Avantasia’s The Mystery of Time: Sonic Ambivalence
Since I’m going to be talking about Tobias Sammet and Avantasia, I’ll point out that this isn’t a conventional review in the sense that I’m trying to help you decide whether or not to check this album out — because of course you should. Sammet possesses a nearly peerless songwriting ability within the power metal/hard rock spectrum, and with said ability has delivered a career’s worth of superb work through Edguy and of course his solo/all-star project Avantasia. Every Sammet penned album can be guaranteed to contain a small to large handful of gems, and for that fact alone I believe he is worthy of respect and yes even gratitude.
Speaking as a power metal fan, that level of consistency is a rare beast in a genre too often full of talented musicians who can’t write a decent tune. I became a fan of the man back in 2000 with Edguy’s seminal classic Mandrake, and both retrospectively and with each new release, Sammet continued to fill the soundtrack of my life with thundering, grandiose power metal epics and emotive, stirring ballads. Few others in power metal deliver the goods as well as he does.
So as expected, there’s a lot on my mind regarding this record, and to better help myself keep all my thoughts in order I’ll be breaking this down into categorized, bite-sized chunks:
When it comes to the music on offer here, Sammet sticks with what his overall approach has developed into, which is a broadly scoped fusion of anthemic hard rock mixed with traditional power metal. I’m going to cautiously say that this was a good call. There are probably quite a handful of fans that would prefer to see a full on return to the quasi-neoclassical sound of The Metal Operas, and while I understand those wishes, I also appreciate that asking an artist to conjure up new music in a style and head space that he is over ten years removed from is simply unrealistic. While The Scarecrow Trilogy did feature some wonderfully decadent orchestral keyboard laden tracks, Sammet relied far more on unadorned hard rock — and that was a line crosser for many fans at the time, who felt that the name Avantasia should conjure up music that was entirely regal, and Euro-centric-ally classical. That being said, there does seem to be a knowing glance to The Metal Opera past that arrives in the presence of the German Film Orchestra Babelsberg on the album from front to back. The orchestra’s impact is felt throughout, providing an expansive bed of sound for even the more rock than metal cuts, giving them an appropriately epic feel.
Some really great songs:
But far more than the details of styles and sounds, its songwriting that matters the most to me, and Sammet digs up a couple of inarguable gems. The most obvious of these is the album standout “Savior in the Clockwork”, a surging ten minute monster with a chill inducing epic chorus that contains perhaps my favorite Sammet characteristic as of late: Goddamned awesome choir background vocals. They give what is already a great chorus that extra airtime with this huge soaring uplift — its pure ear candy and has been a prominent songwriting/production element in the past few Avantasia/Edguy albums. There’s a small but well known handful of vocalists that make up this choir, including the immensely likable Amanda Somerville, and quite frankly they should be talked about more in other reviews I’ve seen.
The award for most Avantasia-ian song goes to the truly exciting “Dweller in a Dream”, which harkens back to the classic pure symphonic metal style so vividly that you could probably slip it onto a burned copy of the first Metal Opera record and a newbie wouldn’t know it was a from another album. Maybe its the way Michael Kiske’s vocals finish Sammet’s refrain during the chorus, but I got flashbacks of 2000 — anyone else? And I’ll go ahead and blaspheme here (to some people), by saying that “Sleepwalking”, the most startlingly overt pop song Sammet has ever penned actually works surprisingly well; a semi-power ballad with a yearning, cinematic chorus that soars to those same dizzying heights that characterize so many of his past ballads. Producer/guitarist Sascha Paeth makes a wonderful contribution here with an elegantly simple guitar solo that softly echoes the primary melody and evokes a beautiful sentimentality.
Eric Martin / No lame interludes!:
And speaking of ballads, Sammet’s best decision on this album is to utilize Eric Martin’s seemingly ageless voice for the actual ballad, a classic piano and strings laden slow dance with a strong, emotionally stirring refrain and lush backing vocal arrangement. Martin’s voice is rich, suitably sandpapery, and inflected with just a touch of country that only enhances the heart wrenching qualities of Sammet’s composition by grounding it in an American southern earthiness.
Bonus points go to Sammet for good decision making on avoiding a concept album cliche of small non-song intervals, few bands can do them well and Sammet has had a sketchy record in the past when he’s tried it (the utterly obnoxious “Lucifer in Love” anyone?). To his credit he’s done a great job keeping that nonsense out of his past seven records, and I’ve noticed fewer and fewer bands doing it as well (hopefully this becomes a full fledged trend).
The Not So Good
Woeful filler and lyrics:
There are a couple songs that simply fall flat unfortunately, the first that comes to mind is the absolutely uninspired “The Watchmaker’s Dream”, which might just have one of the most boring choruses I’ve heard in years. Joe Lynn Turner is the guest vocalist on it, and while he’s a good singer, he comes off as rather indistinguishable here (more on that later), whereas someone with a bit more character in his voice could have possibly salvaged the track by making it their own. I could have lived without the other Kiske track on offer, “Where Clock Hands Freeze”, a total 180° from the excellent “Dwellers In a Dream”. Its this album’s version of the classic Helloween-inspired power metal speedster, and frankly its weak. Sammet has previously delivered the goods on these types of attempts on the past few albums, so its disconcerting to see him drop the ball here with Kiske — whats up with that? I could also have done without the quiet, orchestra only parts in “The Great Mystery”, which interrupt the flow of what is really a fantastic series of mini-songs folded into one long epic piece. Sammet included vague meandering orchestral parts on the title track for “The Scarecrow” album, and it struck me as lazy then as it does now — surely he can come up with a creative musical or lyrical bridge to serve as a connector for two disparate sections of a song. In other words cut it out with the faux atmospherics and stop boring us. You’re better than that Tobi.
I’ve always admired great lyricists in metal and elsewhere, and I feel that I’ve been rather patient and forgiving for the typicality of mediocre lyrics that permeate so much of metal. Power metal is unfortunately guilty of harboring some horrendous lyrical massacres, and my love of the overwhelming enjoyability of the genre has forced me to simply accept it as the norm. Sammet isn’t the worst lyricist in power metal — far, far from it — he often writes about interesting subject matter and has a particular English as a second language way with a phrase that is endearing. But I wouldn’t go out of my way to call him a good lyricist either; he overuses words, phrases, and imagery often, he relies on abstraction to a fault, and his tendency to use malapropisms is simply maddening. I let a lot of that go… especially when it comes to lyricists who aren’t writing in their native tongue, but sometimes I wish they’d make use of a proofreader every once in awhile.
So in the rather heavy, and aggressive “Invoke the Machine”, we get Ronnie Atkins trying to manfully bark out this travesty of a phrase: “Don’t you see what you are meant to be / Outside your cloud-cuckoo-land”. It almost, ALMOST… ruins the song for me. Maybe its just me but dammit that’s just embarrassingly bad — “cloud-cuckoo-land”? What is this, a Teletubbies album? What in the hell is that supposed to mean anyway?
The guest vocalist line-up:
No ones said it, but surely some have to be thinking it: This album would’ve been far better with different vocalists. This has to be the most ambivalence-inducing guest cast for an Avantasia album ever. And I know that it was going to be hard to top the absolutely stellar array of vocalists Sammet assembled for The Scarecrow Trilogy, so I do applaud his efforts in trying to diversify this lineup from previous casts. As I mentioned before, Eric Martin is a great choice, and I dig Ronnie Atkins and Bob Catley’s contributions as well. But Biff Byford, Joe Lynn Turner, Cloudy Yang, and to some extent Kiske himself were really uninspired choices here.
I include Kiske because his vocals only work if he’s getting exceptional songs, as he has on past efforts. And while I loved “Sleepwalking”, surely Amanda Somerville would have been a far better choice than Yang — who while not bad, suffers from awkward phrasing, spotty enunciation, and an all around weird approach to vocals… is she trying to be R&B, pop, rock, or none of the above? Hell if I know! As for Byford — I’ve never been a big fan and I can’t help but think when listening to his feature track here, “Black Orchid”, how much better it’d sound if Jorn was on vocals instead.
And while I realize that the guest vocalists on Avantasia albums are for the most part reflections of Sammet’s musical inspirations and interests, he has proven that he could stretch out before to spectacular results such as nabbing Roy Khan, or even Hansi Kursch himself on an old Edguy record. There’s a load of great talent out there, and maybe next time Sammet should set his sights wider to scope out some of the great contemporary vocalists out there in rock and metal that perhaps aren’t the traditional favorites (though no one would object to Bruce Dickinson… seriously how has that not happened yet?). I’m veering close into straight up nitpicking territory here I know, but this was the first time that an Avantasia guest list didn’t excite me (Martin being an exception), and I think that its been a bit of a damp towel on my enthusiasm for the album.
Despite initially looking forward to The Mystery of Time, I’ll confess that I was surprised that a new record was even in the works. Sammet all but put the project to bed after the 2010 mini-tour, citing that he felt he had done all he could under the Avantasia banner. So why the sudden change? Especially when its pretty much been a known certainty that his main band Edguy has indeed suffered in wake of the post-2006 resurgence of Avantasia. Look, like I said earlier, all his albums have their share of excellent moments, and the past few Edguy albums have been no exception. But I can’t honestly sit here and say that The Age of the Joker, Tinnitus Sanctus, and Rocket Ride can compare to earlier Edguy classics.
Its obvious to myself and other Sammet devotees that Avantasia has gotten most of his attention for the past half a decade now; consider that all of a sudden Avantasia’s total album count tallies at six, only three behind Edguy’s nine. In fact, since 2006, Sammet has delivered four full length Avantasia albums plus two EPs, while Edguy has only released three albums. If Avantasia has gotten the better half of Sammet’s songwriting for the past few years, its reasonable to say that Edguy has diminished in turn. Slowly, gradually, Avantasia has become Sammet’s main priority and Edguy is increasingly an afterthought.
There’s a fellow who goes by the name Empyreal on the Encyclopedia Metallum, whose reviews for various Edguy/Avantasia releases so often mirror my feelings as to why I love Sammet’s work so much. And as a fellow details obsessed devotee, Empyreal points out exactly what I was thinking about The Mystery of Time,
“A lot of these songs are more traditional rock-based ones, like Tobias usually does, even if they are markedly less “fun” sounding than he’s usually known for. I didn’t expect him to dive head-on into his new experiments without some forays back to the familiar territory, but it would help if some of these songs were better.“
I think that Empyreal is touching on something that has been bubbling under the surface for many Sammet fans, namely, it seems that the blend of rock and metal is tilting very far into rock and further and further away from anything remotely metal related. Heck, the new album is even subtitled as “A Rock Epic” for that matter, the era of the Metal Opera is long over apparently, as Sammet is deliberately distancing himself from a tag that admittedly does seem more and more burdensome. Now this wouldn’t even be an issue if the two bands didn’t sound so stylistically similar, but they’re becoming virtually indistinguishable in that regard. The hard rock infusions don’t bother me by themselves, but it does beg the question: Is there really that much of a difference between Edguy and Avantasia anymore? And to further that question, is Edguy relevant to Sammet, and if so, is there a way to get it out of the grand shadow cast by his larger than life side project?