Nightswimming: Avantasia’s Moonglow

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.

Edguy Looks Back On 25 Years With Monuments

Our lovable crazy Germans from the little town of Fulda are celebrating twenty-five years of rockin’, and in keeping with how these things are usually marked, we’re getting a career retrospective that spans two discs, as well as a third that’s a DVD with a few music videos and footage of a concert from 2004. I wouldn’t normally review these types of releases, because really, what is there to review apart from song selection? But as I did with Blind Guardian and their retrospective, Memories of a Time To Come, I tend to let that stance slide in the face of some of my favorite bands. The interesting thing about this release is noticeable just from looking at the tracklisting itself, to see that it spans the entirety of Edguy’s career, even from their first four (five if you include the Savage Poetry re-recording) albums back when they were on AFM Records. This is the first time that the band has re-released studio versions of those old songs that weren’t live recordings, suggesting that at some point they were able to purchase that catalog back (pure speculation here, maybe they always had it). There have been compilations before, the 2002 AFM double-live Burning Down the Opera (an underrated live record), and the 2009 Nuclear Blast live CD/DVD Fucking With F***, whose title walks the thin line between stupid and clever. There was also an utterly ridiculous cash grab released called The Singles, which wasn’t the hits compilation its title suggests, merely a full length compilation of the individual King of Fools, Lavatory Love Machine and Superheroes EPs.

I guess its no surprise to anyone for me to admit to owning every Edguy album, including the aforementioned live albums and EPs. I am quite the fan. So my real interest in Monuments is in the five brand new songs the band and label have wisely tacked on to the start of the compilation here in order to turn the heads of fans exactly like myself, and congrats to them, they’ve succeeded. Normally these types of compilations get the odd one or two new songs included, the least amount of effort to get something on the release to simultaneously act as fan bait and serve as a promotional vehicle (and they’re usually a re-polished cutting room floor track). So right off the bat I’ve gotta give the band credit for providing a whole EPs worth of new material here, although there’s some real b-side vibes going on in a few of the songs. Our first introduction to these came a month or so ago with the lyric video for “Ravenblack”, which I mildly liked upon first hearing it then, and actually really enjoy now. Its not earth shattering, but its got a patented Tobias Sammet quality hook in its chorus that’s strong and attention grabbing. Its verses remind me of a sonic collage of the past few Edguy albums, particularly in its use of a slowed down pre-chorus bridge (its likely just a common Sammet tendency that I’m picking up on).

Where “Ravenblack” reminds me of the very recent, pop-inflected, hard rock Edguy of their past few albums, so do the other four new songs, and that’s not only disappointing, but a real missed opportunity to do something fun. If they were hell bent on including five, why not actually take the time to develop five distinctly individual songs that somewhat echoed different styles and even eras of Edguy? So you’d get your hard rock “Ravenblack”, but you could also have a new ballad, done in the style of either a recent ballad (“Save Me”) or a classic styled one (“Wash Away the Poison”). Perhaps another song could be a slice of classic power metal in the vein of something off Mandrake or Theater of Salavation. Maybe the fourth song could’ve been developed into something epic and grand, recalling hints of the types of lengthy epics that have practically every Edguy album since the beginning? And the fifth song could’ve been another addition to the band’s growing roster of tongue-in-cheek humorous songs ala “Lavatory Love Machine” or “Save Us Now”. With the amount of ideas that Sammet must generate and stockpile throughout the years, he surely could’ve had seeds for all of the above. It would’ve been a nod to the fans and a self-aware wink to their own career, and before you get on my case and remind me that I once stated that Sammet’s power metal classicist leanings should be reserved for Avantasia, I’ll just say, if a slice of retro-Edguy isn’t allowed on a new studio album, isn’t a compilation album like this the perfect place for it?

 

If you’re wondering what the heck I’m referring to with that last sentence, basically in my review for Edguy’s 2014 album Space Police, I stumbled upon a revelation: “Sammet has rather conspicuously separated the veins of his songwriting approach into his two ongoing projects. Since 2006, Avantasia would receive (and monopolize) the far more serious, artistic vein, while Edguy’s increasing blendings of hard rock with traditional power metal served as a perfect soundtrack in which Sammet could further indulge his wacky, silly, Scorpions-inspired vein”. Of course, 2016’s Avantasia masterpiece Ghostlights confirmed my theory and saw that project lean harder in a classicist musical direction (not quite the Helloween inspired Metal Operas per say, but definitely miles away from anything hard rock-ish). That being said, this is a retrospective compilation album, and I feel like an exception or two could have been made in the new songs —- but now I’m going on about something imagined. What we got instead are mostly a couple songs similar in style and structure that adhere to the general Edguy sonic template of the past decade.

The best of the rest is clearly “Landmarks”, a speedy double-kick fed blitz that if you close your eyes, sounds like it possibly could have fit on Hellfire Club, but really reminds me of something that could have been off 2011’s Age of the Joker or 2009’s Tinnitus Sanctus. The buildup to the chorus is convincing, but the chorus is missing a certain something, an extra dose of uplift to really sell it or introduce an element of drama to the whole thing. Same goes for “The Mountaineer”, whose delightful lead guitar intro reappears as a teasing motif throughout, but can’t compensate for the underwhelming chorus that seems to drag the entire song down with its lack of energy or impact. Then there’s the fairly pedestrian, plodding “Wrestle the Devil”, with its unfocused verses built on hodge-podge Def Leppard-ian muted rhythmic guitar phrasing. Its just the very definition of filler, a song that’s not bad enough to remember, but not good enough to come back for. That also describes “Open Sesame”, which might be memorable for containing one of the band’s more uninspiring titles and refrain lyrics, so that’s something. Its a dud of a track, but in a weird sort of way, its the closest to a self-aware song about rocking out that they’ve ever done in a Scorpions kind of way. Normally I love that kind of stuff, but this needed to be better.

In summary, save your cash on this one, especially if like me you’re no longer a completionist. As for the rest of the compilation, it’d do for someone new to the band, but this is the age where you normally get into new bands by a buddy texting you the link to a YouTube video, or by reading something that gets you to hit up Spotify. These album length compilations aren’t quite the introduction that they used to be, and in fact a bad one could put a potential new fan off. As far as that’s concerned, Monuments is serviceable but severely flawed at the same time. So I’m going to have a little fun as a Tobias Sammet scholar, and go down the tracklisting and give a quick thought on each with a possible replacement track, because they might’ve consulted the die-hard fans for this project, as there’s some seriously questionable cuts here (but others that are inspired!). Here we go:

 

Disc 1 (first five cuts were the new songs)

 

6. “9-2-9” (from the album Tinnitus Sanctus):

  • Actually the strongest cut from the band’s disjointed, unfocused 2009 album, alongside the aching power ballad “Thorn Without A Rose”. Its far more in the pop-rock mold than a lot of old school fans would like, but its worth including here because its so sharply written, with a chorus that is both memorably melodic and lyrics that are actually non-cliched and interesting for the state of mind they present the narrator in. I really love this song and applaud the decision to add it to this compilation.

 

7. “Defenders of the Crown” (from the album Space Police):

  • One of the more puzzling choices on Monuments, it wasn’t even a highlight of the album it was originally birthed for, let alone a career spanning retrospective. Ideally we’d swap it with an older song but in trying to keep the balance of pre to post 2004 songs somewhat even, I’ll call up “Alone In Myself” from the same album, as it landed on that year’s top ten songs list and is one of my favorite Edguy songs ever. Its light gospel touch was inspired and fresh for a power metal ballad, and its lyrical subject matter addressed the subject of loneliness in a way few artists can.

 

8. “Save Me” (from the album Rocket Ride):

  • This one’s a keeper. Rocket Ride was a deeply divisive album that got a handful of things wrong, but just as many right, and none more so than “Save Me”, the soaring power ballad that remarkably became somewhat of a fan favorite. Its been well documented on this site anyway that I’m a big fan of ballads in metal, and that goes double for power metal. I know a lot of folks hate them, but I find that they’re so much more interesting backed with metallic instrumentation and the willingness to be epic. Ballads by balladeers and crooners can be nice, but mostly are pedestrian. Also, its just been a part of rock music tradition since The Beatles and songs like “Hey Jude” and Zeppelin with “Stairway to Heaven”, so let’s just all agree that they’re here to stay! *ducks*

 

9: “The Piper Never Dies” (from the album Hellfire Club):

  • An undeniable Edguy classic, an instant contender for any top ten Edguy songs list debate, and quite possibly in the running for a hypothetical top ten best power metal epics list. Do you feel me? 

 

10. “Lavatory Love Machine” (from the album Hellfire Club):

  • A ridiculous song by any standards, it was Edguy’s second stab at delivering a comically inclined song and ended up being the perfect vehicle to give their budding inclinations towards hard rock a test spin. Yes the lyrics are absurd, the mid-song “spoken word” pilot’s address is needless and awful, but dammit all if its not one of the catchiest hooks they’ve ever knocked out. The video was hilarious (again, except for the awful pilot’s address thing) —- I’ll always laugh at Tobias’ hitting a passenger on the nose whilst taking off his jacket or him tripping and stumbling towards the airline stewardess (also, in 2004 that was a relatively high budget video for a non-mainstream metal band). Humor started in Edguy with “Save Us Now” off Mandrake, and was a shocker in the context of that relatively dark and serious album, particularly coming right after Theater of Salvation, the band’s most serious and near spiritually inclined album as well. “LLM” was a signal that this was a permanent part of the band’s identity, a nod towards their Scorpions influences, and also a signal that their sound was about to change. A keeper.

 

11. “King of Fools” (from the album Hellfire Club):

  • It could be argued that this was the band’s first legitimate “hit”, a song that made waves in Germany and even dented the charts there (they actually played this live on that country’s McDonald’s Chart Show, a sort of Top of the Pops for Deutchland at the time). It was their first and really only brush with genuine mainstream flirtation, and its easy to see why —- it was simple, basic, and had an easy hook. It played to a market that was becoming receptive to harder music again after the surprising success of Bon Jovi four years prior as well as Iron Maiden’s even more surprising transcendent comeback. I suppose on that ground it could merit consideration, but is it really more deserving than the awesome “Navigator” from the same album? I’ll lean in favor of the latter and vote to replace.

 

12. “Superheroes” (from the album Rocket Ride):

  • Following the template laid down on “King of Fools”, Edguy decided to try their hand at another potentially radio friendly tune in “Superheroes”, a lyrically nonsensical ode to rocker independence (I think). Its an okay song with a video that rivals “Lavatory Love Machine” in sheer silliness, but unlike that song’s self-deprecating message and 80s metal sense of swagger, “Superheroes” was far too saccharine for its own good. Voting to replace this one, my choice being the classic “Painting On the Wall” from Mandrake, that album’s sole single, one of Edguy’s finest songs ever and a glaring oversight here.

 

13. “Love Tyger” (from the album Space Police):

  • I love this song, and it still sounds as lively and fun as it did three years ago when it practically leaped out of the speakers upon my first pass through Space Police. Its the closest Edguy has come to morphing into The Darkness, but its one of their most fully realized hard rock/pop songs. Its also cleverly written, built on Sammet’s alliterative, repeating vocal pattern during the chorus, giving the song a tongue-in-cheek vibe all while swinging with real strut and swagger. It was the second single off the album, but perhaps should’ve been the lead —- that being said, I’m not sure if the band or label picked the track listing (seems like the label), but good on whomever for including this gem.

 

14. “Ministry of Saints” (from the album Tinnitus Sanctus):

  • Picks like this are what makes me think the label cobbled this track listing together and the band just grunted and said sure, because this is the clear winner for the most lackluster Edguy single ever. It was the lead off promotional choice for Tinnitus Sanctus, and despite its aggressiveness, it was a dud of a single. That it represented the band’s worst album has not endeared me to it over the years, it bores me still, but “Thorn Without A Rose” would be a fine replacement from the same album. That might risk things getting too ballad heavy for some folks tastes but I’m down for it!

 

15. “Tears of a Mandrake” (from the album Mandrake):

  • Yes, a keeper, and one of the band’s finest songs to boot. Seriously they could just put all of Mandrake on here and I’d have kept my mouth shut.

 

Disc 2

1. “Mysteria” (from the album Hellfire Club):

  • One of Edguy’s most aggressive moments, and a worthy inclusion to this compilation. I will point out that they might have considered including the version of this song with guest vocals from Mille Petrozza of Kreator. It was a bonus cut from the Japanese edition of Hellfire Club if I remember right, but his fiercely angry vocals made an excellent song even better.

 

2. “Vain Glory Opera” (from the album Vain Glory Opera):

  • Ah, finally something pre-1999! This was the first Edguy album where they really found their sound, having previously released the largely demo-based Savage Poetry and their “true” debut in Kingdom of Madness where they were just figuring things out. Its not a perfect album by any means, but it was certainly exciting stuff to hear in the late 90s. This is one of its standout moments, though it hasn’t aged as well as you’d hope, its a slice of Edguy history and deserves to be here.

 

3. “Rock of Cashel” (from the album Age of the Joker):

  • If you go back and read my best albums list from 2011, you’ll see Age of the Joker listed somewhere in the middle of the top ten. That was definitely a mistake, but the blog was barely a month or two old and I hadn’t really developed a process of testing myself against my own biases. Thus Edguy got listed with a mediocre album (though, one that was certainly better than Tinnitus Sanctus), and “Rock of Cashel” was certainly a highlight on it, along with the gorgeous ballad “Every Night Without You”. What this song in particular had going for it was its intriguing Celtic motif that ran throughout, but where such an element made it stand apart on that album, it doesn’t seem to hold up to scrutiny here against the band’s better efforts. If we’re picking a replacement from that same album and I can’t have that wonderful ballad, I’d pick “Breathe” or the weird but amusing synth rock of “Two Out Of Seven” as more exciting choices.

 

4. “Judas at the Opera” (from the Superheroes EP):

  • One of the more surprising left field inclusions on Monuments, “Judas At the Opera” was enough of a reason to spend the cash on mail ordering the Superheroes EP, featuring a vocal collab with one Michael Kiske, sort of a precursor to his return with Avantasia in 2008. I’ve always contended that Sammet is probably the best songwriter Kiske could ever have hoped for and this is a prime example. I will however point out something that never really bothered me until now, but I question the inclusion of the homophobic lyrics here. Given what I’ve come to know about Sammet throughout the years, it was a tongue in cheek lyric (and taken in context with the entirety of the song, it is a slightly humorous song), and he meant no serious offense. But hearing it now for the first time in awhile, it stands out as a glaring flaw on an otherwise awesome song. For that reason alone, I don’t know if it belongs on a compilation that’s supposed to represent the band’s best moments. Reluctantly would replace it with “The Asylum” from Rocket Ride, an overlooked epic that had both grit and gravitas.

 

5. “Holy Water” (from the King of Fools EP):

  • Yes, keeping this one, a thousand times yes. I will always wonder why the heck Edguy didn’t include “Holy Water” on either Mandrake or Hellfire Club, depending on when it was written. It has the feel of Mandrake era high drama but with Hellfire Club style hard rock guitars, and is so excellent that it could have been a single off either album. Its relgation to a b-side status for “King of Fools” no less was nothing short of the biggest oversight of Edguy’s career. This is a contender for the top ten Edguy songs list, and just a pure, joyous musical reminder of why we love bands that play music like this. At least its inclusion here redeems the mistake somewhat and gives the song another chance in the sun.

 

6. “Spooks in the Attic” (from the Superheroes EP):

  • Just like its fellow Superheroes EP lurker “Judas At the Opera”, this was one of those songs strong enough to warrant a purchase of that release by itself. Not only is “Spooks…” well written, but it has a kinetic energy flowing through it that is a combination of its urgent tempo, the incredibly well executed backing vocals, and some deft guitar work from Jens Ludwig and Dirk Sauer. This was one of the first displays of Sammet understanding that he had stumbled upon a great backing vocalist team whose work elevated his songwriting. Two of the key members of the future Avantasia group vocal recording sessions are present here, the immaculate Amanda Somerville and Thomas Rettke. An inspired pick.

 

7. “Babylon” (from the album Theater of Salvation):

  • Duh. “Babylon” stays, its an all-time power metal classic that transcends even Edguy. That unforgettable guitar melody has converted so many over to power metal that it deserves its own spot in any future power metal hall of fame. The lyrics make no sense, but that never mattered to anyone.

 

8. “The Eternal Wayfarer” (from the album Space Police):

  • This isn’t a bad song by any means (its downright awesome from 5:03 to 7:00), but it has no business being on this list because it wasn’t even in the top three best songs off Space Police. As an Edguy epic it doesn’t hit that sweet spot of over the top bombast and sailing on stormy seas drama. With that in mind, I’m going to replace it with another Edguy epic seeing as how we’re a little light on those on Monuments, and go with the transcendent, “Theater of Salvation”, which is one of my all-time favorite Sammet cuts. That song is so epic I have to brace myself every time I listen to it, because when that breathless guitar solo kicks in at 4:58, its an out of body experience.

 

9. “Out of Control” (from the album Vain Glory Opera):

  • An often overlooked gem from the late 90s that saw two titans of the power metal resurgence converge at an amazing time in both of their careers, “Out of Control” features Blind Guardian’s Hansi Kursch on guest vocals. He’s not all over the song, but chimes in for the refrain, a subtle inclusion that somehow makes all the difference in the world. That’s the power of Hansi. I’ve been using the word inspired too much during this review, but let’s give Sammet some credit here —- picking Hansi to elevate an already awesome song was certainly deserving of that adjective. (Just also want to point out that this was the first Edguy song I ever heard, back in 1999 on WRUW’s Metal Meltdown radio show on Friday afternoons hosted by Doctor Metal. That show was massively influential in my becoming a power metal fan, in fact, I give Doc pretty much all the credit. The show is on terrestrial radio in Cleveland, but the station was pioneering in its early adoption of broadcasting on the internet starting in the late 90s, which is how I was able to listen it. Its still on the air on Tuesday afternoons, the Doc a constant source of what’s happening in power metal, give it a listen.)

 

10. “Land of the Miracle” (from the album Theater of Salvation):

  • If you have yet to listen to Theater of Salvation, trust me when I say this, you need to remedy that straight away. Its one of the all-time power metal classics and was a part of that late 90s power metal movement that established the genre and moved the hearts of so many fans who craved to hear music like this. Truthfully you could pick any cut off that album for this compilation and I’d be okay with it, and “Land of the Miracle” qualifies with particular honors as a fan favorite, particularly as a live sing-along. Its not my personal favorite Edguy ballad, but its the closest thing Edguy have to a “Bard’s Song”, and is deserving of its place here.

 

11. “Key to My Fate”  (from the album The Savage Poetry (re-recorded version)):

  • Wow, we’re just now getting to The Savage Poetry, an album that you’ll be forgiven for overlooking because the band doesn’t really play anything from it these days. A little history: the original Savage Poetry was the 1995 album length demo that got the band signed, and it was technically followed up by their “debut” album Kingdom of Madness in 1997. But the band almost immediately disavowed KoM as deeply flawed (and it was, albeit still listenable), and quickly surpassed it with Vain Glory Opera and of course, Theater of Salvation. I still remember hearing Sammet in an interview in 1999 with the aforementioned Doctor Metal on The Metal Meltdown explaining the decision to re-record the demo, that the songs deserved another chance to shine. He was right, because The Savage Poetry is an excellent power metal album that is overshadowed by being sandwiched between Theater and Mandrake and Avantasia’s The Metal Opera Pt 1. The ballads “Roses to No One”, “Sands of Time”, and the thunderous epic “Eyes of the Tyrant” are classics in my book. As is “Key to My Fate”, one of the band’s finest up-tempo cuts with as glorious a chorus you’ll ever hear.

 

12. “Space Police” (from the album Space Police):

  • I’m cool with this being here, because I loved this song on the album and its semi-nod to the power metal Edguy seems to fit well with everything here. Others might disagree, but I thought Space Police was a return to form for Edguy, and songs like this were a major reason why. Its admittedly a little weird with its spacey sound effects and its slow tempo drop just before the accelerating chorus, not to mention its bizarre lyrics. But with Space Police, Edguy became Sammet’s vehicle for indulging this looser, sillier, tongue-in-cheek rockin’ side of his musical inclinations, and he did it with confidence here.

 

13. “Reborn in the Waste” (unreleased 1995 demo, Savage Poetry):

  • As indicated above, this is apparently an unreleased song from the original Savage Poetry demo, which is a cool little bonus for the sake of the band’s history. As a song, its unremarkable, and its not surprising that it was left off the original Savage Poetry demo —- to me it actually sounds like something that could have fit in on Kingdom of Madness which is unrepresented here for good reason. If you’re wondering why I’d consider the original Savage Poetry demo to be better than Kingdom of Madness, at least in songwriting terms, well its the classic rock band affliction right? A band has all the time in the world to write their debut, but only months or less to knock out that all important sophomore release. Make no mistake, even though Kingdom is technically their debut as a signed professional band, it was spiritually their troubled second album. On their “third” attempt, they knocked out Vain Glory Opera, and we were off to power metal glory.

 

So this went a little long, but its been past time for a little Edguy retrospective, and Monuments provided the perfect excuse to indulge in a little fanboy-dom. While I won’t be buying it, it did cause me to go back and revisit the entire discography which was fun and surprising for what I found myself positively responding to or not. Albums I thought were okay at the time have not aged well (Age of the Joker chief among them), but there were more than a handful of excellent songs that I’d almost forgotten about just from years of not listening to the albums they were on, particularly on Rocket Ride. What I do hope Edguy does in keeping with this whole anniversary thing is finally come back to the States to give us long suffering fans a proper tour. Yes it’d be a club tour, but suck it up and team up with another power metal band (Dragonforce perhaps?) to make it workable financially and ensure a draw. They’ve only toured the States twice before (2005 and 2009, never in Texas btw), and seem to lack the will to play the smaller venues they’d likely have to. But they have fans here who deserve to see the band, and likewise, the band deserves to see them.

The Metal Pigeon’s Best of 2016 // Part One: The Songs

Time yet again for the culmination of a year’s worth of metal listening, writing, and audibly opining (on the MSRcast) into the annual year end best of lists! Sometime ago I quietly added a link to the main page of the blog up above called “Recurring Features” that handily compiles all the other previous year end lists together in one place, so be sure to check those out if you haven’t yet. For the past few years, I’ve been splitting up the songs and albums lists, and so in continuing that tradition, I’m eager to present part one of The Metal Pigeon’s Best of 2016 — the songs! These ten songs were culled from a nominees pool of 23 songs this year, and they’re in part isolated gems off flawed albums as well as highlights from the very best albums of the year. I had fun with this list, while agonizing over the albums list (isn’t that always the way?), hope everyone has fun going through it as well!

 

 

 

The Metal Pigeon Best Songs of 2016:

 

 

1.   Avantasia – “A Restless Heart and Obsidian Skies” (from the album Ghostlights)

 

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=raWjIepoxlU&w=560&h=315]

 

The year’s most surprising artistic comeback success story, Avantasia’s Ghostlights was littered with superb, often stunning songs that were not only expertly written and constructed as only Tobias Sammett could manage, but fun to listen to as well. And at specific moments, they were downright transcendent —- the case in point, the Bob Catley led heart string tugging “A Restless Heart and Obsidian Skies”, a power ballad that might well be a spiritual sibling to the fan favorite “The Story Ain’t Over” (from the Lost In Space Pt 1 EP). Sammett has a magical rapport with Catley, or more accurately, as a songwriter writing for Catley —- channeling Magnum’s sense of dramatic pomp with his own inherent Jim Steinman-esque way with theatricality. Catley is an apt narrator, his raspy yet melodic vocals able to imbue any lyric with a rock n’ roll inspired joie de vivre and yet an appropriate amount of gravitas. Meanwhile Sammett’s ability to let it soar vocally is still unparalleled in power metal. Sure, he doesn’t have the unlimited range that he did during the late 90s/early 00s, but he understands how to pen lyrics and vocal patterns that provide trajectory and lift on a Steve Perry esque level.

This is an absolute gem of a song, with a chorus so rich and beautiful, so aching with indefinable magic that the first time I heard it whilst driving around, I had to pull over in a nearby parking lot just to get my mind right. I’m not being dramatic either, I can vividly recall that memory and the overwhelming rush of what I can only describe as joyous childhood nostalgia that I felt upon listening to it again, and again, and again. It helped that it was near sunset and with a partially overcast sky overhead, and such a backdrop and musically stirred emotional state mirrored the actual lyrics/title of the song. Sammett’s lyrics are stately and romantic in nature, full of atmospheric imagery and a sense of the narrator’s yearning: “Dark is the night, scarlet the moon / Sacred the light in the haze reflecting within…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’ll be the first to admit that its not a perfect song, its verses not quite matching the glory of the refrain resulting in a somewhat see-saw song, but that chorus is so unbelievably perfect, I’m willing to forgive what would ordinarily be a major flaw for lesser songwriters. Here, the verses set the mood, almost tempering our expectations, all before that arcing, soaring, perfect chorus rockets us to sheer happiness.

 

2.   Ihsahn – “Mass Darkness” (from the album Arktis.)

 

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0VxbJb_Gs8w&w=560&h=315]

 

Yet another in a long line of 2016 surprises, Ihsahn returned with his sixth and perhaps most accessible solo album since The Adversary with Arktis., an album that owed perhaps more to classic metal song craft  (read: riffs n’ hooks) than it did to his post-black metal avant garde experimentation. I enjoyed the album a great deal, some tracks more than others ( the saxophone solo wasn’t so bad this time around!), but I was totally blown away by “Mass Darkness”, an uptempo, three minute long adrenaline rush of arena ready black metal that is miles away from the usual dense and complex songwriting Ihsahn usually engages in. Its the best chorus of his career, featuring a genuine hook built upon guest vocalist Matt Heafy’s (Trivium and noted black metal fanboy) repeated refrain “Give in!… Give in to darkness!”, with lyrics that are some of the most convincingly parent-worrying in ages. What’s really special here is that for all its accessibility, “Mass Darkness” still very much retains Ihsahn’s DNA, heard in unusual guitar effects, counter-intuitive musical patterns, a solo that owes more to Wagner than Tipton, and a sense of dark theatricality  that permeates the entire song. Give in indeed.

 

3.    Haken – “Earthrise” (from the album Affinity)

 

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MnZdtpDd9-A&w=560&h=315]

 

I was properly introduced to London-based prog-metallers Haken this year through Affinity, having been aware of the band’s name in passing for awhile now. Having no idea or expectations of what to expect, I played through the album and came away more than impressed with the entire affair, especially its prog-metal exploration of 80s influences such as Rush, Toto, and Van Halen. There was one song I kept coming back around to in return trips to the album, and I’d always have to play it first, last, and a few extra times in the middle, and that was the cinematic “Earthrise”. Best described as 90s alternative rock in a prog blender (well, perhaps not the best description…), this is the hookiest track on the album and one of the most uplifting songs I heard in all of 2016. Not quite a power ballad and not quite rockin’ in its tempo, it played somewhere in the middle, built on bouncy rhythms and interlocking synth parts with some excellent, sprightly percussion dancing all throughout. Vocalist Ross Jennings takes a little getting used to (some people don’t enjoy his vocals when he’s not letting it rip from his throat), and you’ll either likely know right away what your tolerance level is for unusual vocalists when you hear him. I enjoyed his earnestness in this song, and wasn’t surprised to see through iTunes statistics that this was my second most played song of 2016.

 

 

4.   Myrath – “Believer” (from the album Legacy)

 

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uM1d7C8aOWk&w=560&h=315]

 

I think we’ve all been bombarded with enough talk about how 2016 was a seemingly downcast and darkened year for society, be it through everyone’s endless lamenting over celebrity deaths, the very understandable grief over terrible tragedies all around the world, and of course, *cough* presidential elections. I’ve been guilty of wallowing in it as well, and though I’ve tried to distance myself a bit from all that stuff, the truth is that 2016 was a bit of a crap year for me personally as well. So in looking back, I’m amused to find that I somewhat subconsciously began favoring very positive or happy or downright euphoric music over dark and grim stuff. Enter Myrath, whose Legacy album was one of the early 2016 releases and whose lead off single “Believer” never really left my rotation for any extended period of time. Euphoric is really the best adjective for this song, a celebratory rush of positivity, which only sounds corny if you’ve never really been in need of it. Its also a perfect microcosm of Myrath’s impressively Middle-Eastern infused take on metal, with sweeping violins playing ethnically informed arrangements in between the band’s epic, ambitious progressive metal. Vocalist Zaher Zorgati has a perfect voice for the band,  accented clean vocals to welcome newcomers (his pronunciation of “bandwagon” is certainly interesting), but powerful enough to give his lyrics about “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” and throwing away yesterday a real sense of belief and passion. The music video (linked above) was kickstarter-ed, and while the song is better off without it, we can’t begrudge them some Prince of Persia fanboying, as tempting as it may be to say something…

 

 

5.   Hatebreed – “A.D.” (from the album The Concrete Confessional)

 

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qCgozwhkV-g&w=560&h=315]

 

Hitting with the force of a gut punch, or perhaps that black and white footage of the cannon ball slamming into the fat guy’s stomach, Hatebreed’s “A.D.” was my go-to during a year when I was frequently in the mood for something raging and snarlingly angry. More than any other band, this was the sound of rage incarnate, and its one of the catchiest and heaviest songs of 2016, at times owing more to thrash metal ala post-1990 Slayer than anything hardcore related. Its lyrics are startlingly open ended despite their specificity, “It’s time to rethink this dream you call American / Corrupt beliefs that some will call their heritage”, a sentiment that could apply to fans around the world in addition to those of us here in the States. Vocalist Jamey Jasta has a precision oriented way with rhythmic syncopation in his lyrics and vocal patterns, just check out the 2:04 mark onwards when he sings “Now hear the media fools discuss the killer’s mind / Staring at the screen to tell us what they find / Manifesto, dollar worship, get on your knees / So they can sell us a cure for the American disease”. That syncopation alone adds that extra teeth gritting power to already sharpened, well written lyrics. The crazy thing about The Concrete Confessional is that it had two other cuts that were in the nominee pool for best songs of the year, a fact that surprised me as much as it likely has you.

 

 

6.   Serenity – “The Perfect Woman” (from the album Codex Atlanticus)

 

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RleBiMcx144&w=560&h=315]

 

Serenity’s first post-Thomas Buchberger album was certainly far from flawless, but it wasn’t the complete disaster that it could have been say for other bands when a key songwriter leaves the lineup. Crucial in this was vocalist Georg Neuhauser’s longtime role as co-songwriter and the primary writer of the vocal lines throughout the Serenity catalog. He shrewdly realized that without Buchberger writing songs built around his Kamelot-ian riffs, songs for Codex Atlanticus would have to be written largely around his vocal melodies first and foremost. But he’s a gifted vocalist, and has an inborn knack for understanding where a melody should go and how it should direct the arrangement of the song, from guitar parts to orchestral arrangements (the Tony Kakko gene in other words). Nowhere was this more evident than on the spectacular Broadway balladry of “The Perfect Woman”, a song ostensibly about Leonardo DaVinci painting The Mona Lisa. I mention Broadway, and yes, this song owes a lot to songwriting for musical theater, taking into account everything from the speed up vocal gymnastics during “I got a sensation that my creation in a quite disturbing way / Has come to life”, while jubilant horns punctuate behind him with musical exclamation marks —- down to the decision to throw in female vocals on the second verse (courtesy of the always on point Amanda Somerville) that serve as a sort of audience chorus in a perspective shift away from Georg’s first person take on Da Vinci’s own thoughts. Its a strange moment but weirdly amusing in its own way, and one I’m glad to have.

 

 

7.   Purson – “Electric Landlady” (from the album Desire’s Magic Theatre)

 

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=boscR_9EE5Q&w=560&h=315]

 

Winner of the most clever music/lyric video of 2016 award, metal or otherwise (and let’s be real, calling Purson metal is stretching genre definitions… but they’re here by association), “Electric Landlady” was also the band’s quintessential calling card off Desire’s Magic Theatre, their incense smoke love letter to 60s psychedelic rock. Its a bouncy number, built on nimble guitar lines with a slight crunch (but not too much!) and all the Hammond dressing that psych-rock of this ilk requires wrapped in studio production that is decidedly analog sounding (if there’s anything digital here, its cleverly disguised). I was fortunate enough to see Purson live earlier in late April of 2016 here in Houston towards the beginning of their US tour, which I believe was a mix of supporting shows and solo headliners. We got one of the latter, and it was at a local haunt named Rudyards, upstairs in the venue’s small live music room where no more than 70 people could probably fit comfortably. It was a fun night, and Purson were extremely entertaining and convincing as a live band —- little did I know that it’d be there last trip to Houston. Purson only just recently announced their breakup for “personal reasons”, and that’s a shame because they had the potential to blow up in a big way. We’ll always have this song and its gorgeous, tribute to 1960’s groovy, swingin’ London visual companion.

 

 

8.   Suidakra – “The Serpent Within” (from the album Realms of Odoric)

 

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cPpYCTvnyvU&w=560&h=315]

 

I have such affection for Suidakra since becoming a die hard fan of theirs back in 2013 through their awesome (and Metal Pigeon Best Albums list winner) Eternal Defiance. Since then, I’ve poured through their immense back catalog, gained a basket full of favorite songs across the spectrum of their discography and have declared them to be one of the new leading lights in modern melodic death metal (even though they’ve been doing this for nearly two decades now). Simply put, no one else sounds like them, with their blending of folk elements and melo-death, as well as their arms wide open embrace of power metal sensibilities in the way of hooks and clean vocals. I love bands who can honor traditions yet still imprint their own identity upon things. So it was a slight let down when I finally published my review of the highly anticipated Realms of Odoric, that I knew it wouldn’t find its way to the best albums list for 2016. That being said, I haven’t been able to quit “The Serpent Within” —- like at all… its one of my most listened to songs of all 2016 releases according to iTunes and its that mesmerizing chorus that’s pulling me back in every time. Arkadius Antonik’s lyrics here hit a poetic nerve, as I love the line during the chorus “This life is but a spiral path / The serpent lurks inside”. The entire song is a lyrical gem constructed with fantasy motifs, yet able to work as a real world meditation on the value of solitude and inward peace as a bulwark against modernity.

 

 

9.   Katatonia – “Old Heart Falls” (from the album The Fall of Hearts)

 

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IIGBNc2nFZA&w=560&h=315]

 

I’m not sure if I ever managed to resolve my feelings about Katatonia’s The Fall of Hearts, and that’s kinda par for the course with my relationship with their more recent albums. They’re all pretty good, certainly have their moments but as whole, cohesive works they somehow fail to impress me across the board. Ditto for this new album which I really gave the benefit of a couple weeks of regular listening, often times for the simple pleasure of hearing “Old Heart Falls”, perhaps one of the most beautiful and rich slices of doomy, depressive rock you’ll ever hear. Its seemingly difficult for bands to write songs with perfect buildups, but Katatonia manage that here: vocals accompanied only by wounded guitar notes floating into the ether over a bed of 70s prog keyboards usher us in, then the rhythm section slips in behind a descending chord figure that continues through ascension. The bridge comes after a soft pause, audible bass setting the mood with simple patterns, and then distortion comes, slowly growing louder and Jonas Renkse’s sublime vocal melody careens forward, set to thoughtful lyrics, “For every dream that is left behind me… / …With every war that will rage inside me…”. Its hypnotic and alluring despite its bleak-hearted subject matter and downcast perspective. Try as they might, American bands rarely get music like this right… its just something that comes natural to Scandinavians, and that’s okay. Bonus points for the stylish, austere, and inventive lyric video.

 

 

10.   Borknagar – “Winter Thrice” (from the album Winter Thrice)

 

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NDrrKv2wjvk&w=560&h=315]

 

When this album first came out I figured it would be in regular rotation throughout the year, being a relatively strong and intriguing listen throughout. But the truth is that it sort of fell off for me after the first few months for reasons I’m still uncertain about. That didn’t happen with 2012’s Urd, an album that I contend could vie with Empiricism for their best ever. That album gave us the Best Songs list makin’ “The Earthling”, which is my favorite Borknagar song of all tid(!), and fortunately Winter Thrice throws its own contender for that spot in the mix with its star studded title track. I use the term “star” loosely of course, but in black metal terms, a single song with vocal parts by Lars Nedland, ICS Vortex, Kristoffer Rygg (aka Garm), and of course Andreas Hedlund (aka Vintersorg) can aptly be described as studded by something or another. Its a tremendous series of performances, each vocal filled with enough personality to be discernible from one another and nuanced in their own manner. The song itself is epic, with angular riffs and brutal screaming vocals stacked against each other in frigid formation, unfazed by the warm fires of the lead guitars and soaring clean vox lines. It also received a gorgeous music video treatment with Garm playing the role of the jarl in Whiterun…er, somewhere in Norway!

 

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.

Edguy’s Space Police: Does Tobias Sammet Rebound?

Edguy_Space-Police-300x300_zps0f723504If you’ve kept up with the blog over the past few years, you’ll know that I’m a pretty big Tobias Sammet fan. Yet my unabashed fandom has not prevented me from listening with a critical ear to his songwriting in both Avantasia and Edguy, and in doing so I’ve begun to notice a certain track that his recent works have been taking. There was a noticeable decline with Edguy’s Age of the Joker and last year’s Avantasia offering, The Mystery of Time, and it could be argued that the seeds of this decline for Edguy in particular began with 2008’s Tinnitus Sanctus. That in itself I find rather revealing, because 2008 also ushered in the release of the first Avantasia album in the largely brilliant Scarecrow trilogy —- which suggests that it marked the start of an era in which Sammet began to reserve his best material for the Avantasia records, by default giving Edguy second priority. Sammet himself would balk at that very suggestion and has gone on record stating that the songwriting periods for both projects do not intersect. Hey I’m a fan of the guy, I’ll take him at his word, but I will argue that its fair to suggest that his main musical priority had shifted to Avantasia within the past six years. Its in the math guys: since 2008 —- four Avantasia albums to three for Edguy.

 

I understood the importance of the Avantasia project to Sammet, and since he was delivering great records I was perfectly willing to tolerate a slight quality hit on the Edguy stuff, which weren’t bad albums by any means (there were a few gems on those records). But when The Mystery of Time happened, I began to see that there was a possibility of the well running dry in terms of Sammet’s seemingly endless capacity for penning excellent songs. It falls then to the newest Edguy release, the typically tongue-in-cheek titled Space Police: Defenders of the Crown, to show that Sammet has rebounded from the songwriting lethargy that has plagued his two most recent releases, and more importantly —- to bring some measure of importance and individuality back to the name Edguy. He can accomplish the former by of course delivering some truly knockout songs, but achieving the latter is a far more ambiguous task —- after all, a side effect of Sammet being the sole songwriter for both bands is that they have begun to blend together in styles. When Edguy records started showing noticeable hard rock influences, Avantasia records followed suit —- so it begs the question: What is Edguy anymore?

 

The answer appears to be right in front of our faces. Pick up your copy of Space Police and take a long gander at that ludicrous album cover. For the record, I do enjoy the artwork, but that image of a 70’s motorcycle cop pastiche holding an alien (in the most awkward way possible) is the codex that we can use to decipher how Sammet now permanently perceives his work in Edguy. There was a long period of time dating back to the band’s inception when Edguy wrote serious albums about relatively serious subjects. However levity and comic relief became a subtle tradition within Edguy albums dating back to 2000’s mostly dark and serious Mandrake, where a track called “Save Us Now” comic-riffed on drummer Felix Bohnke’s nickname of “Alien Drum Bunny”. Since then we’ve gotten songs about morning wood, self-referential ideas about superheroes, a fantasy of joining the mile high club as a way to deal with flight anxiety,  and of course a bonus track about the life and times of… a bonus track. I’m barely scratching the surface here, and I’m marveling at my own obtuseness in not realizing that Sammet has rather conspicuously separated the veins of his songwriting approach into his two ongoing projects. Since 2006, Avantasia would receive (and monopolize) the far more serious, artistic vein, while Edguy’s increasing blendings of hard rock with traditional power metal served as a perfect soundtrack in which Sammet could further indulge his wacky, silly, Scorpions-inspired vein.

 

edguy-400x300_zps6e8bd9a9These are permanent changes, and I suspect that Sammet realizes this, but I’m not sure that most of his fans have. If you’re one of the few that can accept the compartmentalizing of his songwriting career, then you’ll be able to accept Space Police for what it is —- namely, the strongest Edguy record of the past eight years. Sammet has successfully shaken off the dust of his past two recordings and delivers some pretty great songs, the most apparent of these being the title track itself. With its tension building, slow-burning verses and propulsive prog-pop chorus, Sammet has penned one of his best Edguy songs to date. Its subject matter is ironic in that its poking fun at fans, or critics (or in my case, one and the same) that tend to demand that the band stick to a particular set of stylistic rules or structures —- all while featuring some of the silliest voice effects on any Edguy song ever (remember the “sung” guitar solo from years ago… its back in a weird way). There’s also the standout single, “Love Tyger”, one of Sammet’s catchiest songs ever, with its “La-La-La-La-Love Tiiiger” refrain becoming perma-stuck in my head for the better part of two weeks now. I love the backing vocals on this tune, with its complementing mix of male and female vocals in what is by now becoming a Sammet trademark, they add a lushness to the sound that is supremely enjoyable. Another gem is the unconventional power ballad “Alone In Myself”, where Sammet trades the usual dramatic build up and Slash-esque guitar solos for an almost soul-influenced lead vocal backed up by some fantastic gospel tinged choir vocals during the refrain. I’m pretty big on Sammet’s ballads, I think he’s one of the best at penning them genre wide, and I love that he’s finding new ways to explore this particular avenue in his songwriting. What an astounding song.

 

With those three tracks as the pinnacle of a pretty strong album, I’m left wondering why the band (or perhaps more accurately, Nuclear Blast) decided upon “Sabre & Torch” as the lead-off single. Its not a bad song, but its nothing spectacular either (its very construction reminds me of the similarly underwhelming “Ministry of Saints” from Tinnitus Sanctus), its appeal is all but extinguished after a couple spins and I have no real desire to hear it again. I was more than impressed with the guts it took to release “Sleepwalking” as the first single and video of the last Avantasia album, so why go the safe route with Edguy (which is ostensibly a far less conservative project)? I can only assume that its an overt play towards metal fans en masse as opposed to only Edguy/Sammet fans, who I believe would’ve been far more impressed even with the crudely titled “Do Me Like A Caveman”, which for its utterly throwaway title does sport a rather focused, serious sonic palette and a truly vibrant chorus. Likewise goes for “The Realms of Baba Yaga”, where a pretty good groove and some solid riffs help in distracting you from the vagueness of the lyrics (my stab in the dark at them is that its a very Iron Maiden-y “Number of the Beast” type of motif, except with a figure from Slavic myth instead of pitchforked devils). But credit where credit’s due, all parties involved were wise in keeping the Falco “Rock Me Amadeus” cover buried as a deep album cut, right in the middle of the tracklisting in fact. Its placement is well chosen, its execution is amusing and truly evocative of the spirit of the original, and as far as covers go, its an imaginative choice.

 

 

tobiassammet_zpsa1237831Filling out the rest of the record are some solid album cuts; “Defenders of the Crown”, the second half title track has a chorus that is slightly lacking, yet the rest of the song is packed with enough interesting musicality to make it worth many repeat listens. Same goes for “Shadow Eaters”, an uptempo mix of power and trad metal elements with a pummeling double bass furor throughout, its easily the heaviest track on the record (you know… if that’s the kind of thing you enjoy hearing about). The closing track “The Eternal Wayfarer” attempts to be the epic of the record, with its just under nine minutes in length, but it comes up short of meeting the criteria to be placed alongside past Edguy epic-length classics. Not for lack of trying however, because I should mention that the song is near spectacular from 5:03 to 7:00, where an extremely well written extended bridge features the kind of swirling lead vocal layering that we haven’t heard since the classic title track from Theater of Salvation, a blast of nostalgia that is tastefully done and just plain fun to hear! So there you have it, no real clunkers, and a handful of gems, I’d call that a pretty good outing for Sammet and a rebound for him in the quality department. I’ve noticed I haven’t mentioned any of the other band member’s performances, and that’s not meant to be a snub, as those guys do their job really well and sound great as always. This is a band that lives and dies on the songwriting skills of Sammet, and until they decide to get involved in that realm themselves, it will always be that way.

 

So its worth reiterating once again, Edguy is Sammet’s lighthearted rock n’ roll playground, and fans should start getting used to this being the way things will always be. The days of serious Edguy records are long over, since 2006 it seems —- so you’d figure we’d all be accepting of this by now, except one of the more unfortunate traits of metal fans of all stripes is an unwillingness to accept change. Check out the YouTube comments for any of these new songs, and you’ll find someone bemoaning the fact that the band has abandoned their classic style and gotten silly. But maybe they’re responding to the hard rock and trad metal influences, which are slowly taking over the sound of a majority of veteran power metal bands. I do feel that power metal is in need of another round of classicism, a re-appropriation of the sound that once defined a generation of bands in the nineties. When Silent Force’s new album sounds closer to Whitesnake than classic Helloween, you know that the state of the genre is in considerable flux. But when it comes to Sammet, I think he’s far removed from the rigidity of the classic style/sound that many of his fans crave (the biggest hint was his subtitling the last Avantasia record “A Rock Epic”, as opposed to “The Metal Opera”). The best that you can hope for as a listener and fan is to find something redeeming about his songwriting on every new release, and thankfully he’s never let me down in that regard.

The Metal Pigeon’s Best of 2013 // Part One: The Songs

And farewell to another year that’s flown by too quickly. Of course that means its time for anyone and everyone in metal writing, print or digital, to indulge their egos a bit and draft up their end of year lists. Now most writers will never own up to it but I’m a rather shameless sort, and will freely admit that I love creating these lists. I put an inordinate amount of thought into drafting them and end up changing around the entries and numerical ordering countless times before I ever hit publish. Self-indulgent? Absolutely. But I also hope that people who in anyway remotely enjoy reading what I write will check out my lists as a way to get into bands or albums they’ve not heard before. That’s ultimately the most rewarding aspect of writing about music, expressing your enthusiasm and passion for something to others and hoping they’ll hear what you hear.

 

As you can see from the title, to make everything more readable, I’m separating the best songs and albums of 2013 into separate articles (the albums list is on it’s way soon). Of course, some bands will overlap on both lists, with undeniable crowning jewels from great records being represented, but doing this separate list for just songs alone allows for a spotlight to be shined on those songs that were gems on releases that may not have necessarily made the best albums of the year cut. Anyway to quote Marti DeBergi, “Enough of my yakking”!

 

 

 

 

The Metal Pigeon’s Best Songs of 2013:

 

1. Darkthrone – “Leave No Cross Unturned” (from the album The Underground Resistance)

 

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b0tsFqTulM8&w=560&h=315]

 

 

The extent to which this song towered over the rest of the tracks from Darkthrone’s excellent The Underground Resistance is such that whenever I think upon that album, the monstrous, cyclonic riff that anchors this battleship of a song is the ONLY thing that comes to mind. This song, more than any other released this year by anyone else epitomizes to me the pure, untarnished, unapologetic, hell bent for leather spirit of metal as I know it and have grown up loving. Its not just the King Diamond-esque vocals from Fenriz that encompass so much of this thirteen minute long epic, or the brutal series of incredible, bone shaking riffs one after another courtesy of Nocturno Culto seemingly on a mission to destroy, or the slammingly heavy midsection bridge at 4:24 —- its everything all together. I contend, with some expectation of hatred at the very idea, that this is Darkthrone’s heaviest song to date.

 

Its typical of Darthrone’s contrary spirit then that this song could only come now, many albums past Darkthrone’s turning of their backs on the traditional black metal sound. They’ve also moved on past the crust punk/black n’ roll they dabbled in for some years and have seemingly embraced traditional heavy metal. Gone too are the murky, muddled productions of past albums, replaced here by a crispness and clarity never before heard with Darkthrone music. There are some out there that speculate that these guys are taking the piss, purposefully trolling the black metal fans with their current musical incarnation. I reject those notions out of hand not only because the band have come across as rather earnest about their current direction in interviews, but simply because music that sounds this genuinely in love with heavy metal in all its ugly glory doesn’t know the meaning of irony.

 

 


2. Amorphis – “Hopeless Days” (from the album Circle)

 

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The shining gem on Amorphis’ 2013 effort, “Hopeless Days” is everything you’d want in a song built in this particular style of depressive, melancholic metallic hard rock. There were quite a few good songs on that record, but none as powerful and churning with dramatic ache as this one. Powerful percussion ushers you along over a bed of building riffs that explode in a supremely catchy chorus all whilst elegantly tinkling piano plays underneath —- a subtle yet brilliant juxtaposition. Vocalist Tomi Joutsen delivers his best vocal and lyric during this emotionally stirring moment: “I was born a captive / A captive of the night / In between / Hopeless days”.  Gotta love the scale climbing guitar lines that kick in during and after the solo —- Esa Holopainen might just be the most underrated guitarist coming out of Finland right now. When Sentenced called it a day in 2005, I was worried that my supply of this type of rock inflected metal would dry up, but there seems to be a strong contingent of bands working in the same medium, Amorphis amongst the best of them. My iTunes count says I’ve played this song alone 79 times while the rest of the album’s songs sit at 30-40 (sometimes I wonder if the iTunes play counts of writers from taste maker websites would really back up their best metal of the year lists). Play count 80 starting…NOW!

 

 

3. Orphaned Land – “All Is One” / “Brother” (from the album All Is One)

 

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bds3FALcR7M&w=280&h=225] [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qsPb1-uPIic&w=280&h=225]

 

How can two songs take one spot? Because they are to me inseparable, both in my mind as representations of my favorite moments on Orphaned Land’s surprisingly great All Is One album, and as micro representations of the core of the band’s progression through simplification both musically and lyrically. With the title track serving as both the lead off single and first song on the album track listing proper, Orphaned Land in four minutes and thirty seconds crafted a brilliant, euphoria inducing epic that perfectly encompassed their spiritual ideology (agree or disagree with it). What makes the song truly effective however are not just the direct, declarative lyrics, or the artfully done Middle Eastern instrumentation —- but the band’s embrace of clear, anthemic melodies and hair raising choral vocals ala Blind Guardian during the chorus. The infusion of that particular kind of power metal element is new for the band, as is their shift to a leaner, more direct method of songwriting, a complete 180 from the complex progressive metal of their last two records.

 

These newly embraced principles work to possibly greater effect on “Brother”, where singer Kobi Farhi’s inspired lyrics threaten to overshadow some truly great music going on underneath. The lyrics, as widely discussed by now, are intended to be the words of Issac to his brother Ishmael. Its a gutsy song for an Israeli to write, let alone record and perform on stage, as it’s lyrics essentially serve as an extended metaphor of the relationship between Jews and Muslims, brother faiths of the same Abrahamic father. Its a heavyweight topic to tackle but here its done with elegance, subtle apologetic notes, and a passionate vocal courtesy of Farhi that registers as the album’s highlight moment. The beautiful guitar interplay of Yossi Sassi and Chen Balbus that is to be found all throughout this album is the band’s best to date, particularly during the instrumental section where the guitars kick into an almost Slash-esque mellow solo. The band delivered an incredible one-two punch with both of these songs, and managed to wrangle an old fan like me back into the fold.

 

 

4. Serenity – “Wings of Madness” (from the album War of Ages)

 

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vX5jsf3v9vw&w=560&h=315]

 

Serenity stunned me this year with their spectacular War of Ages album, and this inspired lead off track (and first single) was the highest among many high points to be found on the set.  “Wings of Madness” is a complex, multifaceted masterpiece that twists and turns around the dramatic vocal duets of co-vocalists Georg Neuhauser and Clementine Delauney. The latter is the newest member of the band and the undeniable star on this particular song (and perhaps the entire album), her vocals equipped with both a light ethereal touch and a dark, rich, almost Lisa Gerrard-like quality that she can blend together at will. The song’s music video seems to suggest that the lyrics are about the infamous Countess Bathory and her blood bathing lifestyle (everyone’s got their thing). This is a band that directs its lyrical bent towards characterizations or accounts of historical figures, and as such, the quatrain in the chorus is unnervingly eerie and appropriate: “No sun is shining in your eyes / A shadow growing in disguise / I can’t stand the silence / Embracing you at night”. One of the many things I appreciate about Serenity is their commitment to a higher standard of lyricism than the power metal norm —- similar to what Roy Khan was instilling during his tenure in Kamelot.

 

 

5. Queensryche – “In This Light” (from the album Queensryche)

 

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8LGaEOP86Kc&w=560&h=315]

 

That Queensryche was able to find a viable, credible future sans Geoff Tate was in itself a remarkable feat, but their creation of an album that is worthy enough to stand alongside their first six bonafide classics is still mind-boggling. This year’s self-titled comeback record was full of the classic elements long missed from Queensryche releases, and the band found that new members like guitarist Parker Lundgren and of course, life-saver vocalist Todd LaTorre could contribute to the songwriting process from the word go. Truthfully speaking, while I enjoyed the album, I had to admit it did have an array of weaknesses mostly stemming from the album’s length, and some songs that could’ve used a few more minutes. “In This Light” however stands out as a pristine moment, a deftly penned stately rocker with a chorus that could’ve come from the band’s Empire era. I mentioned in my original review for the album that this song was “a sort of distant cousin to “Another Rainy Night” and “One and Only”. Its perhaps the most accessible song on the record, yet also the most thoughtful, its lyrics a reflective paean on despair and hope.” Its curious to me that they haven’t released this as a single yet.

 

 

6. Omnium Gatherum – “The Unknowing” (from the album Beyond)

 

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RsjHvaU5Aik&w=560&h=315]

 

These guys released a pretty solid record earlier this year with Beyond, but the highlight of the album was this singular gem, an arpeggio fueled, cinematic slice of melodic death metal nirvana. Not only is the guitar work stunning throughout in a general breathtaking sense, but they buoy a melody that is strangely melancholic and uplifting at the same time. Vocalist Jukka Pelkonen’s vocals here feature an extra degree of crisp clarity that is normally buried in his obsidian delivery (an acquired taste I admit). The Finns really have something going on right now with the amazing slate of fresh takes on melodic death metal that is very far removed from the now old-school Gothenburg scene in neighboring Sweden. Insomnium also released a fantastic new song this year that I reviewed earlier which will narrowly miss a placement on this list —- but its just more mounting evidence that both these promising torch bearers of modern melodic death metal have found a way to distance themselves from the negative associations that the original melo-death sound has unfortunately found with American metalcore.

 

 

7.  Týr – “The Lay of Our Love” (from the album Valkyrja)

 

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9zd2rYcxXBM&w=560&h=315]

 

This was a bold, gutsy move for  Týr, a band whose previous attempts at anything close to balladry were blanketed by singing in their native Faroese language, about subject matter that was really anyone’s guess.  But Valkyrja is a thematic album about the role of the woman as Goddess and wife, in the life of a Viking warrior —- and to the band’s credit they are lyrically adventurous about it throughout. Not only are the lyrics in “The Lay of Our Love” essentially about a rather sentimental subject, in this case a pair of lovers sundered by impending death, but the music at work here is pure power balladry (I mean that in a good way!). I’m not sure whats my favorite part, the delicately plucked acoustic intro or the wild, passionate guitar solo mid-way through that ranks amongst the band’s best. Liv Kristine of Leaves Eyes fame is the lithe, delicate female voice you’re hearing, and her performance here is just immense. Its a shame that I seem to only be able to really appreciate her work when its in guest spots like these, but she contrasts well with Heri Joensen’s deep, soaring vocals.  Týr should continue being brave with experiments like these if the payoffs are anything close to this.

 

 

8. Avantasia – “Saviour in the Clockwork” (from the album The Mystery of Time)

 

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=USkP6pT8UYI&w=560&h=315]

 

I pointed out in my review for Avantasia’s most recent album that in the past half decade Tobias Sammet has now released nearly double the amount of Avantasia releases in comparison to his main band Edguy. At some point, both of the projects were going to start blurring together stylistically due to having the same songwriter driving each, and as expected that is exactly what is happening with both of the newest Avantasia and Edguy releases. They’re still good albums, but at this point the only musical difference between both bands is the presence of guest vocalists in Avantasia, and you’ve gotta wonder if that will be enough in the long run. Of course, if you’re like me and just consider yourself more of a Tobias Sammet fan than a distinct fan of either one of his bands then you won’t really care all that much about such details as long as he keeps delivering the goods. Well, the bad news was that The Mystery of Time is the most uneven album in Avantasia’s now vast discography. The good news is that it did contain a handful of distinctive Sammet homeruns, including this awe-inspiring epic featuring vocals from Joe Lynn Turner, Biff Byford, and of course Michael Kiske. Its got all the elements a Sammet fan wants: thundering bombast, excellent songwriting, and lush vocal arrangements particularly in the group choir vocals during the chorus.

 

 

9. Falkenbach – “Eweroun” (from the album Asa)

 

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mA5nN65B_eg&w=560&h=315]

 

I consider it a good quality that this song conjures up the feeling of sitting by some intense campfire under the stars at midnight (… ah lets face it, I’m really thinking of Skyrim). Gone are the murky, lo-fi productions of past albums —- 2013 Falkenbach has taken a page from Darkthrone’s playbook: Sometimes the way to progress your sound forward is to fully capture it in a pristine form, not hide it under layers of hiss and microphones. Sole member and creator Vratyas Vakyas’s vocals are the selling point on “Eweroun” (translated as “Evermore”), his plaintive, spacious clean vocals ushering in the song with a vocal melody I can only describe as soothing. He sets this over a bed of warm muted riffing, simple percussion patterns, and chiming acoustic guitars. The hook is not a traditional chorus either, but simply an altered acoustic guitar figure. Vakyas apparently pens most of his lyrics in old Norse, and a look at the translation of the lyrics seems to suggest an allusion to the passage of time set against the backdrop of changing seasons. It all conjures up a rather spiritual feel, and its not much of a stretch to actually call it something close to spiritual folk metal.

 

 

10. Lord – “Digital Lies” (from the album Digital Lies)

 

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UR38tX6z6iI&w=560&h=315]

 

You may not have heard of Lord before, but many of you might remember Dungeon from Australia, the rather underrated power/trad metal band who in addition to building up a solid catalog of quality albums over the span of a decade  also provided us with one of metal’s great covers in their take on Toto’s “Hold the Line”. Lord then is ex-Dungeon vocalist Tim Grose’s project born out of the ashes of his former band. They launched in 2003 and have done a few decent records now, but their 2013 release Digital Lies shows the band taking determined strides towards potential greatness. This title track from the effort is one jewel among many featured on the release that crackles with the kind of excitement that is harder and harder to find with newer power metal releases (and worryingly so at that). Over a rock steady bed of aggressive, pulsing bass and pounding riffs is a striking contrast between almost Alexi Laiho-ish vocals in the verse, and Grose’s wide open, soaring tenor in the chorus. He’s always been an excellent vocalist, displaying a heft and weight to power metal vocal delivery that is so often found lacking amongst the European ranks —- but his ability to switch it up here at will is even more impressive. Check out this song, and if you like it do yourself the favor of grabbing the album, its one of the better power metal records released this year.

 

Avantasia’s The Mystery of Time: Sonic Ambivalence

Since I’m going to be talking about Tobias Sammet and Avantasia, I’ll point out that this isn’t a conventional review in the sense that I’m trying to help you decide whether or not to check this album out — because of course you should. Sammet possesses a nearly peerless songwriting ability within the power metal/hard rock spectrum, and with said ability has delivered a career’s worth of superb work through Edguy and of course his solo/all-star project Avantasia. Every Sammet penned album can be guaranteed to contain a small to large handful of gems, and for that fact alone I believe he is worthy of respect and yes even gratitude. Speaking as a power metal fan, that level of consistency is a rare beast in a genre too often full of talented musicians who can’t write a decent tune. I became a fan of the man back in 2000 with Edguy’s seminal classic Mandrake, and both retrospectively and with each new release, Sammet continued to fill the soundtrack of my life with thundering, grandiose power metal epics and emotive, stirring ballads. Few others in power metal deliver the goods as well as he does. So as expected, there’s a lot on my mind regarding this record, and to better help myself keep all my thoughts in order I’ll be breaking this down into categorized, bite-sized chunks:

 

The Good:

 

Stylistic commitment:

When it comes to the music on offer here, Sammet sticks with what his overall approach has developed into, which is a broadly scoped fusion of anthemic hard rock mixed with traditional power metal. I’m going to cautiously say that this was a good call. There are probably quite a handful of fans that would prefer to see a full on return to the quasi-neoclassical sound of The Metal Operas, and while I understand those wishes, I also appreciate that asking an artist to conjure up new music in a style and head space that he is over ten years removed from is simply unrealistic. While The Scarecrow Trilogy did feature some wonderfully decadent orchestral keyboard laden tracks, Sammet relied far more on unadorned hard rock — and that was a line crosser for many fans at the time, who felt that the name Avantasia should conjure up music that was entirely regal, and Euro-centric-ally classical.  That being said, there does seem to be a knowing glance to The Metal Opera past that arrives in the presence of the German Film Orchestra Babelsberg on the album from front to back. The orchestra’s impact is felt throughout, providing an expansive bed of sound for even the more rock than metal cuts, giving them an appropriately epic feel.

 

 

Some really great songs:

But far more than the details of styles and sounds, its songwriting that matters the most to me, and Sammet digs up a couple of inarguable gems. The most obvious of these is the album standout “Savior in the Clockwork”, a surging ten minute monster with a chill inducing epic chorus that contains perhaps my favorite Sammet characteristic as of late: Goddamned awesome choir background vocals. They give what is already a great chorus that extra airtime with this huge soaring uplift — its pure ear candy and has been a prominent songwriting/production element in the past few Avantasia/Edguy albums. There’s a small but well known handful of vocalists that make up this choir, including the immensely likable Amanda Somerville, and quite frankly they should be talked about more in other reviews I’ve seen.

 

The award for most Avantasia-ian song goes to the truly exciting “Dweller in a Dream”, which harkens back to the classic pure symphonic metal style so vividly that you could probably slip it onto a burned copy of the first Metal Opera record and a newbie wouldn’t know it was a from another album. Maybe its the way Michael Kiske’s vocals finish Sammet’s refrain during the chorus, but I got flashbacks of 2000 — anyone else? And I’ll go ahead and blaspheme here (to some people), by saying that “Sleepwalking”, the most startlingly overt pop song Sammet has ever penned actually works surprisingly well; a semi-power ballad with a yearning, cinematic chorus that soars to those same dizzying heights that characterize so many of his past ballads. Producer/guitarist Sascha Paeth makes a wonderful contribution here with an elegantly simple guitar solo that softly echoes the primary melody and evokes a beautiful sentimentality.

 

 

Eric Martin / No lame interludes!:

And speaking of ballads, Sammet’s best decision on this album is to utilize Eric Martin’s seemingly ageless voice for the actual ballad, a classic piano and strings laden slow dance with a strong, emotionally stirring refrain and lush backing vocal arrangement. Martin’s voice is rich, suitably sandpapery, and inflected with just a touch of country that only enhances the heart wrenching qualities of Sammet’s composition by grounding it in an American southern earthiness.

 

Bonus points go to Sammet for good decision making on avoiding a concept album cliche of small non-song intervals, few bands can do them well and Sammet has had a sketchy record in the past when he’s tried it (the utterly obnoxious “Lucifer in Love” anyone?). To his credit he’s done a great job keeping that nonsense out of his past seven records, and I’ve noticed fewer and fewer bands doing it as well (hopefully this becomes a full fledged trend).

 

 

The Not So Good

 

Woeful filler and lyrics:

There are a couple songs that simply fall flat unfortunately, the first that comes to mind is the absolutely uninspired “The Watchmaker’s Dream”, which might just have one of the most boring choruses I’ve heard in years. Joe Lynn Turner is the guest vocalist on it, and while he’s a good singer, he comes off as rather indistinguishable here (more on that later), whereas someone with a bit more character in his voice could have possibly salvaged the track by making it their own. I could have lived without the other Kiske track on offer, “Where Clock Hands Freeze”, a total 180° from the excellent “Dwellers In a Dream”. Its this album’s version of the classic Helloween-inspired power metal speedster, and frankly its weak. Sammet has previously delivered the goods on these types of attempts on the past few albums, so its disconcerting to see him drop the ball here with Kiske — whats up with that? I could also have done without the quiet, orchestra only parts in “The Great Mystery”, which interrupt the flow of what is really a fantastic series of mini-songs folded into one long epic piece. Sammet included vague meandering orchestral parts on the title track for “The Scarecrow” album, and it struck me as lazy then as it does now — surely he can come up with a creative musical or lyrical bridge to serve as a connector for two disparate sections of a song. In other words cut it out with the faux atmospherics and stop boring us. You’re better than that Tobi.

 

 

I’ve always admired great lyricists in metal and elsewhere, and I feel that I’ve been rather patient and forgiving for the typicality of mediocre lyrics that permeate so much of metal. Power metal is unfortunately guilty of harboring some horrendous lyrical massacres, and my love of the overwhelming enjoyability of the genre has forced me to simply accept it as the norm. Sammet isn’t the worst lyricist in power metal — far, far from it — he often writes about interesting subject matter and has a particular English as a second language way with a phrase that is endearing. But I wouldn’t go out of my way to call him a good lyricist either; he overuses words, phrases, and imagery often, he relies on abstraction to a fault, and his tendency to use malapropisms is simply maddening. I let a lot of that go… especially when it comes to lyricists who aren’t writing in their native tongue, but sometimes I wish they’d make use of a proofreader every once in awhile.

 

So in the rather heavy, and aggressive “Invoke the Machine”, we get Ronnie Atkins trying to manfully bark out this travesty of a phrase: “Don’t you see what you are meant to be / Outside your cloud-cuckoo-land”. It almost, ALMOST… ruins the song for me. Maybe its just me but dammit that’s just embarrassingly bad — “cloud-cuckoo-land”? What is this, a Teletubbies album? What in the hell is that supposed to mean anyway?

 

The guest vocalist line-up:

No ones said it, but surely some have to be thinking it: This album would’ve been far better with different vocalists. This has to be the most ambivalence-inducing guest cast for an Avantasia album ever. And I know that it was going to be hard to top the absolutely stellar array of vocalists Sammet assembled for The Scarecrow Trilogy, so I do applaud his efforts in trying to diversify this lineup from previous casts. As I mentioned before, Eric Martin is a great choice, and I dig Ronnie Atkins and Bob Catley’s contributions as well. But Biff Byford, Joe Lynn Turner, Cloudy Yang, and to some extent Kiske himself were really uninspired choices here.

 

I include Kiske because his vocals only work if he’s getting exceptional songs, as he has on past efforts. And while I loved “Sleepwalking”, surely Amanda Somerville would have been a far better choice than Yang — who while not bad, suffers from awkward phrasing, spotty enunciation, and an all around weird approach to vocals… is she trying to be R&B, pop, rock, or none of the above? Hell if I know! As for Byford — I’ve never been a big fan and I can’t help but think when listening to his feature track here, “Black Orchid”, how much better it’d sound if Jorn was on vocals instead.

 

And while I realize that the guest vocalists on Avantasia albums are for the most part reflections of Sammet’s musical inspirations and interests, he has proven that he could stretch out before to spectacular results such as nabbing Roy Khan, or even Hansi Kursch himself on an old Edguy record. There’s a load of great talent out there, and maybe next time Sammet should set his sights wider to scope out some of the great contemporary vocalists out there in rock and metal that perhaps aren’t the traditional favorites (though no one would object to Bruce Dickinson… seriously how has that not happened yet?). I’m veering close into straight up nitpicking territory here I know, but this was the first time that an Avantasia guest list didn’t excite me (Martin being an exception), and I think that its been a bit of a damp towel on my enthusiasm for the album.

 

 

The Takeaway

 

Despite initially looking forward to The Mystery of Time, I’ll confess that I was surprised that a new record was even in the works. Sammet all but put the project to bed after the 2010 mini-tour, citing that he felt he had done all he could under the Avantasia banner. So why the sudden change? Especially when its pretty much been a known certainty that his main band Edguy has indeed suffered in wake of the post-2006 resurgence of Avantasia. Look, like I said earlier, all his albums have their share of excellent moments, and the past few Edguy albums have been no exception. But I can’t honestly sit here and say that The Age of the Joker, Tinnitus Sanctus, and Rocket Ride can compare to earlier Edguy classics.

 

Its obvious to myself and other Sammet devotees that Avantasia has gotten most of his attention for the past half a decade now; consider that all of a sudden Avantasia’s total album count tallies at six, only three behind Edguy’s nine. In fact, since 2006, Sammet has delivered four full length Avantasia albums plus two EPs, while Edguy has only released three albums. If Avantasia has gotten the better half of Sammet’s songwriting for the past few years, its reasonable to say that Edguy has diminished in turn. Slowly, gradually, Avantasia has become Sammet’s main priority and Edguy is increasingly an afterthought.

 

There’s a fellow who goes by the name Empyreal on the Encyclopedia Metallum, whose reviews for various Edguy/Avantasia releases so often mirror my feelings as to why I love Sammet’s work so much. And as a fellow details obsessed devotee, Empyreal points out exactly what I was thinking about The Mystery of Time,

A lot of these songs are more traditional rock-based ones, like Tobias usually does, even if they are markedly less “fun” sounding than he’s usually known for. I didn’t expect him to dive head-on into his new experiments without some forays back to the familiar territory, but it would help if some of these songs were better.

I think that Empyreal is touching on something that has been bubbling under the surface for many Sammet fans, namely, it seems that the blend of rock and metal is tilting very far into rock and further and further away from anything remotely metal related. Heck, the new album is even subtitled as “A Rock Epic” for that matter, the era of the Metal Opera is long over apparently, as Sammet is deliberately distancing himself from a tag that admittedly does seem more and more burdensome. Now this wouldn’t even be an issue if the two bands didn’t sound so stylistically similar, but they’re becoming virtually indistinguishable in that regard. The hard rock infusions don’t bother me by themselves, but it does beg the question: Is there really that much of a difference between Edguy and Avantasia anymore? And to further that question, is Edguy relevant to Sammet, and if so, is there a way to get it out of the grand shadow cast by his larger than life side project?

 

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5oeuqm5j2aA?rel=0&w=560&h=315]

 

The Metal Pigeon’s Five Most Anticipated Albums of 2013

Killer metal tends to come in waves that ebb and flow. For example from 2010 through 2012 one could not begin to stem the tide of awesome new releases being dished out every single month. This prolific three year stretch of metallic goodness was particularly noticeable when juxtaposed next to the comparative drought metal seemed to go through from 2006-2009 (hey, at least to me anyway). So the question of the moment has to be whether or not 2013 can maintain this high velocity level we’ve gotten used to from metal artists worldwide, spanning all sub genres. We won’t know until the year’s over but the tentative 2013 release schedules that are being compiled and posted on metal sites all over are promising to say the least. Here are my personal top five most anticipated metal releases of this new year!

 

 

1. Queensrÿche – TBA:

Just to clarify, I’m referring to the Todd LaTorre fronted, real Queensrÿche that has within its ranks founding members Michael Wilton, Scott Rockenfield, and Eddie Jackson. The abortion that is Geoff Tate’s Queensrÿche can go die a slow, miserable, dinner-theater death. Why is this my most anticipated release of the year? Well my Queensrÿche fandom runs way back in my metal loving infancy, they were among some of the first bands to really make me appreciate music on a far more complex level, as well as being a musical cornerstone for a type of sound that I love to this day. They were one of my gateway bands in other words, and to see the deterioration that they had to go through in their post-Chris DeGarmo era at the hands of the woeful Tate and Yoko Tate has been more than a man can bear. When they finally gave him the boot in April of 2012 and soon afterwards debuted their newly recruited vocalist, LaTorre from Crimson Glory, I felt that one of my old favorites had been given a new lease on life. The recorded live clips of their recent string of shows have been nothing short of fantastic and grin inducing, and the talk of what this new album is supposed to be has me cautiously optimistic. I’m hopeful that these guys will make good on their promise to release a prog-metal album in the vein of what Queensrÿche fans have long hungered for.

 

 

2. Avantasia – The Mystery of Time:

Maybe the least surprising factoid for many of you who read this blog often is that I’m a fairly huge power metal fan. When I was first exploring metal that was off the American mainstream radar I briefly shunned power metal, sticking to death and melodic death metal with inborn stubbornness. But I loosened up when three power metal titans punched me in the face with releases from the late 90s, namely, Blind Guardian, Iced Earth, and Edguy. The latter of which contained one of the sub genre’s truly fantastic personalities: Edguy’s mercurial frontman, Tobias Sammet, was a vivid, loud, and zany character — but also one of the most accomplished and prolific songwriters that metal had ever seen. In a span of three years, 1998 to 2001, he knocked out of the ballpark three power metal classics with Edguy’s Vain Glory Opera, Theater of Salvation, and Mandrake.

 

The fact that he was folding into that same time frame a pair of classic records with his solo project Avantasia’s The Metal Opera Pt I & II was not only an incredible feat, but also the defining moment for the sub genre in what was a watershed period of excellent releases that began in the mid-nineties and would span well over a decade. It was a great time to be a fan of this style of metal. When he brought the project back in 2008 and onwards with a trio of releases and a new line-up, I felt like Sammet was forging a new path within power metal itself by mixing traditional elements with AOR, hard rock, and even pop. Sure there were catcalls and criticisms from naysayers who felt he was straying too far from the sub genre’s trademark elements, but to his credit, he insisted on making the records that he wanted to hear. This new album then, due out in March, is yet another resurrection of the Avantasia project, and Sammet is assembling another interesting cast of guest vocalists and musicians that I hope will live up to the exciting musical legacy already established with the previous releases.

 

But here’s the real talk about Sammet, regardless of how much he tries to deny it, its becoming clear that Avantasia has supplanted Edguy as his primary focus. When your solo project starts to outgun your main band’s albums in terms of songwriting quality, scale, ambition, and record sales, its obvious where you’re subconsciously or consciously putting forth most of your efforts. And I guess I’m fine with that. No disrespect to the fellows in Edguy, but I suppose I’m more of a fan of Tobias Sammet and his songwriting than anything else, no matter what project its in. It’ll be interesting to see the futures of both projects.

 

 

 

3. Darkthrone – The Underground Resistance:

I know its not just myself that feels this way, but generally speaking, I think I enjoy listening to the latter day, more recent Darkthrone albums than their earlier ones. Sacrilege? To many yes. But here’s the thing, there’s only so many times I can listen to A Blaze in the Northern Sky and Transilvanian Hunger without feeling like I’m spinning my wheels a bit. Those were the records that I’d see references in metal magazines lists of essential black metal listening, the ones name dropped by so many bands, and the ones that its generally believed that a metal fan needs to devour in order to understand the complete picture of black metal.

 

Hey, that was all fine with me — if a bit studious, but there is such a thing as over listening to an album (still can’t really listen to those Emperor albums anymore). Darkthrone made an abrupt stylistic shift to a punky, crusty, thrashy black metal blend with 2003’s Hate Them and never really looked back. This approach has progressed to a more and more non-traditional sound, culminating in what might be one of their best records to date, 2010’s Circle the Wagons. Clean singing in Darkthrone songs? Clean(er) production on a Darkthrone album? What the hell was going on right? If all else failed it was worth it simply to see the internet black metal crybabies go berserk on the Metal Archives and black metal blogs everywhere. But I loved that record, and enjoyed the four that preceded it (yes I’m even including The Cult Is Alive with its critic-baiting, rage-inducing “Too Old, Too Cold”). If the teaser that’s out for the new album is any indication — where the vocals take on a near Mercyful Fate-esque quality — troo kvlt fans will be even more pissed off and I’ll be even more pleased. Good stuff.

 

 

 

4. Satyricon – TBA:

It has been just under four and a half years since Satyr and Frost released any new music together. That is considered a rather long time in metal, a genre where Wintersun’s eight year delay of Time I was considered a long enough period to deem Jari Mäenpää as Axl Rose’s Finnish cousin. Unlike those two guys, who aim to be perfectionists much to their own detriment, Satyr had a decent enough reason to call time on his name sake band. Quite simply, he realized that he’d run the band’s sound as far as it would go, and was staring at a wall. It was time to go back to the drawing board and reconfigure the sound of Satyricon for the future.

 

The exciting part for us fans is that we really have no idea what this could mean. Few could predict the black n’ roll turn that these guys took with “Fuel For Hatred”, and really I’ve seen no one even take a stab in the dark at what the new stuff will sound like. The band is keeping mums the word as well, but we’ll all have some shreds of answers come late March when they take the stage at the Inferno Festival where its promised that they’ll debut several new songs live. I’m sure there are loads of people who have become disinterested in anything these guys have done since Rebel Extravaganza, despite their soaring popularity through the past decade. Again, like Darkthrone, I found myself enjoying black n’ roll Satyricon simply for what it was, in this case entertaining and catchy as hell metal. But if you were one of those disgruntled former fans, well here’s your chance to give the band another shot with a new album due this year that is expected to be the start of a new era of Satyricon.

 

 

 

5. Omnium Gatherum – Beyond:

These guys were a slow burn for me, as I took up an infatuation with Insomnium and Moonsorrow first and Omnium had to take the backseat for awhile. Choosing to ignore the odd subtext of that sentence, I’ll just move on and say that New World Shadows was my selling point on the band. What a great freaking album. I’ll have to admit that my listening experience with the band is so far limited only to the albums with Jukka Pelkonen on vocals, and I’ve no idea about anything done with the old singer. I’m okay with that right now, as I’m slowly becoming a Pelkonen fanboy. He might be one of the most versatile and expressive vocalists doing harsh/gutteral vocals in the metal scene as a whole. Musically not only does it feel like these guys are original in style and sound, but that originality extends to their songwriting as well, where standard pop structures are discarded in favor of more complex arrangements.

 

The new album, Beyond, will be the first of my most anticipated to be released this year, and the band have released a new song well ahead of the album’s expected release date of late February, and it can be heard here. It seems like the standard pre-album release cut strategy, issuing the most obviously catchy song first, but time will tell on that. I’m digging it, and it seems like they’ve gotten into more of the almost near power metal guitar sounds that they were exploring on New World Shadows. By the way, I wonder if anyone has passed a copy of that album to someone in In Flames? It’s seemingly the type of thing that those guys have been blindly trying to strive for with their recent clumsy, half-baked stabs at modernizing melodic death metal.

 

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