Running at three year release intervals since 2013, Tobias Sammet is back with the ninth Avantasia album, the ostentatiously titled The Paranormal Evening with the Moonflower Society (henceforth on this blog referred to as Moonflower Society), the follow-up to 2019’s German chart topper Moonglow. I was eagerly anticipating this release of course, I’ve been a fan of Tobias’ since before Avantasia was even a thing, discovering Edguy way back in 1999 after their Theater of Salvation and Savage Poetry re-recording releases here in the States. Really when I think about it, Tobias is perhaps the person whose career I’ve followed the longest from it’s inception, with my only missing Edguy’s arrival on the worldwide scene in 1997 by two years. His music has been a part of the fabric of my life for going on over two decades now, be it in either band, and with Avantasia in particular, he single handedly introduced me to a host of other singers whose bands I went on to check out and became a fan of. Every Avantasia album has either at best yielded album length masterworks, or at the very least offered up a handful of absolute gems worth revisiting over and over again. In short, I’m a massive fan and Tobias’ has had a major influence on me as a metal listener.
But being a massive fan shouldn’t blind one to faults, and Tobias isn’t immune from this either, his very singular, blinders-on focus simultaneously the source of his unbridled genius, and ultimately the cause of the myopia that sometimes limits his work. One of the interesting things about Moonflower Society is that it is a direct sequel to Moonglow, a continuation of that album’s thematic concept and storyline, even down to similarities in the cover art style. It brings to mind memories of the 2010 simultaneous release of The Wicked Symphony and Angel of Babylon, and like those two albums, here exists the urge to run a direct comparison to Moonglow by virtue of their interconnectedness. Like that album however, Moonflower Society has truly inspired moments of that aforementioned genius, from the jump too, smashing through the gates with the pensive, moody, Queensryche-ian paced “Welcome to the Shadows”. It’s a similar atypical opener to a power metal album in the same way that “Ghost in the Moon” was a gradually unfolding epic opening track on Moonglow, as opposed to the usual anthemic rocker we’re all expecting at that spot. Also like its predecessor, the title track here is a gorgeous slice of pomp and drama, this time with the immortal Bob Catley running shotgun on vocals, his finest Avantasia moment since “A Restless Heart and Obsidian Skies” on 2016’s Ghostlights. Built on a Neal Schon-ian rhythmic riff, Tobias and Bob explode in a co-lead vocal during the refrain that is classic Sammet, with perfectly phrased lyrics meant for maximum hook factor and loaded with adrenaline pumping emotion.
One of the few new faces in the guest vocal lineup, Nightwish’s Floor Jansen is also the not so surprising homerun hitter this time around, with both of the tracks she duets on perhaps being the album’s best songs. There’s the uptempo, cathartic “Kill The Pain Away”, where Tobias juxtaposes a fairly straightforward rocking tune against a backdrop of Nightwish-ian symphonic bombast, a subtle but shrewd move to place Floor in a setting that is familiar to those who know her voice. The chorus is skillfully constructed, a speedy hook line that conjures up an incredible sense of urgency that matches the intensity of the lyrics (“Nobody there to kill the pain away…”). Even better is her appearance on the utterly magical “Misplaced Among the Angels”, a classic Sammet power ballad that rivals his best work in this vein, possibly even equaling past gems such as “The Story Ain’t Over” and “Farewell”. What his detractors of this more accessible song type get wrong when they peg it as “pop rock” is that it clearly owes more to classic AOR, not only the obvious Jim Steinman influence, but that late 80s / early 90s Bon Jovi melodicism, built on subtle turns of phrase and simple melodies artfully sketched. I love that kind of stuff and grew up on it so a song like this is comfort food to me, but I’d argue that this song transcends those descriptors based on the lead vocal performances by Tobias and Floor. It’s refreshing to hear her in a musical context that’s comfortable once again, because where she’s been sadly misused on the last Nightwish album, here Tobias sets her up with a vocal melody that highlights her strengths as a singer. She’s an obvious but inspired guest vocalist for the project as a whole, and I wondered for awhile if she’d ever get asked to do it considering she has been all over the Ayreon universe for awhile now.
I was also really moved by the Ronnie Atkins guested “Paper Planes”, a sorta kinda power ballad that took a few listens to really blossom for me but when it did, wow… it packed an emotional wallop. Given Ronnie’s health situation, there’s a serious gravitas to the lyrics in this song, particularly in the chorus where both men join together to sing “Flying away like a paper nothing / As I twist and turn, I’m light like a paper plane / Carried away like a trace of nothing / May the wind blow me its way like a paper plane”. Short but insistent piano phrases and moody guitar flourishes from Sascha Paeth are the perfect accompaniment to that whole passage — the effect is sombre, reflective, melancholic yet not dour. No lie, I think its one of Tobias’ best lyrical efforts in his career to date (and yeah, he’s not known for being a wordsmith for sure, but he stumbled on something really graceful here). And of course, long time Avantasia guest Michael Kiske sounds like a perfect fit on the very classic power metal speed run of “The Inmost Light”, basically a Helloween inspired moment for both singers to shine on like they have on past gems ala “Wastelands” and “Promised Land”. If I was slightly less excited by it, it’s likely because it feels like something I’ve heard before that wasn’t offering anything refreshing or new, but that’s a minor critique I suppose.
The biggest culprits for criticism however are equally tied into the guest vocalist choice as much as the songs in question just don’t hit the mark either. The only other new addition next to Floor is Ralf Scheepers on “The Wicked Rule the Night”, and although he delivers vocally like he always does, it’s a case of simply not fitting the band’s sound and vibe. Avantasia just shouldn’t get that heavy, it sounds stilted and awkward. And it was certainly a daring move six years back on Ghostlights to bring the much maligned Geoff Tate on board — Tobias however weaved together some black magic and made Tate’s cut on that album (the awesome “Seduction of Decay”) something that really turned our collective heads. Tate joined the touring company of the band, and also contributed to three songs on Moonglow, all three of which failed to ignite the same spark that his first appearance managed. They weren’t bad songs at the very least, but I’m afraid that “Scars”, the Tate cut on this album, might actually warrant being called below average, and I think it’s largely because Tobias just didn’t have much in the way of inspiration when it came to writing for Tate this time around. That’s the risk you run when you have repeat guests — a problem Tobias runs into with Eric Martin as well, who is on his third Avantasia album appearance as well and surfaces here on the decent but nothing spectacular “Rhyme and Reason”. It’s an awkward vocal moment for him, and seems to miss the mark in taking advantage of his more loose and bluesy tenor the way he was able to on 2013’s “What’s Left of Me”.
And look, I’m not arguing that Tobias shouldn’t have returning guest vocalists, because guys like Catley and the mighty Jorn Lande really feel like a part of the fabric of the Avantasia sound at this point. Jorn’s two moments here (“I Tame the Storm” and the Kiske joined “Arabesque”) are pretty good, not my favorite slices of Jorntasia but certainly enjoyable enough in the moment if not exactly hugely memorable. But I do feel like we’re coming towards an impasse where Tobias has to force himself to not simply add the touring company of Avantasia as the defacto vocal cast for the next album, which he’s essentially been doing for the past few records now. I believe he can and should separate the two, and find suitable replacements for the touring vocal roles to the best of his ability (a connected guy like him shouldn’t have a problem with that). But Avantasia needs to get adventurous again with the guest singers, in the same way that Arjen Lucassen seems to challenge himself to seek fresh voices for his projects. There’s a wealth of talented singers in the power metal scene who would be awesome picks for a future album, both veteran names and younger faces like Temperance’s Marco Pastorino, or hell Seven Spires Adrienne Cowan (how she, as a member of the recent touring company did not end up on this album is beyond my comprehension). Tobias believes this is the best album he’s written, and I don’t doubt his belief. But I hope he also believes that he needs to challenge himself every so often, to take some risks and see where it leads creatively. After all, wasn’t Avantasia itself such a risk twenty two years ago?