Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Avantasia - The Wicked Symphony and Angel Of Babylon

In the middle ages, a practitioner of a craft would undergo three stages: apprenticeship, journeyman (an artist who would travel the world in honing of his craft) and finally master. Tobi passed the apprentice stage long ago (playing songs heavily similar to his musical elders in an effort to develop a musical personality of his own), and with this release has finally broken out of the journeyman stage: this is Tobias Sammet’s masterpiece.

At its heart, this is classic Sammet: you’ve got the close focus on memorable melody, songwriting that at time hovers somewhere in that enjoyable, but amorphous realm between power metal, traditional and AOR, and as is the case with every Avantasia record, monolithic vocal work from all sides by a myriad from the A-lists of Sammet’s chosen styles.
As they’re the aspect of the record(s) that people will be drawn to first and foremost, the vocals deserve special mention: once again, Sammet puts forth songwriting that places each singer within their musical “comfort zone”, yet it always benefits the album as a whole, never pandering. Once again, Kiske is placed primarily within a classic power metal framework in Wastelands, the spiritual successor to so many double bass-fueled chargers from his Helloween days, but with beefier production and some of the best vibrato Kiske has ever put forth. He even gets a chance to stretch his smooth lower range towards the end of the colossal Runaway Train. Ripper Owens, meanwhile, dwarfs Tobi on Scales Of Justice with his wild screeching presence, a track that draws heavily on an Iced Earth-style riffing base (despite Tobi’s vocalized disdain for Schaffer’s riffs), but that’s not a bash against Sammet – when you get into a shrieking contest with the Ripper, all anyone will end up with is a bruised windpipe and a bruised ego.

To cover all vocalists in detail would be a review in itself, but the story of the albums also becomes a musical factor: as the protagonist sinks deeper into temptation, The Wicked Symphony presents the darkest and most intense part of the trilogy, while as he begins to break from the influence of Jorn’s Mephistopheles-like presence in the Angel Of Babylon album, the mood gradually, yet drastically shifts into a more up-tempo one, in a more classic hard rock framework. We work from the intense, cinematic title track of The Wicked Symphony, which at parts sounds vaguely similar to the heavier, darker moments of perhaps Tarot, all the way to Angel Of Babylon’s closer Journey To Arcadia, with Bob Catley’s sensitive vocal over the prog-rock framework, with even surprising hints of subtle, yet extremely moving gospel influence and some of Sammet’s most passionate and ranged singing ever. Out of the dark and into the light.

That said, I do think that Tobi’s skills as a songwriter shine through more prominently on the more ambitious The Wicked Symphony, where tracks like Runaway Train – in which Bob Catley, Jorn, Tobi and Kiske sing over a sprawling, epic ballad worthy of the best of Meat Loaf – and the downright cinematic title track show Sammet at what is, so far in his career, the absolute peak of his powers. The humbler numbers bear mention as well: the arena-friendly Forever Is A Long Time and the wonderful, even transcendent-sounding rocker States Of Matter will take an industrial drill to get out of your head.

It’s not that this release breaks borders; it would be more accurate to say that it simply doesn’t care about them. Even though you can attempt to slot each song into a certain genre – the brooding Black Wings into a gothic metal slot, and the aforementioned Wastelands into its classic power metal place, for example – but each song merely feeds the mood that’s required of it in context with the story.

Granted, while there are moments that one might regard as “safe”, there are also moments which are borderline unclassifiable: of note being the chorus of Crestfallen, which features some very…unique harsh vocals laid around the doomiest moment of Tobi’s entire career (“And you’ll fall away from Heaven…”). Yet, somehow, it works, fitting the schizophrenic mood of the lyrics themselves.

Sammet’s often deservedly lauded lyricism is in top form here as well: perverted twists on religious allusions (“Pray the wine my will to take”, “No sign of wings / as you turn your back on me”) further accentuate his character’s descent into deluded grandiose insanity.

Weak points? If they exist, they’re few. I do think that The Edge and Blowing Out The Flame aren’t as strong as Sammet’s usual ballad fare, though their moods – The Edge as forlornly angry, and Blowing Out The Flame as a rather calm, melancholy number – do suit their respective albums very well. I was surprised to find how little a role Andre Matos plays, in how his one song, Blizzard On A Broken Mirror, is so Sammet-centric, whereas Tobi usually allots one-time singers on The Wicked Trilogy to have the lion’s share of a song to themselves (Alice Cooper, Ripper, etc). But it’s a fine song with an interestingly tense mood none the less.

Granted, as a whole, I enjoy The Wicked Symphony more than Angel Of Babylon, but the albums truly were made for each other; one completes its counterpart, in a way. The deluxe set itself is marvelous; the glossy digipaks inside perfectly compliment the box in which they’re encased, and the bonus book is very interesting and informative. They match the production of the actual albums: Paeth’s mixing and producing on these two albums matches The Scarecrow before them in their three-dimensional, balanced, but most of all organic soundscape. Sammet has, essentially, written a trilogy of albums about himself, transposed and dramatized into a period piece. Such a move would often be considered amazingly egotistical at face value [and let’s face it, Tobi is no stranger to those criticisms], yet it’s pulled off here: this is a man who’s splayed himself wide open for the world to see, bleeding out an accumulated career’s worth of musical passion. If you at all enjoy Edguy, Meat Loaf, or – really – any of the bands from which this myriad of musicians comes, get this for what is so far the magnum opus of the Ed Guy’s career.

There are many reasons why we love music as both art and as an integral part of our lives, and every so often, an album comes along to remind us why; these are some of those albums. Listen to them.

Fozzy - Chasing The Grail

Let’s face it – between being burdened with a name that brings to mind mental associations of stuffed toys more than heavy metal, having a singer who comes from the wrestling arena and having started out as a cover band, Fozzy face a kind of unjustified struggle to be taken seriously that most bands don’t have; Jericho’s a damn good singer on his own terms, but he could have pipes like Pavarotti and still be straddled with the “gimmick” tag by naysayers because of his previous career.

But on this release, Fozzy have broken from stigmas and stereotypes to deliver an album that easily tops their former original work, and elevates their status in the heavy metal pantheon. On top of their traditional metal framework, they’ve expanded their sound in several different directions.

First, the two ballads on this album mark the first time Fozzy has “gotten soft”: Broken Soul may not attempt to break from the mould too much, but its straightforward attempt at hard rock balladry instills such a sense of nostalgia in me (granted, reviewer nostalgia should hardly be counted as an objective system) that I can’t not enjoy it. Meanwhile, New Day’s Dawn shows the band attempting an interesting, but soothing falsetto chorus, and despite the occasional awkward lyric ("Stopped and struck by a semi-truck of bad luck", guys?), it’s a good song.

At the same time, their sound has attained a heavier edge, which brings us to album highlight Pray For Blood. This song just kicks ass, with its borderline extreme tendencies, centered within a traditional metal framework for an absolutely punishing display of tastefully blasting drums, monstrous riffs and surprisingly convincing vocals. This is the kind of song that demands to be cranked up. God Pounds His Nails is also one of the album’s heavier numbers, and while good, it lacks the skull-crushing, yet acutely melodic assault of Pray For Blood.

The more typical Fozzy sound, of heavy metal with slight, unobtrusive influences from groove and hard rock, comes into play on most other tracks; opener Under Blackened Skies shows the band waving their banner hard and with a firm sense of balance between their various influences, while tracks like Watch Me Shine and Martyr No More show the band in similar form to their previous album.

But its album closer Wormwood that truly showcases Fozzy’s evolution as a musical unit. This almost fourteen-minute epic based on the Book of Revelation doesn’t merely dabble in me-too prog territory, as many bands approaching such a feat for the first time may be want to do; no, it is a full-blooded prog song at its core, allowing itself to build naturally, rising from a humble acoustic cut to a full-on attack of memorable guitarwork, powerful vocal arrangements, a Hammond organ somewhere in the first half and even one movement with decently-executed harsh vocals. None of it feels out of place, either; the band shows amazing fluency in the style despite this being their first cut over ten minutes. If you like Dream Theater’s songs of this size but aren’t a fan of their extended instrumental sections (of which there are none here), make it your duty to check this. As relative to the rest of the record, it’s one of the finest climactic songs I’ve ever heard; considering the mythology being invoked, I almost look at it as a more organically-arranged counterpart to Iced Earth’s Dante’s Inferno.

It took Fozzy three albums in which to find their grounding as a totally original group, and another one in which to put forth what I think is a truly great record, but they’ve finally done it. Pick up this surprise smash and support a band that’s really put their best foot forward.

Nile - Those Whom The Gods Detest

Alright, credit where it’s due: Karl Sanders is probably the only songwriter who can title a song “Hittite Dung Incantation” and not have me chuckle on first hearing about it.

But that’s the special thing about Nile’s (once again well-researched) lyrics: despite the elaborately mythological, often explicitly brutal concepts they growl about, the lyrics take themselves entirely seriously, and not in a later-Cannibal Corpse way, where all that’s missing is some kind of tongue in cheek sensibility. Rather, Sanders’ way of lyric writing is from the perspective of one who so fervently believes in the brutal concepts being written about. To use an older example, the lyrics to Black Seeds Of Vengeance wouldn’t have been nearly effective if their gory aspects were played for shock value rather than as a desperate rallying cry.

That said, in any genre where the vocals are distorted so, the songwriting craft must play first fiddle to any aspect involving the vocals and lyrics. In that respect, and in the tradition of the killer Annihilation Of The Wicked, this album succeeds where the aforementioned Black Seeds did not.

The first thing to hit is the production: the wicked, deathly crunch of Kafir’s opening riff sets a tone of pitiless anger that gets carried throughout the record. That opening song will please fans like myself of Ithyphallic’s opener; though it carries a vaguely similar atmosphere, it’s a more compact listen. The drums have a less in-your-face sound than on this album’s predecessor, the quality-wise somewhat ambivalent Ithyphallic, letting the riffs and vocals steal the show. (bass? What’s a bass?)

The vocals are similar to Ithyphallic’s, in that you can probably understand most of the higher growls without the booklet, and this is a turn for the band that I prefer. But the booklet itself deserves a special look nonetheless: anyone disappointed with Ithyphallic’s lack of liner notes will be happy to know that they’re back, and just as informative, entertaining, and far lengthier than ever. Once again, they’re quite a fascinating read on their own terms.

My absolute highlight of this album is the title track: check the band’s signature reverberating acoustics, blended with the dominating riff attack and chorus bearing a strange, new quasi-clean vocal effect that manages to be downright chilling. While Nile has their hit and miss moments, here they manage to create a truly towering, imposing atmosphere.
The more compact songs – the aforementioned dung ditty, Permitting The Noble Dead etc., Utterances Of The Crawling Dead and so on, show Nile in traditional form, albeit bolstered by the production value. It seems that with the exception of the muddy Black Seeds Of Vengeance, Nile’s production improves with every release. I, for one, prefer their more sprawling work as opposed to the more compact numbers, but these aren’t bad. They flow together well, although taken separately, all but the most veteran of Nile aficionados may have difficulty telling them apart.
Karl Sanders is a musician who seems bent on pushing his songwriting and performance abilities with each successive release, and this album is a finely balanced example of brutalizing, yet distinctive modern death metal. It’s not perfect, yet it still deserves a place in the extreme metal fan’s library.