Welcome to part two of my epic double-header of Avantasia reviews. This time I will tackle the second of the new releases, and the completion of the trilogy, known as "Angel of Babylon". For details about "The Wicked Symphony", please see part one, but in short, I felt that record dazzled, well up to my extremely high expectations, featuring a diverse list of guest vocalists which really drove the fairly diverse songs forward. So now it is time for part two, and again, it is a star-studded cast, featuring repeated vocalists Jorn Lande (Masterplan), Russell Allen (Symphony X), Bob Catley (Magnum), and Michael Kiske (ex-Helloween), while also bringing in new vocalists Jon Oliva (Savatage), Oliver Hartmann (ex-At Vance, Hartmann), and female vocalist Cloudy Yang who handled backing vocals on the 2008 World Tour. Instrumental duties were divied up similarly here as with the previous record, but with a guest keyboard solo from Jens Johansson (Stratovarius) and a guest guitar solo from Henjo Richter (Gamma Ray). Certainly there is no shortage of stars abound here, but we all know guests don't make an album great, it's really up to the songs to do that. So, how does the conclusion of this epic trilogy measure up? It's time to get down to business.
This album kicks off with "Stargazers
", a track which features the most guest vocalists ever on an Avantasia track aside from "The Seven Angels" on "The Metal Opera, Part 2". Despite all the guest appearances here, this is mostly a Jorn and Tobias Sammet affair, though Russell Allen and Michael Kiske have fairly significant parts as well. After a fairly atmospheric intro we are launched head-long into a fairly speedy and very heavy power metal assault. There's no doubt that the verses here have both melody and a nice set of balls as well, and the prechorus and chorus are melodic bliss. The chorus is actually handled by a different vocalist each time, which is nice for the sake of variety. Jorn's vocals in the second verse are a big highlight of this track for me, among my favorite of his between both albums. After a nice solo section and a third chorus, which are unfortunately Oliver Hartmann's only lead vocals on the record, the pace drops back to a very atmospheric and somewhat doomy vibe which the remaining 2 to 3 minutes ride out, vocals shared by Jorn and Tobias Sammet. This track doesn't measure up to the epic centerpiece and title track of the previous record, but it is no doubt an absolutely fantastic offering among the standout tracks between both albums.
The album's title track is up next and it is no doubt a keyboard-driven affair, aided by a lengthy overlapped keyboard solo by legendary power metal player and notorious goofball Jens Johansson. Tobias and Jorn trade lots of vocals here across the verses and choruses, and this is no doubt one of the catchiest, most upbeat pieces to be found. Not a whole lot to say about this one, aside from that it's just an all-around great slab of melodic metal that is sure to please almost everyone. "Your Love is Evil
" is one of only three songs across both discs to not feature any guest vocalists, and all in all it kinda sits in the middle of the road. In a sense it reminds me of "I Don't Believe in Your love" from The Scarecrow, just a little less awesome. There's no doubt that it's catchy and a song you'll not want to skip upon repeated listens, but much like the previous Edguy album which this song reminds me of, it just kind of fails to dazzle.
"Death is Just a Feeling
" was no doubt a track I was destined to love, when it was announced that Savatage mastermind Jon Oliva would contribute vocals to it, and again, he dominates the song. I like any time it sounds as though a part or song was written for a specific guest vocalist, and that couldn't be any more evident here. The verses of this song have an absolutely creepy, sinister vibe to them which fit Jon's maniacal vocals perfectly. The chorus is very upbeat and singable, and all in all somewhat strikes me like a big overblown musical number - almost like a title song for a vilian in an opera or Broadway play. Some great strings add to the over-dramatic vibe. I think this track perfectly represents a great collaboration, and definitely remains one of my favorites and a nomination for the most enjoyable song here. A live staging of this with both vocalists and a string section would be amazingly epic. Next up we have "Rat Race
" which somewhat revisits that vibe of the previous Edguy record in a good way - "Wake Up Dreaming Black" comes to mind. Jorn contributes some vocals but this is mostly just a Tobias Sammet affair, including some heavy riffs and a very catchy chorus. After just one or two listens it wouldn't be surprising to find yourself singing: "living it a rat race, dying in a rat race!", it's just downright catchy, and I really like the main "riff". Again, more of a middle-of-the-road sort of song, but still well-worth its place on the album and repeated listens.
Unfortunately it is around this time that we begin to tread the waters of filler, which is worse with some tracks than others. First up is "Down in the Dark
", which still remains quite enjoyable though unremarkable. Jorn again contributes some vocals, and makes the first chorus of this tune absolute melodic bliss, fans of AOR will be loving it - unfortunately I think the chorus comes off as somewhat pedestrian. After a bridge and a solo we pass back through the chorus and the tune is over. No harm done, but it's not something I find myself ever really wanting to listen to. In a similar but more extreme vein we have the next offering, the ballad "Blowing Out the Flame
", which is the final song with no guest appearances. I am a constant lover and defender of Tobias Sammet ballads, as I think he has penned some absolutely brilliant power ballads in his past. Unfortunately this won't be joining those tunes, as it just comes off as very uninspired. I would've really gone for an overblown melodramatic ballad here, but instead this kind of just sounds like a modern rock band's attempt at a ballad with just some added choirs, orchestration, and piano. I actually think the verses outshine the chorus here, which for a song like this isn't a very good thing. I actually think the guitar solo manages to be the biggest highlight of this track, and that's no insult to it, it's a good one.
Things get worse with the next tune, which is definitely my least favorite song across both discs. "Symphony of Life
" stands out as obviously not written by Tobias Sammet, but instead by guitarist/producer Sascha Paeth. The combination of all the weird keyboards, gothic choirs, female vocals, electronic noises, and simple down-tuned riffs make for an overall affect I couldn't be less crazy about. This track comes off sounding like a mix of Evanescence and lacuna Coil, neither of which are bands I feel I should be mentioning at all in a review of something Tobias Sammet has done. This track is solely sung by Cloudy Yang, who is OK, but I'm really just not a fan of these sort of vocals at all. This is the only song here I would call a total misfire, and it certainly has upset a lot of other long-time Sammet fans like myself. it is one of only maybe 2 or 3 songs total that I would say these albums didn't need, and it is definitely the most extreme offender.
"Alone I Remember
" is sure to conjure up references to the Skid Row classic, "Monkey Business" as it no doubt has a verse and main riff rather similar to the blues-based groove that that tune does. Jorn contributes some of his most David Coverdale-esque vocals to this one, which is no surprise given the vibe. I really dig the groove of this song, and the chorus is total pop in a very ABBA sense. Now, that may be an instant turn off for some, but I think for some reason this tune really works. Hard to describe or justify, but I just really enjoy this one, simple as that. But if the description I laid out turns you off, I'm sure you'll be wanting to pass on this track. After "Alone" fades, we are treated to something a big Avantasia fan might remember from back in 2007 - the second "lost in Space EP" to be specific. Yes, this is indeed a resurrection of the track "Promised Land
" which created a huge buzz since its release, enough so to be played live on the 2008 Tour. This track remains one of my absolute favorites, but that probably has a lot to do with the fact that I have been loving it for two and a half years already. Upbeat and uplifting with a morose breakdown before giving way to arguably the best solo section on this entire disc, this track is sure to please just about everyone. It's got it all - hooks and substance, melody and power. Michael Kiske originally sang the second verse and chorus back in '07, but Tobias Sammet did the right thing by removing his vocals and having Jorn rerecord them this time, given that they make perfect sense coming from the perspective of Jorn's character - a sly, manipulative devil of sorts. All in all, a superb track.
So, we now arrive at "Journey to Arcadia
", the epic conclusion of this saga that it has taken three albums and three hours' worth of music to convey. No doubt that this track was written with a "finale" mentality, but as with most things regarding these albums, not so much in a bombastic "rock opera" conclusion. Instead we start out with a very mellow, almost storytelling-like vibe delivered very well by Bob Catley. When things kick in, we're in for a real treat with very big choirs and orchestration and Tobias Sammet delivering some of his best vocals of the whole saga. The actual chorus here may pale in comparison to the sections immediately before and after it, but they all work very well together. Rather than a very action-packed ending, we are instead left with much more of a "moral of the story" sort of vibe, seeming as though the lesson we are supposed to take out of this story is that there is a lot that we don't know, and a lot that we can not know - and the best thing we can do is to live our lives to the fullest, enjoy every moment, take in every note - because it's really all we have - "It's just you and I". As with these albums as a whole the very allegorical, "bigger picture" sort of story shines through in the end - giving the listener so much more than what your typical cheesy, un-relatable rock opera can deliver. This track is certain to deliver its biggest punch after full listens of the saga, and through repeated listens to of the track itself. Though I sensed a bit underwhelmed at first, the several weeks I have given this track have allowed it to crawl to be one of my unquestionable favorites here.
After the final note has faded, it is time to give a thought or two about what these albums mean in the "big picture" and what they mean in comparison to one another. First of all, I want to say that I feel "Angel of Babylon" was a bit weaker than its two predecessors, solely because of the aforementioned stretch of questionable tracks on the back half of the album. Theres no doubt that it still remains very enjoyable, and at least a solid eight out of ten, but I have no doubt that I prefer "The Wicked Symphony" for it being a bit more diverse and well-rounded. In fact, "The Wicked Symphony" is actually my favorite of the entire trilogy, trumping the 2008 highlight "The Scarecrow". There is no doubt in my mind that if they had shaved some filler out of all three albums, they could've been combined to one incredible double album that would deserve a spot amongst my favorite albums of all-time. However, in the end, the are maybe only 5 songs across all 3 discs (33 songs total) that I would say they really could've done without, and I feel actually hurt my overall opinion of their respective albums. I admire Tobias Sammet a ton for what he has done - not just his ability to bring countless big names to his projects, and not just his ability to take on such an immense workload himself, but most of all his ability to pen countless songs that really grab the listener and make them feel connected to the music. The songs from "The Scarecrow" have worked their way into my subconscious, they are part of my life - and I feel time will only serve to bring all of these new tunes that much closer to my heart. Tobias Sammet has alienated a lot of people over the last 5 years, and there's no doubt that many people will be equally as put off by these new albums - but you know what? That's their loss.