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.

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