Kamelot’s Path to Haven

For many of us, this particular Kamelot album has been a long time coming. I suspect that quite a few of you felt the same way that I did when considering their 2012 Tommy Karevik-fronted debut Silverthorn —- that it was a difficult album to judge for better or worse considering that it had largely been written before Karevik had joined up. It was known that he had handled the writing of his own vocal melodies and lyrics in Seventh Wonder, and was quite good at it to say the least. Now for a lot of bands, this wouldn’t be a big deal because either the guitarist, or bassist, or keyboardist even would be serving alone as the primary songwriter. Not so with Kamelot, as founding guitarist and songwriter Thomas Youngblood spent over a decade co-writing with Roy Khan —- who in addition to being one of the greatest metal voices of all time, was also gifted with savant-like abilities in vocal melody development and lyric writing. Together they were the second coming and fully realized promise of Chris DeGarmo and Geoff Tate of classic era Queensryche, sharing similarities in their respective styles and deliveries; and in penning masterful prog-metal with crisp, clean, melodic guitars and emotive, soaring vocals with intelligent, thoughtful lyricism.

 

Youngblood and Khan were a pair of songwriters so attuned to each other that they unleashed not just one, but four outright masterworks in continuous succession from The Fourth Legacy thru The Black Halo (a feat that had not been accomplished in melodic metal since Iron Maiden’s 82-88 “Golden Era”). Khan’s departure in 2010 meant not only the loss of the band’s signature voice, but half of their songwriting engine. During the much speculated upon vocalist search, I suspected that Kamelot’s primary candidate requirement would be a singer who had also proven themselves in a songwriting capacity, to help fill that particular aspect of the void left by Khan. Considering that, the field of potential vocalists was reduced greatly, and at the top of my own (and many others’) list of suspects to be given the job was Karevik himself. He was the only logical choice: His tone and timbre was remarkably similar to Khan’s, Youngblood himself had stated a preference for the inflections present in Scandinavian accents, and Karevik had a resume full of songwriting, lyric writing, and vocal melody development.

 

With that in mind, its difficult to understand then why Youngblood and his newly adapted songwriting partners keyboardist Oliver Palotai and producer Sascha Paeth began writing without waiting for their new vocalist, but I would wager it was market forces. A full time band needs income from touring, which meant that the clock was ticking in terms of having to write and record a new album as soon as possible, vocalist or not. It was a gamble that paid off with an album that satisfied those concerns, but I believe failed in the greater context of actually being a good Kamelot album. With Silverthorn, Youngblood, Paeth, and Palotai engaged in a guessing game exercise in songwriting, the same kind faced by Nightwish’s Tuomas Holopainen for their post-Tarja Turunen album Dark Passion Play. Writing songs without knowing the tone and timbre of your future vocalist is an incredibly difficult challenge, one that rarely ensures optimal results.

 

 

When Karevik finally got to tackle his vocals, he did the best he could with clumsily constructed spacing for bridges and choruses. Rarely did he have enough room to unfurl a properly developed refrain, and the hooks suffered as a result. His vocal melodies were often forced to lay upon riffs that worked against him, resulting in awkward sonic pairings. The entire affair was hammered over with enough adjustments and editing to make it passable and listenable, but it lacked the natural smoothness and melodic flow that normally defined a good Kamelot album. One of the few exceptions was “Song For Jolee”, a stirring ballad that Karevik was able to get involved with in a greater capacity, writing the song around the strength of his vocal melody and a particularly haunting lyric. Alongside the similarly vocal melody-led “Solitaire”, it was a brief demonstration of the dramatic impact that Karevik could make if he was given a ground floor role in the songwriting.

 

It certainly made it clear to me that his second album with the band would be the far more accurate portrait of where the band was in their post-Khan evolution. That open question made Haven the most intriguing new release of 2015 for me, the very definition of a make or break situation that I nervously anticipated. I’ll be honest, I was still nervous even after my initial listen all the way through, but Haven has proven to harbor the trademarks of an expensive, well made perfume: underneath its initial sharp top notes are long lingering, pleasantly fragrant middle and base notes. Now thirty plus listens later, I feel confident about contextualizing its place in the band’s discography, and in deeming it their greatest album since The Black Halo —- a distinction I wouldn’t throw out without careful consideration. It is obviously far more accomplished than Silverthorn, with Karevik’s distinctive input in the songwriting directly translating into songs being written around the vocal melodies, the proper order of things in the Kamelot universe.

 

But perhaps more important than that is just how impactful his expansive vocal range is, urging the band to return to writing in largely major keys, with Karevik technically able to operate (with seeming effortlessness) in higher registers. Khan devotees (of which I consider myself to be) may balk at that statement for what it implies, but its the flip side of what is a rather uncomfortable topic for many Kamelot fans, namely, Khan’s degrading vocal range over the years. A few years ago, before Karevik was even announced as the successor, I wrote something for this blog called The Legacy of Roy Khan, a tribute of sorts as to why he was truly brilliant, and to why his void would be deeply felt by the band. Towards the end of the piece I briefly mentioned Khan’s declining range, but skipped over it perfunctorily, so as not to dwell so much on the very real difficulties he faced as a performer (a great deal of which was documented through live show recordings thrown on YouTube). It simply didn’t seem right to focus on it given the nature of the piece.

 

 

Yet its Karevik’s performance on Haven that drags this shadowy topic back into the light, as well as revealing a larger truth about the band in general —- that Khan’s declining range provoked a fundamental change in Kamelot’s sound and songwriting, a change that became habitual and they’ve yet to fully withdraw from. We can trace back Khan’s lowering vocal range to as early as The Black Halo, where he began to transition away from singing mostly in upper registers to settling into a comfortable mid-range with a few exceptions (“Serenade” and “Moonlight” come to mind immediately as that album’s upper register standouts). On Ghost Opera, this continued in large part, with Khan operating in a slightly lower register, even on a song like “Anthem” that required him to hit a few highs (studio effects on those vocals were noticeable, whether or not they were covering something up is entirely debatable). Where a song like “Up From the Ashes” should have had lead vocals that zoomed upwards through its soaring, arcing chorus, Khan hardly wavered from his mid-range delivery. Instead the band used layers of backing choral vocals to take care of the upper register work, a choir assembled of Gate Studios’ vets Amanda Somerville and both Robert and Cinzia Hunecke Rizzo, frequent choir contributors to Rhapsody, Avantasia, Edguy, etc, and all singers capable of filling in those high notes.

 

Even more noticeable than on the albums was Khan’s live performances beginning on the Ghost Opera tour. I myself attended their September 9th, 2007 Houston concert and despite my giddiness at seeing the band live for the first time, I was surprised to hear them down tuning for older songs in addition to new ones. They avoided included anything in their setlist from The Fourth Legacy, nothing all too surprising by considering its age and the vast amount of songs they had to choose from, but it was very telling in what the band viewed as the easy exclusions. When Poetry For the Poisoned was released in 2010, the common discussion from fans was just how dark the album sounded —- and it wasn’t just something felt in its admittedly depressing lyrics, but in its even more down tuned approach. Guitar tone alone wasn’t simply what was affecting us all, it was that such a change in tone was prompting Youngblood to think about songwriting differently —- heavier, chunkier riffs and rhythms to work better with Khan’s new register, slower tempos better suited to such sonic changes, and Palotai providing suitably darker atmospherics to work as adhesive.

 

 

The band as a songwriting unit had downshifted their approach away from their classic symphonic power metal approach of the late nineties / early aughts, and when fans would wish aloud for a return to a “classic” Kamelot sound, they were knowingly or unknowingly yearning for Khan to sing in a higher register again, something that could cause those tempos to pick up the pace once more —- they were hoping to go back in time in other words. There was spectacular work on those last two Khan era albums, by him in particular —- he still sounded great as a singer, and his vocal melodies and lyrics were always on point. But the tour supporting Poetry was the all too visible sign that Khan’s actual voice was deteriorating, and that he was incapable of even mid-ranged performances at times. The damning evidence is still on YouTube for anyone to relive (and I hated doing so for the purposes of pure research), and when he abruptly quit the tour it was hardly surprising despite our initial shock… for everyone who was paying attention, the end was in sight.

 

Both Youngblood and Palotai, as the surviving core of the writing team spent those final five to six Khan era years growing accustomed to the changes in the band’s sound, too accustomed it would seem. When they wrote for Silverthorn the tendency to down tune, rely on chunky riffing, and mid-paced tempos lingered on with a few exceptions. Its unfair to fault them, as the machinations of a creative process are hard to alter immediately, and the human tendency to rely upon developed habits is hard to shake. Nevertheless its one that they will have to, because in Karevik they have a vocalist whose natural register is higher, and who operates in that space with an ease that always seemed to elude Khan. If you’ve heard Karevik in Seventh Wonder, you’ll have heard him deliver vocals that seem to effortlessly dance across the top of major chords, deftly moving with an almost R&B influenced sense of alliteration and cadence —- he’s inherently poppier than Khan, less operatically inclined.

 

 

With a vocalist like Karevik, Kamelot can make its way back towards a sound that resembles its classic era, one replete with all the trimmings of their trademark symphonic power metal stylings that many of us have missed so much. The good news is that with a big chunk of the songs off Haven they’re well on their way. The bad news is that this flip side to the legacy of Roy Khan continues to plague a portion of their songwriting, in specific moments hampering the best use of Karevik’s abilities. Consider the not awful but rather clunky “Citizen Zero”, where the sludge-y tempo prevents the verse sections from developing into anything interesting, its down tuned riffs and overly aggressive approach resulting in heaviness that seemed forced and frankly boring. This faux-heaviness disrupts the structure of “Liar Liar (Wasteland Monarchy)”, wedging a bright, uptempo chorus in between two slabs of formless verses composed of floating keyboard atmospherics and meandering, un-melodic riffing.

 

The worst offender might be “Revolution”, as much an example of what not to do in a Kamelot song as there ever has been. No need to comment on the presence of the overused Alissa White-Gluz, whose aggressive vocals are indistinguishable from any other harsh vocalist (male or female), particularly when the biggest problem is the forced faux-heaviness of the guitar riffs. Youngblood is a supreme talent, one of the defining musicians of the genre and someone whose artistic legacy is already secure. He’s better than this quite frankly, and he of all people should know that we listen to his band for the melodies, not the riffs (this isn’t Melechesh!). This is the song that should’ve been left on the cutting room floor, or perhaps been singled out as the Japanese bonus track (more on that later). The last song to suffer from echoes of the past is “My Therapy”, where Karevik’s skillful treatment of the vocal melody (particularly in the chorus) saves the song from relatively lackluster verses fragments set to beds of uninspired riffs.

 

 

The path towards a future golden era for the band begins with the eternal classic “Fallen Star”, a supreme and glorious a moment that echoes the height of the Khan era in both melody and lyricism. Karevik’s piano accompanied solo intro to the song sets the tone and signals the approach —- that his vocal melodies will serve as the driving force and everything will yield to his will. In the mid-song instrumental bridge, Youngblood’s guitar solo echoes the vocal melody slightly by playing off its motifs, something he is peerless at. Karevik’s lyrics are evocative, with an almost Khan-like air of poetic imagery: “You are my reason to stay / Even if daylight’s a lifetime away / May the kings and the queens of the dawn / Remember my name / As dark as the fallen star”. The vocal melody guiding these words is cascading, rising and falling gently like a sloping hill, its shape infusing the lyrics with its required blend of romance and melancholy. It might be the best overall Kamelot song in a decade, a gem that matches the brilliance of songs from their classic era albums, and perhaps their best album opener ever.

 

Continuing the brilliance is “Insomnia”, an uptempo song built off Palotai’s inventive, swinging keyboard figures and finished by a multi-layered Karevik vocal performance that is simply astounding. On the chorus, he soars above himself, setting his lead vocal underneath waves of his own layered vocal arrangement, apparently fit to serve as his own choir. Those familiar with Karevik’s layering work on Mercy Falls and The Great Escape will feel as if the styles of the two bands are merging here, the multi-layered vocal flurries of Seventh Wonder meeting the dark symphony of Kamelot. And as if to further justify his inclusion in ground level songwriting, consider just how much he improves “Veil of Elysium”, arguably the spiritual successor to Silverthorn’s “Sacrimony (Angel of Afterlife)”. If you hadn’t noticed the similarities between both songs, take a moment to listen to them back to back and notice just how much more developed the song sounds now with Karevik able to expand on the chorus. Rather than being forced to shoehorn lyrics on top of a space reserved for a vocal melody, on “Veil of Elysium” he weaves the vocal melody around the phrasing of his diction, their very consonant structure providing the poetic meter within: “One day I know we will meet again / In the shade of a life to die for”. He also finds the time to serve up a particularly Khan-like piece of simple lyrical beauty, “Now winter has come and I’ll stand in the snow / I don’t feel the cold”, his treatment of the last line at the 1:04 mark being a prime example of his nimbleness as a singer.

 

 

The gorgeous, Troy Donockley’s pipes-assisted “Under Grey Skies” is a gem of a ballad, built almost entirely off Karevik’s vocal melodies, with help from the welcome Charlotte Wessels (Delain). She’s a breath of fresh air for the band’s choice of female collaborators, possessing a voice that is lighter than Simone Simons and more at home when set atop such cozy, acoustic guitar-plucked balladry. Some may find the lyrics here a little too cloying, but Karevik wisely avoids cliche diction and couches his romantic subtext in a stanza sung by Wessels, giving some respite to anyone who feels uncomfortable about having a guy sing them lines about kisses n’ stuff (if you feel guilty right about now you’re likely one of them). As a duet its a triumph, my favorite parts arriving towards the end when Karevik and Wessels trade off soaring layered vocals, singing under and around one another. Youngblood’s mid-song guitar solo here is note perfect, building off the vocal melody motif and extenuating it to sublime effect.

 

The highlights continue on the second half of the album, with “End of Innocence” proving itself to play along with the unusual coincidence of bands producing great songs under that particular title. I’m most struck by how well Youngblood manages to balance a dose of heavy guitar riffs without overpowering the melodies worked up by Palotai and Karevik. The MVP here might be Palotai, who answers the heaviness of the guitars with jaunty, symphonic keys that usher along a melody that works as a flamboyant counterpoint to successfully balance things out. Once again, Karevik knocks one out of the park with his choice vocal inflections and change-ups on the recurring chorus line, “And why must a hero die young / Not to be gone and forgotten” —- each time he gives it a new flavor. We’re treated to some Middle-Eastern flair in “Beautiful Apocalypse”, a song that took me a few listens to come around to. What sold it was Karevik’s simply stunning transition from gritty and tortured to smooth and sonorous (and back again), best exemplified at the 1:10 to 1:43 mark. Its one of the most dexterous things I’ve ever heard him accomplish.

 

A different kind of Khan influence creeps up on “Here’s to the Fall”, where Karevik sounds so eerily similar to his predecessor (particularly to open the song), that I wonder if Khan didn’t drop by the studio at any point to lay down some vocal fragments. This is of course the ability that won Karevik the job and was more frequently heard on Silverthorn, but here he uses it to great effect until the 3:10 mark, where the Tommy Karevik we’ve been hearing all album long pops up again in his more Seventh Wonder influenced mode. If Khan did drop by the studio, I’ll find out eventually, I don’t know how but I’m still not entirely convinced there wasn’t something sneaky going on (I’m only partially joking)! Normally I’d prefer an acoustic guitar/vocal pairing with keyboard embellishment  (think in the vein of “Glory” from The Fourth Legacy) rather than solely keyboards/vocals, but Palotai does a nice job here of creating a moody atmosphere that actually works. I mentioned the Japanese bonus track earlier, one “The Ties That Bind”, a hooky, tuneful yet heavy-riff fueled song with a chorus that doesn’t quite arc fully, yet is infinitely better for the album proper than “Revolution”.

 

 

If like me you received the expanded edition of the album with a second disc full of alternate renditions and instrumental tracks, you’ll have probably indulged in the piano version of “End of Innocence” and the acoustic guitar version of “Veil of Elysium”. These songs, so uptempo and electric on the album are hushed here, left to operate only on the strength of their defining characteristic: their vocal melodies. Its a further testament to Karevik’s contributions to this album, that his melodies are strong enough to be the actual skeleton of a working song… one can call it practically Khan-esque even. And a final thought on Youngblood himself, who deserves individual praise alongside Palotai and Karevik for trusting his collaborators enough to breathe new life into his band. I’ve always regarded his style as being directly influenced by Chris DeGarmo (among others surely) in that during their respective classic eras they both wrote in crisp, clear melodic lines with razor sharp precision, anchored by a mindset that was unconcerned with any sort of “heavy factor”.

 

The difference was that DeGarmo eventually got off that train and ventured into lighter, jangly, less riff-based directions —- whereas Youngblood found himself having to forcibly get heavier, chunkier, and less melodic as a result. Both of them are tremendously gifted songwriters and guitarists, and in their work one attribute directly correlated with the other. They both operate best when writing and performing in what I call the DeGarmo gold standard, that thoughtful mix of melodic writing filtered through crisp riffing and clear open chord sequences. It may be too far gone for DeGarmo to ever bother returning, but Youngblood can easily find his way back to that standard. The first step is realizing that he now has a vocalist capable of hitting the highs needed to bring Kamelot’s sound back to its classically infused, symphonic metal roots… a return to their primordial musical waters so to speak. They’re halfway there with Haven. Karevik is the savior of the band’s sound, I suspect they’d surely be lost without him. Behind Bruce Dickinson, I can think of no better or more important replacement vocalist in the history of metal.

 

Kamelot – Silverthorn: Is It the Start or End of an Era?

Here we are, on the eve of the American release of Kamelot’s long anticipated new album Silverthorn, their first with new vocalist Tommy Karevik of Seventh Wonder, and only their third album in their career without the vocals of longtime frontman Roy Khan. Speaking of whom, for those of you who had read my article a few months back discussing the loss and legacy of Khan from the lineup, you’ll know that I expressed a healthy degree of skepticism about a Khan-less Kamelot — even though I have become a great admirer of Karevik’s work in Seventh Wonder. I said then that we wouldn’t be able to accurately determine the failure or success of Kamelot’s decision to partner with Karevik until we could listen to a complete full length. For a band that had suffered the departure of a major songwriter such as Khan, it could really be the only true test. I’ve only had Silverthorn for just under a week, but have had it on heavy rotation daily in that short amount of time. I figure for an album that I’m placing a tremendous amount of weight upon (some might say unreasonably so), it was only fair that I give it more than just the standard multiple listens.

 

I’ll start this off by declaring rather simply that this is the best Kamelot album on offer since 2005’s masterpiece The Black Halo. Karevik’s input as a new primary songwriting force alongside band leader/guitarist Thomas Youngblood and keyboardist Oliver Palotai has rejuvenated the Kamelot sound both into fresh sonic territory, as well as back to its classic Khan-led period.   Gone are the murky, downcast tones of predecessor Poetry for the Poisoned, and there is a togetherness, a continuity that 2007’s Ghost Opera sorely lacked. Those were good albums that had their share of gems apiece, but were slightly marred by a spotty collection of songs that either overreached musically or seemed undercooked melodically. But Silverthorn is not wholly immune from that lingering condition, as there are some tracks that seem unfulfilled and what one could describe as borderline filler, namely the albums title track, its lengthy album concluding trilogy epic “Prodigal Son”, and yes, its lead off single “Sacrimony” (of which in an earlier review of the track itself I hoped would prove to the weakest song on the album).

 

A couple comments about two of these three troublemakers: First of all, until its last few minutes “Prodigal Son” is a bit of an all over hazy mess, and makes me wish that Youngblood would let go of the need to come up with these types of self-contained “trilogies” that he’s been doing in a fruitless attempt to equal or better their great “Elizabeth Trilogy” from the classic Karma album. “Elizabeth” worked because it was in essence three separate equal-length songs of varying degrees of awesome. “Prodigal Son” suffers in that it seems as though kernels of potentially good ideas were stitched together with atmospheric keyboard orchestration to create an illusion of cohesion. It didn’t work, you can see the seams and to be blunt about there’s nothing particularly epic that stands out overall. Moving on to the title track “Silverthorn”, we come upon the most blatant instance of filler on the album, a bland chorus that unless I’m mistaken is essentially a watered down retread of “Moonlight” from The Black Halo (seriously, even in the way the choirs are arranged, go listen to them back to back). Its not a sin for bands to recycle familiar motifs or styles from older works but filler is filler and its gotta be called out. Finally its worth singling out the two pointless instrumentals that bookend the album on opposite sides — lets lose those for the next record guys, because unless they’re gonna be as great as the very lovely violin-y intro track “Solitaire” from Ghost Opera, I don’t want to hear them.

 

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pQVTk-z3Jw8&w=560&h=315]

 

 

What makes Silverthorn work however are the inclusion of solid, rocking, classic-Kamelot-styled tracks such as “Ashes to Ashes”, “Torn”, the pompous “Veritas”, and the gorgeous emotional swell of “My Confession”. Speaking of these as a group, they’re not all that far removed from the dark stylings of the past two albums, heavy chug-a-chug rhythm sections, richly dark keyboard arrangements and all. What makes them sound fresh and popping with energy is Youngblood’s purposeful shift back to a more cleaner, uplifting guitar tone and melodic approach that really harkens back to the best of their Khan era work. This singular element was sorely missing from most of the recent albums and its presence all over the majority of this album is smile inducing. “Ashes to Ashes” is an awesome mid-paced crunchy stomper, where Karevik’s nimble vocals provide clever nuance in a chorus that is sneakily catchy — this is the headbanger of the record. The hooky, multifaceted “My Confession” works not only because of the addictive keyboard riffs of Palotai, but the brightly soaring chorus guided by one of Karevik’s best performances that reaches into high registers yet never wavers in its smooth delivery.

 

 

But here’s what I’ve been really wanting to talk about, namely, what makes Silverthorn shine, the true gems of the album. There’s a handful here that start off with the hauntingly perfect “Song for Jolee”, which turned out to be the first song that Karevik and the band collaborated on, as well as being the driving force that led to his invitation to join to the band. This might sit right alongside Kamelot’s Khan-era ballad masterpieces, its that great. Delicate keys tinkle out the fragments of a melody over a bed of orchestration, and Karevik’s emotive vocals usher the song along in a sparse, elegant fashion, with deft, nimble melodies that are built upon the melodic twists and turns provided by the lyrics themselves — in other words, nothing sounds forced. Honestly I don’t know if Khan could do it any better, and while I hesitate to have to compare the two vocally, this is the first moment on the album where Karevik’s vocals sound completely his own. This isn’t to say that he’s ripping off Khan, but there are moments throughout the entirety of the album where he does sound strikingly similar in terms of phrasing. I’ll give him some leeway because for starters their voices are relatively similar, and secondly because the nature of Kamelot’s songwriting is going to naturally bring about memories of Khan. On “Song For Jolee”, Karevik establishes his voice as its own, and fans of Seventh Wonder will recall touches of his work in that band’s ballads.

 

The cascading refrain of “Falling Like the Fahrenheit” is perhaps the albums most rewarding moment; a rich, layered vocal that is impressive not only for guiding its effortless melodies over rather tricky words, but for the way that it seems to soar purely on the strength of the vocal phrasing — the sombre, stately pacing of the music underneath hardly shifts in tempo in transition from verse to bridge to chorus. The album’s most sublime moment however is the following track, the instant classic “Solitaire”, where a bracing, surging verse section launches you forward into the album’s most urgent, epic, melodically triumphant, and lyrically beautiful chorus — a moment where Karevik’s lyrics nearly match the sheer brilliance of the mighty Khan: “Sometimes when I’m out of reach / And sometimes when I’m there / That is when our souls agree and join in solitaire /Sometimes when my will to love has gone away / That is when I hear your name”. The joyous guitar riff that follows those words is Youngblood circa 2000-2005, a moment of indulgence in the sounds of the band’s past that now sound refreshing and vital.

 

 

One final note about Karevik, as I’m sure that most of the reviews online and in various media will focus on his vocals, and perhaps not so much on what he brings to the table as a songwriter in terms of vocal melodies and the quality of his lyrics. Those were the aspects of Roy Khan that really solidified my love of the band and were the things that I feared Kamelot would suffer from the most. Having been a recent convert to the great work Karevik has done in Seventh Wonder, in particular through their latest album, The Great Escape, I found that I was relatively pleased with his contributions to Silverthorn, albeit more for his choices in vocal melodies rather than sheer lyrical poetry. Don’t get me wrong, he delivers good lyrics overall, and in addition to the great lines of “Solitaire”, there’s a really excellent couplet in the chorus for “Song for Jolee” worth mentioning: “One look in the mirror to see / Whats real and fake, Jolee”. That’s Khan-esque in its simple, elegant, and evocative nature. But he does hit and miss throughout the album, for instance I didn’t find the lyrics of “Sacrimony” to be the best they could have been, and perhaps it was the rushed way that song was put together that resulted in that (it was reportedly the final song written for the album). All said, it was a fine effort by Karevik for the first time around, and knowing what he has done in Seventh Wonder gives me confidence that he will be even better on the next album. He might never replace Khan in that regard, the void is too great, but he seems to understand the level of quality that Kamelot fans demand, and maybe that’s all we should be asking of him as a lyricist, and as a vocalist.

Kamelot: The Legacy of Roy Khan

 

 

 

Timing can be a tricky thing. I had been thinking a lot about Kamelot recently, and the reality of their future without their now ex-vocalist, the mighty Roy Khan. I had to admit, as a fan of the band I’ve harbored worries —- the loss of a vocalist is a shakeup that few bands can endure with continued creative and commercial success and this is amplified in the case of the vocalist being very distinctive. So I had begun to write a piece on my doubts, and the reasons for them and had planned on it being published just before Kamelot announced their new vocalist. Of course, on the day I planned to publish, Kamelot lifted the curtains on the identity of Khan’s long speculated upon replacement: namely Seventh Wonder’s own Tommy Karevik. Well, I’m proud to say that I called it (among others certainly), Karevik had long been one of the candidates on most fans shortlists, he was certainly my favored choice and its not exactly a surprise that he’s been given the position. It makes sense, he seems to fit in with the band vocally, and he did fill in for Khan on select shows in 2010 to proven success. I feel a touch more confident with the band going forward with Karevik, in that they’ll be able to release something that is not a jarring stylistic departure due to a new vocalist being radically different (i.e. Blaze Bailey and The X Factor). My confidence is restrained however, by my speculation of the larger possibility that Kamelot’s future will be defined not by what they have gained, but by what they have lost.

 

 

Roy Khan’s emotive and expressive vocals are by this point well-known to most of the metal community at large. His smooth delivery, subtle accent, and near perfect inflection and timbre were one of Kamelot’s defining attributes during his tenure with the band. He wielded attributes rarely found in power metal vocalists: richness, texture, depth, and a touch of melancholy. Soon after being introduced to the band through their sixth album Epica, it became apparent to me that there was more to Kamelot than just a great voice; there was intelligent and articulate songwriting at the heart of their music. In this I saw the continuing evolution of a stylistic legacy that the once mighty Queensryche had long ago abandoned. Khan and band founder/guitarist Thomas Youngblood were to me the second coming of the untouchable Geoff Tate/Chris DeGarmo songwriting team that had penned so much of the classic music that I loved in the ‘Ryche. The jump in songwriting quality from Kamelot’s first two albums with original vocalist Mark Vanderbilt (as well as the first Khan vocal-helmed album Siége Perilous), to Khan’s songwriting debut in the masterful The Fourth Legacy was simply immeasurable. Soon after hearing more Khan-Youngblood classic albums such as Karma, and Epica sequel The Black Halo, the deficiencies of many other bands in the genre grew to disproportionate sizes in my eyes. Many of the power metal bands I was listening to in earnest prior to discovering Kamelot now seemed dramatically inferior in comparison; their lyrics trite, subject matter shallow, and musically lacking. I was finding it harder and harder to enjoy many of them to the degree that I once did. In my initiations with Kamelot’s discography, I discovered that Khan’s role as a songwriter and lyricist was a huge factor in the quantum leap that Kamelot took from being a Crimson Glory-soundalike to a truly remarkable, original, and fresh force in modern power metal.

 

Khan’s songwriting legacy within Kamelot is deep and full of nuance. By becoming Kamelot’s lyricist he brought to the songs a poet’s gift, the ability for the band’s songs to shine beyond the music. As for his newly found songwriting partner Thomas Youngblood, he pushed the guitarist to rethink and expand his vision of Kamelot’s sound, right down to fundamentals such as tempos and song structure. His talent for creating vocal melodies and imagining the surrounding harmony arrangements with all their intricacies and subtleties melded with Youngblood’s natural talent for cranking out melodic yet powerful and tastefully restrained riffage, and as a result pushed the guitarist’s budding creativity.  Conversely, as seen on The Fourth Legacy album, Youngblood had a more straight ahead metal oriented songwriting approach than that of Tore Østby (Khan’s former Conception band mate and primary songwriter), and this urged Khan to get inventive in terms of how he’d develop and place vocal melodies, as well as adapt the phrasing of his smoother than most delivery to faster, heavier, more aggressively oriented metal. These results were often beautifully intricate, such as in the spectacular “Nights of Arabia” and “The Shadow of Uther”, where the verses and chorus feature alternating vocal tempos and styles to supreme dramatic effect. A further nod to creative expansion was introduced within the band’s repertoire in the form of spare, haunting, acoustic ballads. There Khan’s ability to carry a song’s melody on his vocal chords alone was put on full glorious display, as in “The Sailorman’s Hymn” and “Glory”, both moments where Khan’s lyrical storytelling abilities were allowed to blossom while Youngblood proved that he was as capable of delicate, spacious, finger-plucking as he was flashy, furious soloing. The two band mates meshed together on that album and challenged and improved each other, and it was only the beginning of a jaw dropping body of collaborative work.

 

 

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4_5X3FwzVeI&w=560&h=315]

 

 

I keep mentioning Khan’s superlative abilities as a lyricist, and in truth the quality of lyrics don’t seem to be something that most metal fans fixate upon in general for reasons that are easy enough to understand. Most average metal bands get by on rather clunky, clumsy, and often lazy lyrics that work in a utilitarian way at best, while the appreciation of the music itself takes center stage. With Kamelot, Khan’s crystal clear vocals placed up front in the mix naturally put the spotlight upon his lyrics and he connected to listeners with his innate ability to tell stories, create interesting narrative perspectives, and offer elegant poetic verse and inventive phrasing. I’m not the only one who noticed, on the Amazon.com page for the Epica album the prolific reviewer LordChimp wrote: “Khan — in addition to being a prime singer is an outstanding lyricist, full of evocative colors and depth and beautiful diction”. Well put, and he’s not the only one who’s noticed: Kamelot fans have been vocal about their appreciation not only for Khan’s poetic voice, but for his ability to craft detailed concept albums with intricately woven stories, and imaginative narrative perspectives —- and never having it sound forced, or crammed in just for the sake of fitting it all in somehow.

 

 

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jn4nzFmyNfw&w=560&h=315]

 

 

They’re referring to moments such as in the ballad “Wander”, where Khan paints a memory of a meeting between the concept album’s tragic protagonists in a setting that is depicted by simple, evocative phrases: “I recall one summers night / Within the month of June / Flowers in mahogany hair / And smell of earth in bloom”. The disconsolate narrator reflects upon the bittersweet agony of this memory in the gently soaring chorus, “Silently we wander / Into this void of consequence / My shade will always haunt her / But she will be my guiding light”. Those last two poignant lines, juxtaposition the path of the two protagonists lives in a starkly elegant manner, and serve as foreshadowing within the greater context of Epica’s Faustian storyline. In the album’s watershed song “Lost and Damned”, Khan twists and bends the verse lyrics to fit over accordion, piano and strings played in loose waltz-like rhythms only to dramatically plunge headlong into one of the band’s most bracing, urgent choruses. The lyrics deliver an appreciable musing on the workings of fate without having to clonk us on the head and actually use the terms fate, or destiny: “Don’t ask why / Don’t be sad / Sometimes we all must alter paths we planned / Only try — Understand / I want to save you / From the Lost and Damned”. Against the Faustian backdrop of the Epica storyline, this song is not only a pivotal moment of action for the album’s protagonist, Ariel, but a brilliantly executed set piece within the story. It is literally Ariel standing in front of the object of his affection, as she weeps, speaking the lyrics out to her, and we know this simply due to Khan deftly penning “Helena don’t you cry / Believe me; I do this for you / Heed my decision now / I will be gone tomorrow noon”. I could sit here listing countless other examples of similar literary devices and dramatic technique found within Khan’s lyrics across his entire spectrum of work with the band, but it’d take forever and this isn’t meant to be a literature lecture —- just one fan’s passion about what the guy brought to metal.

 

 

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

 

 

When Steph Perry of Rocknotes interviewed Khan back in 2009, she mentioned to him “In the song “Temples Of Gold”, there’s the lyric “little did we know that they were life itself, the days passing by”. That’s just pure poetry. You don’t even need a song behind it“. Khan responded,

 

The lyrics have always been really important to me. There’s so many bands that, I don’t know how they feel about it themselves of course but there’s a lot of bands that I feel don’t put enough into the lyrics. They focus on the music and song and everything’s great but the lyrics seem to be lacking something. There’s other bands that have brilliant lyrics too and much better lyrics for that matter. In our genre I feel there’s a lot of lyrics that definitely could have been more worked on let’s put it that way. I guess it’s just that I like to play with words, I like to say things in ways that make people stop and think. It’s very important to me. I really like writing lyrics. It doesn’t always take that long though, even though people may think that [laughs].

 

His comments regarding his dedication to his craft speak volumes, and he is diplomatic about his perceptions of the lyrics found in other bands’ work, particularly within similar genres —- perhaps too diplomatic. He schooled them all, and ruined Stratovarius for me (sorry Kotipelto!). I consider Khan’s role in Kamelot as vitally important, he was half of the driving force that helped to shape the sound, style, and vision of the band’s work. Their last two albums, Ghost Opera and Poetry for the Poisoned, while not on the same peerless level as their conceptual predecessors, were still packed with memorable songs of sweeping drama, and Khan’s trademark ear for vocal melody and unforgettable lyrics. He never dropped the ball in that regard; where it counted for artistry’s sake, in the studio and forever documented on record.

 

 

 

 

Unfortunately he seemed to struggle with the toll a punishing live schedule was taking on his vocal chords as well as the effects of age (older songs had been noticeably tuned down live to compensate for his diminishing range), and performances had been slightly spotty in his last few years on the road. He seemed to be making a resurgence in the spring/summer of 2010, where his documented live appearances sounded fresh and revitalized, but soon after the hammer was dropped: Khan went on hiatus, citing burnout and exhaustion, and a little over six months later his statement confirming his resignation was officially released. By this point, the stunning shock had worn off and it didn’t come as a surprise, just a profoundly depressing acceptance. There was a curious footnote to that statement,

 

I am eternally thankful for everything you and KAMELOT have given me and equally sorry that it has to end here. The good news is; God was there after all…”     – Roy Khan

 

 

Many of Kamelot’s songs dealt thematically with universal themes such as love, death, hope, despair, and faith —- in particular the loss and search for faith. Its been interesting as a fan to go back through the albums, and see that particular theme crop up over and over, in a way that I had not noticed before. No one will ever accuse Kamelot of being a religious band, certainly not a Christian band, but it does seem that Khan was quietly embedding a great deal of his personal struggles into his lyrics, even on up to his final album with them, as seen in “Once Upon a Time”: “I won’t stay to stand in line / Or wait for God to shine all over me / I wait for the storm”. His former band mate Youngblood was unable to adequately explain his former singer’s religious awakening, but did credit it with leading the singer down his path to leaving Kamelot. In a recent Q&A by the guitarist on the band’s Facebook page, he unloaded a stunner about Khan’s present activities: “Before making the final choice on the new singer, we did correspond via email. I know he’s in good health, working in Norway. When he quit Kamelot he also chose to quit the music business and seems to be very happy.” Never say never, but that sounds to me like the end of a music career, and while I suppose I’m glad the guy is apparently happy, I find it tragic in the sense that he still has a world of talent that will potentially remain untapped. I was at least hoping for a Conception reunion, a solo album, a guest appearance, anything! Sadly, its a quiet end to a deafening career.

 

 

Some Kamelot fans grew nervous (and some irate) that Fabio Leone, the band’s choice as a long term touring fill-in could even be considered as Khan’s replacement, and while I admired the guy’s effort when I caught the band live, I quietly agreed with them. Enter Tommy Karevik. I’ve been listening to The Great Escape by Karevik’s previous (and apparently still current) band Seventh Wonder. It and its immediate predecessor Mercy Falls have been striking a chord with me that I’ve been unable to get from them in the past. I’m not sure why, maybe its my subconscious projecting its hopes about a Karevik-fronted Kamelot that’s doing it… regardless, I’m enjoying them, though not loving them. Karevik was apparently chosen on the grounds that he is also a primary songwriter for Seventh Wonder, and a lyricist as well. While I can see some skill in his lyric writing in these songs, its a far cry from the sheer quality that Kamelot fans are used to, or at least this one anyway. He has a pretty good voice, and as I mentioned before, his takes on Kamelot songs when filling in for Khan live were strong. Its unfair to compare him to Roy but to be frank about it, he has huge shoes to fill. A great, passionate new album that showcases his writing abilities in a way that pushes Kamelot forward is the only way to step out of Khan’s immense shadow. I hope he and the guys pull it off, I don’t want my admiration for the band to diminish, and as for Roy Khan himself, I hope he makes a return to music, in any form. If he doesn’t, I’m glad I got to see him live, and glad that he stuck around long enough to build what can rightly be called a legacy.

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