its regal and resplendent and reminds me of all the reasons I originally fell under this band’s spell.
Perhaps nowhere does the sunlight breakthrough more than on the glorious duet sung ballad “In Twilight Hours”, one that should be in serious consideration for our hypothetical top five Kamelot ballads discussion. Karevik delivers an impassioned vocal, and he’s matched in kind by Beyond The Black’s Jennifer Haben whose own vocals are the perfect balance of ethereal and earthy, resulting in a crystalline quality to her phrasing. Its a majestic song, centered around a cinematic, fully-arcing chorus crafted almost solely around their conjoined vocal melody —- but the emotional build up in the verses is perhaps more impressive, utilizing Palotai’s understated, sombre piano fragments and a sense of quiet, hushed dynamics that Kamelot have made a history of owning (recalling immediately classic ballads “Wander” and “On The Coldest Winter Night”). When Youngblood finally crashes in with his vocal melody echoing guitar solo, its almost cathartic in its emotional weight, the guitarist proving once again that his understanding of restraint and release is central to Kamelot’s musical power. I also really enjoyed “Stories Unheard”, a unique track that while not as magnetic as its peers described above, certainly has something charming working for it, a combination of its many disparate elements —- the music box emulating intro is immediately intriguing, keeping our attention long enough for the chorus to wallop us.
Then there’s the flip side, and its far more problematic here than on Haven, where the band leans into a darker musical approach, one where the melodies don’t get the spotlight, shunted aside for pure metallic aggression. I’ve said this before, but heavy riffs and pinch harmonics aren’t why we listen to this band —- there’s loads of other bands who do that well, but few can match Kamelot at their own strength. We get a dose of this aggression in “Kevlar Skin”, and it makes for an underwhelming song, with a hook that never seems to take off under the weight of its awkward melodic angle and lack of adequate build up in the verses or via a bridge. I’m not wild on the lyrics either, the imagery very sci-fi inspired, which in itself isn’t a bad thing but I just think the choice of diction limits the direction this vocal melody can head in. I might be the only one harping on these things and many of you might disagree, but I’m sensing a correlation here. Similarly on “Mindfall Remedy”, we’re blasted to a load of quasi-industrial sound effects that don’t do much for the actual song, which is already hampered by an underwhelming, under cooked refrain. Its the kind of chorus that certainly sounds like its supposed to be a chorus, yet lacks anything in the way of a discernible hook. The metalcore vocals courtesy of Lauren Hart (Once Human) are just texture at this point, although she did a fine job on “Phantom Divine”. I do sometimes wonder if the band ever realizes how transparent their decision to use female vocalists for every guest vocal spot is getting…
I really wanted to enjoy “The Proud and the Broken”, and in brief flashes I do, but overall it fails to move me as the apparent epic of the album. I’m not sure what the problem is here beyond the lack of a more definable vocal melody, because it has an interesting intro and fine middle instrumental passage (just one of those songs that doesn’t quite gel perhaps). I did notice the thematic similarities between it and Orphaned Land’s “Take My Hand” off their recent Unsung Prophets and Dead Messiahs album, not in exact diction, but in the spirit of what its lyrics are trying to say. Entirely coincidental of course, but its interesting how one song works so well and the other falls flat due to not making all the requisite emotional connections (lyrical and musical). We’ll skip the pointless closing instrumental “Ministrium (Shadow Key)”, only pausing to wonder why anyone felt that this was a better inclusion than the relatively decent bonus track “The Last Day of Sunlight” (which is noteworthy for its utterly bizarre musical hook during the verses and a chorus boasting a really nice Karevik moment). The other lackluster cuts were “Amnesiac” and “Burns to Embrace”; the former ruined by an anemic chorus and a wash of industrial sound effect nonsense, the latter by a lack of an actual melody of any kind in the verses (what the hell guys?).
Those lackluster moments are scattered pretty evenly across the tracklisting, and it ends up creating a picture of a really spotty listening experience. I sometimes wonder if an album is better off being a bit lopsided, with half excellent material and the other half ho-hum… does that leaves a better impression on us as fans rather than something like this, where its like eating an under cooked pancake? The moments I enjoyed on this album will find their way to my iPod’s Kamelot playlist of course, but I’m disappointed that they’ve taken a step back with The Shadow Theory. This is just one die-hard fan’s opinion, but I really think they need to reevaluate their overall stylistic approach and do something to shake things up. It could be seen as nitpicking on my part, but I’ve seen quite a few people comment that this album is more of the same, sort of a Haven part two. As I’ve pointed out, the band’s DNA is still intact, but they keep trying to edge in this direction where they’re pulling away from their roots, and at a certain point that’s more harmful then helpful (particularly when its been happening for four albums in a row now). I’d love to see Kamelot do an about face and embrace that older spirit that defined their glory era, though I know Youngblood has expressed no interest in doing so. Kamelot’s darker direction and the resultant songwriting seems to be lacking the firepower to keep things interesting for a full album. Take a page from Priest and look to the past for inspiration, this is metal after all, its okay to do that.