Ever since I discovered Avantasia for real with The Scarecrow back in 2008, every new release from Tobias Sammet and his rock-opera has been a small Christmas for me. I write “for real” because when I first gave Avantasia a shot years prior to that – a friend recommended them to me – I wasn’t impressed at all. To this day, I find the two first records, The Metal Opera twin records, too much Power Metal for my taste and I hardly ever listen to those. But ever since The Scarecrow, Avantasia’s records has bettered the previous one, something that culminated with the amazing Ghostlights that came out almost three years ago. That album totally floored me and to me that record is nothing but a damn masterpiece. With six brilliant records under his belt, expectations are always high whenever Sammet release a new Avantasia record but after a record like Ghostlights, chances to top it – or even equal it – are slim. And that’s what I was prepared for with the new effort.
Also, no matter how brilliant you are as a song writer, musician or producer or how amazing your band/project is, there always comes a time when the bland record shows up, the record where the ideas have run dry and you’re running on empty. This is something I expect will happen but cross my fingers never will. With every release there are a few new voices introduced and this time we get Mille Petrozza (Kreator), Candace Night (Blackmore’s Night and Ritchie Blackmore’s missus) and Hansi Kürsch (Blind Guardian). I have never been that big on Kürsch, I must admit. Not that I think he’s a crap singer, he’s not, but I have always found his voice annoying, so that’s a minus. But who knows, he might prove me wrong here. Then there’s the usual suspects – Jorn Lande, Ronnie Atkins (Pretty Maids), Michael Kiske (Helloween), Bob Catley (Magnum) and Eric Martin (Mr Big) all feels so familiar, they make Avantasia sound like a band instead of a project. Other than those, Geoff Tate (Queensrÿche) shows up for a second run as well.
Opener “Ghost In The Moon” starts out on a softer note with a dramatic piano arrangement, Jim Steinman style. 10 minutes long – a brave move to open an album with 10 minute song – this Meat Loaf-esque number feels like a more epic continuation of the last album’s “Mystery Of A Blood Red Rose” complete with Sammet taking all lead vocals himself. Very theatrical, the tune is a small rock-opera in itself but even though it’s bombastic and dramatic, the tune is amazingly memorable and the refrain hits like a ton of bricks which makes those 10 minutes feel like five tops. I couldn’t have asked for a better start. Hard Rock meets melodic Heavy Metal (with a slight Power Metal twist) in the punchy, heavy and direct “Book Of Shallows”. Lande, Atkins and Kürsch splits the vocals brilliantly well – and for the first time ever, I’m not (that) annoyed by Kürch – true Avantasia style but Petrozza changes the dynamics with his thrashy style vocals and during his minute, the song takes a step in that direction which suits it splendidly. The heaviest track on the record but still catchy. Another killer!
Candace Night splits the vocals with Sammet in the title track and man, can that woman sing. I get totally floored every time I hear her open her mouth and on this dramatic and cinematic mid-paced half-ballad, she so owns it. Her voice is beautiful and angelic but never without attitude, personality and passion. The atmospheric and dream-like arrangements works very well with the catchy, somewhat Blackmore’s Night-like refrain. It’s the album’s second single and it deserves to be a hit. Brilliant! The album’s first taster “The Raven Child” is an 11-minute mini-opera. It starts soft and operatic but soon the song goes up to a mid-tempo with added heaviness. The verses are in mid-tempo while the pre-chorus and chorus kicks up the groove into a faster pace. Lande and Kürsch handles the vocals and they’re both convincing in their parts in a song that brings on a medieval atmosphere, Celtic influences, acoustic guitars, a harp and strings. The song speeds up in the end, reminiscent of “The Scarecrow”, big on dynamics. Oh yeah, the refrain is fantastic as well. Awesome.
“Starlight” duets Atkins and Sammet and is a heavy, direct and robust track with distinct and very effective melodies. Atkins’ voice was made for stuff like this. It’s a simple and straight-forward Metal track, taking us back to the two first albums – only miles better. It’s a ballsy track but with lots of hooks and the chorus hits right between the eyes. Very good. “Invincible” is soft and laid-back with only piano and vocals to begin with, giving the track a dramatic atmosphere. Later on orchestration comes in making the song a bit more pompous. Geoff Tate shows everyone who think his voice is gone that they’re dead wrong. A heartfelt and soulful tune. Great! Tate stays on for the much heavier and darker edged “Alchemy”. It’s a heavy and quite aggressive Metal tune with a slight progressive twist but also ballsy and straight-forward with a menacing outlook but also with an addictively catchy refrain that hits without being too hit-friendly. A very good tune that Tate totally nails.
“The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn” is fast, blasting and punchy – a rough Metal tune with clear Power Metal influences that takes us back to the earlier days, very direct and striking. Tate stays put and Atkins, Lande and Bob Catley delivers great performances beside him with Eric Martin taking a smaller part here. A slower and softer mid-break brings up the dynamics and breaks the Metal mould some which betters the tune even more. A good tune but not as good as the previous ones. “Lavender” is a Melodic Rock meets Metal track that holds an uptempo beat with Magnum inspired melodies that must have been written with Catley in mind but musically, this is Avantasia all the way. Brilliantly catchy, the refrain is one of those that sticks in your mind forever – quite pompous with symphonic undertones. A great track.
The heavy and faster paced “Requiem For A Dream” takes us back to early Power Metal fueled days of the two first records. Kiske brings on some Helloween vibes and again, I’m sure this song was written for Kiske for scratch. While I find it a great tune, both catchy and heavy I also find Kiske’s and Sammet’s voice a bit too alike and when it’s only them singing, there’s a bit of a high-pitch overkill resting over the vocals. The closing track “Maniac” is a cover of the old Michael Sembello song that was part of the Flashdance soundtrack. Even though Avantasia makes a good version of it and Martin sings it very well, it also feels very out of place when being put on a rock-opera. For the limited edition, there’s a bonus track called “Heart”. It’s a big pop-metal stomper in uptempo with a big Pop feel that knocks on AOR’s door. The refrain screams Journey and I could easily hear Steve Perry (or Arnel Pineda) sing this. A great song that should have been in the original track list instead of “Maniac”, which should have been the bonus track.
The first time I took one this record, it came out a disappointment, maybe because of the expectations that Ghostlights sported. But it didn’t take long for this album to grow on me and when I write this, I hold this as high as the brilliant The Mystery Of Time (2013). The throwbacks to the two first albums, that I find very uneven, isn’t a problem at all as Sammet’s song writing skills has improved enormously since then. When it comes to the vocalists, everyone here does an amazing job – as expected. That said, I think it’s time for some changes in that department. Sure, there’s always one or two new names on every album but many of the singers has been there for a very long time and with so many brilliant voices out there, I think it’s time to get more new ones when it’s time for another record. On the other hand, guys like Lande, Atkins, Catley and Kiske brings a band-feel over the project. Still, this album holds everything you’d want out of an Avantasia album – hooks, big refrains, bombastic arrangements and operatic and cinematic sound scapes – and me, I’m not the least disappointed anymore. Yes, Sammet & co did it again. Impressing!
More Avantasia reviews:
1. Ghost In The Moon
2. Book Of Shallows
4. The Raven Child
8. The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn
10. Requiem For A Dream
12. Heart (Bonus track)