I think before I get down to business I think it's pretty important for me to talk a little bit about how incredibly excited I was for this album as well as its "sister" release, "Angel of Babylon". The first album in this trilogy, 2008's "The Scarecrow" was one of my favorite albums of that year, and time has been nothing but kind to it. With passing time, the songs have grown on me a lot, to the point that I have forgiven the album for its inconsistency and embraced it for all of its excellent hooks, performances, and songs as a whole. After a relatively pedestrian album with his main band Edguy, Avantasia mastermind Tobias Sammet went to work on the next chapter in his Avantasia legacy. There was no doubt that these albums would be following in the stylistic and conceptual footsteps of their predecessor, and the guest list was enough to make just about any metal fan salivate. I won't delve into the guests for the second disc, but for just this first one, we are treated to vocalists Jorn Lande (Masterplan), Russell Allen (Symphony X), Bob Catley (Magnum), Michael Kiske (ex-Helloween), Tim "Ripper" Owens (ex-Judas Priest, ex-Iced Earth), Klaus Meine (Scorpions), Andre Matos (ex-Angra), and Ralf Zdiarstek, as well as guitar solos from Bruce Kulick (Kiss) and Oliver Hartmann. Tobias Sammet again tackled bass duties, while leaving keyboards to Miro Rodenberg and spilt drums three ways between Eric Singer (Kiss, Alice Cooper), Oliver Holzwarth (Rhapsody), and Edguy skins-man Felix Bohnke. Yes indeed, this was sure to be a star-studded cast, and the wait for the release of the albums was nothing short of agonizing. In fact, I became so incredibly excited about them that I was roped into pre-ordering a release for the first time... ever. So, how does this first of two new chapters weigh in? Well, I guess it's time to get down to business.
"The Wicked Symphony" kicks off with its title track, and it's pretty clear right from the get-go that we're in for a treat - with a 90-second orchestral overture leading the charge, giving way to a heavy mid-tempo assault that perfectly blends heavy riffs and symphonic beauty, which is exactly what I was hoping to get out of this track. Tobias Sammet's voice is unspurprisingly the first one we hear, before giving way to Russell Allen's high-pitched awesome wailing, with his character serving as the voice of inspiration in this story. Jorn lande sets up the prechorus nicely, before a quick pause gives way to what I honestly believe is one of the very best choruses I have heard in my entire life - it truly has everything. The orchestral elements are still quite prevalent, and absolutely no shortage of catchy hooks. Also, this chorus lays out one of the things we will be hearing a lot of on this disc - singers aside from Tobias Sammet singing the choruses. Normally Tobi is a bit of a vocal hog, but thankfully he seems to have given a bit of that up here. There's vocal change-ups in the second verse, and for the instrumental section the orchestra comes back into the forefront before giving way to a more atmospheric section with Tobi doing some almost Robert Plant-esque vocals. Eventually things get rolling again, giving way to a nice and bombastic bridge section before returning the song's million-dollar chorus - this time with some added vocals. Clocking in at just under ten minutes long, this tune sets the bar incredibly high for all the music yet to come.
Fans of speedy melodic power metal need not worry, for the second offering here, "Wastelands" - driven by Michael Kiske, fires on all cylinders. The intro features some of the best guitar leads of the whole disc, and Kiske gives as fine a vocal performance here as he ever has. I tend to find him a bit overrated, but there's no doubt that, whether he likes it or not, tracks like this are his forte. "Scales of Justice" comes roaring in like a freight train, making it a no-brainer why this was the tune destined for Tim Owens to lend his vocals to. As Kiske led the former tune, Ripper leads this one, with Tobias Sammet only really serving as a vocal compliment. Others have said this sounds like Iced Earth, but I don't agree - it's fairly melodic in nature, it just features Tim's signature screams and throat-destroying wails. The middle section is somewhat unnecessary, kind of comes from nowhere and goes to nowhere, but doesn't hold the song back much. Not one of this discs most standout moments but in no way weak or remotely unnecessary, "Scales" tends to get forgotten, a testament to the strength of this album on the whole.
Changing up the pace yet again, we have the album's lead (and thus far only) single, "Dying For an Angel", featuring legendary Scorpions frontman Klaus Meine - and it's no doubt a signature slab of Tobias Sammet power-pop. If you hated songs like "King of Fools", "Superheroes", and "lost in Space", you'll probably have some sort of issue with this too, but I eat these songs up when they are done right. I've never been a huge fan of Klaus, but he performs very well here, and definitely lends some of his signature delivery to make this track better. The solo here is probably one of my favorites on the disc (from main guitarist and producer Sascha Paeth), and the chorus is bound to lay eggs inside your brain and haunt you pleasantly for hours or days at a time. "Blizzard on a Broken Mirror" starts slowly and builds up somewhat atmospherically before getting into a fairly strong midtempo groove. The verses are tackled by Mr. Sammet while Andre Matos is the driving force behind the pre-chorus and chorus. Typically I'm not a big fan of Matos, but I really enjoy his performance on the pre-chorus of this time, and the chorus really rocks. The mellow middle section of this tune is really strong, and probably one of my favorite single sections on the entire disc. On the whole, this song was a big notch above what I was expecting from it.
Speaking of songs which fully surpassed expectations, we have the album's next offering - "Runaway Train", featuring the most singers of any track present. Bob Catley brings us in with some excellent vocals over just a soft piano line, before kicking into a very epic section completed by a great guitar solo, again by Sascha Paeth. Jorn drives the first verse, which has a very Savatage-esque feel, what with the piano changes over a repetitive rhythm guitar part. The prechorus and chorus are both tackled by Tobias Sammet the first time. Choirs and symphonic elements abound, this tune really gives the feel of an epic Meat loaf ballad thrown into a blender with some Savatage and Queen elements. Tobi and Jorn switch sections on the second verse and pre-chorus, with Jorn's parts there being among my favorite of his from the project. There is a very distinct change of pace following the second chorus, as Bob Catley and a lone piano line come in and set the pace for an epic build up which significantly picks up the pace. The middle section is where this song goes from a great-but-standard epic ballad to something truly out of this world. My hat is completely off to Mr. Sammet and company for turning in another "perfect 10" tune here - though this is sure to draw fire from those who can't cope with things not being full-on metal. Michael Kiske drops in before the final chorus, and an outro driven by some cool organ sounds, bringing this tune to a close, just shy of 9-minutes.
"Crestfallen" offers us the first taste of what I would call filler from this project. The verses are fairly strong, but the interludes are driven by a somewhat annoying keyboard line, and the chorus is an odd mix of low-end male-choir vocals and a very weird, electronically altered (distorted I think) set of vocals that may be among the weirdest Tobias Sammet has ever done. This track just doesn't do it for me, definitely one of my least favorites between the two discs. Fortunately we are back on track with the next tune, "Forever is a long Time", which is the featured Jorn track of this release. The first verse shows him showing off his divine David Coverdale-isms, which are always welcome in my book. They deliver another fantastic chorus on this one, after the second of which Jorn gives a very memorable line of vocal improvisation that I just love. Another pair of great solos, one of which comes from ex-At Vance frontman and underrated vocalist Oliver Hartmann, and overall just a really great rockin', bluesy sort of anthemic track. Very enjoyable. Unfortunately following that we have the only other tune I'm not crazy about from this disc - "Black Wings", featuring relatively unknown vocalist Ralf Zdiarstek. No fault of Ralf's, for some reason this track just kinda plods and doesn't do much on the whole. There's no single fault at hand, it just manages to be underwhelming. Oh well, no matter.
It certainly is no matter, because the next track, coincidentally titled "States of Matter" is as good a tune as these discs have to offer, and features another absolutely soaring vocal performance from Sir Russell Allen. This track is packed with heavy riffs, melodic hooks, and just all-around awesomeness that are sure thrill just about anyone. Remember Edguy's "Hellfire Club" record and the uptempo melodic vibe of that disc? Well, this track very much recaptures that spirit in a fresh and awesome way, featuring my second-favorite chorus from this album. More proof that Tobias giving up control over choruses was a good call, as Russell Allen turns in a typically jaw-dropping performance, leaving fans to wonder why he doesn't lend vocals to more projects, especially more melodic ones where he can shine like this. "The Edge" brings things to a close, in a somewhat similar vibe to The Scarecrow's "lost in Space". Not as poppy this time around, but relatively mellow and melodic but with a strong somewhat anthemic chorus that, as much as it may scare others to read this, I must admit reminds me a bit of something that would've been on a Bon Jovi record from about 8 years ago - you know, from when they were contemporary pop but still knew how to rock and write great songs. All in all a very strong tune, but not one of the album's highlights - also similar to the way The Scarecrow ended.
It was my intent to wait to review this album until a good month after its release, for I believed it wouldn't do the record justice to review it right away. As I mentioned earlier, The Scarecrow has done nothing but grow on me over time, and there's no doubt that both of these new records are in a very similar vein. With each passing listen I gain a certain level of love and respect for all of these tunes. Tobias Sammet has been very vocal about his intent to make the story of this trilogy somewhat secondary to the songs, in order to allow the listeners to better "feel" the music, as it's hard to connect to a story when you're wrapped up in the specifics. I have to say I think he's succeeded in a sense of making these albums more allegorical, allowing the listener to feel the struggles of good and evil, of inspiration and passion, and of all sorts of emotional hardship in the framework of their own lives, as well as the album itself. The songs are more often than not, stellar, and Tobias Sammet has once again proven why he deserves to be arguably the biggest personality in power metal today.
So, thus concludes my first of two reviews of new Avantasia material. Stay tuned for a review of "Angel of Babylon", coming soon!