Kamelot’s Path to Haven
For many of us, this particular Kamelot album has been a long time coming. I suspect that quite a few of you felt the same way that I did when considering their 2012 Tommy Karevik-fronted debut Silverthorn —- that it was a difficult album to judge for better or worse considering that it had largely been written before Karevik had joined up. It was known that he had handled the writing of his own vocal melodies and lyrics in Seventh Wonder, and was quite good at it to say the least. Now for a lot of bands, this wouldn’t be a big deal because either the guitarist, or bassist, or keyboardist even would be serving alone as the primary songwriter. Not so with Kamelot, as founding guitarist and songwriter Thomas Youngblood spent over a decade co-writing with Roy Khan —- who in addition to being one of the greatest metal voices of all time, was also gifted with savant-like abilities in vocal melody development and lyric writing. Together they were the second coming and fully realized promise of Chris DeGarmo and Geoff Tate of classic era Queensryche, sharing similarities in their respective styles and deliveries; and in penning masterful prog-metal with crisp, clean, melodic guitars and emotive, soaring vocals with intelligent, thoughtful lyricism.
Youngblood and Khan were a pair of songwriters so attuned to each other that they unleashed not just one, but four outright masterworks in continuous succession from The Fourth Legacy thru The Black Halo (a feat that had not been accomplished in melodic metal since Iron Maiden’s 82-88 “Golden Era”). Khan’s departure in 2010 meant not only the loss of the band’s signature voice, but half of their songwriting engine. During the much speculated upon vocalist search, I suspected that Kamelot’s primary candidate requirement would be a singer who had also proven themselves in a songwriting capacity, to help fill that particular aspect of the void left by Khan. Considering that, the field of potential vocalists was reduced greatly, and at the top of my own (and many others’) list of suspects to be given the job was Karevik himself. He was the only logical choice: His tone and timbre was remarkably similar to Khan’s, Youngblood himself had stated a preference for the inflections present in Scandinavian accents, and Karevik had a resume full of songwriting, lyric writing, and vocal melody development.
With that in mind, its difficult to understand then why Youngblood and his newly adapted songwriting partners keyboardist Oliver Palotai and producer Sascha Paeth began writing without waiting for their new vocalist, but I would wager it was market forces. A full time band needs income from touring, which meant that the clock was ticking in terms of having to write and record a new album as soon as possible, vocalist or not. It was a gamble that paid off with an album that satisfied those concerns, but I believe failed in the greater context of actually being a good Kamelot album. With Silverthorn, Youngblood, Paeth, and Palotai engaged in a guessing game exercise in songwriting, the same kind faced by Nightwish’s Tuomas Holopainen for their post-Tarja Turunen album Dark Passion Play. Writing songs without knowing the tone and timbre of your future vocalist is an incredibly difficult challenge, one that rarely ensures optimal results.
When Karevik finally got to tackle his vocals, he did the best he could with clumsily constructed spacing for bridges and choruses. Rarely did he have enough room to unfurl a properly developed refrain, and the hooks suffered as a result. His vocal melodies were often forced to lay upon riffs that worked against him, resulting in awkward sonic pairings. The entire affair was hammered over with enough adjustments and editing to make it passable and listenable, but it lacked the natural smoothness and melodic flow that normally defined a good Kamelot album. One of the few exceptions was “Song For Jolee”, a stirring ballad that Karevik was able to get involved with in a greater capacity, writing the song around the strength of his vocal melody and a particularly haunting lyric. Alongside the similarly vocal melody-led “Solitaire”, it was a brief demonstration of the dramatic impact that Karevik could make if he was given a ground floor role in the songwriting.
It certainly made it clear to me that his second album with the band would be the far more accurate portrait of where the band was in their post-Khan evolution. That open question made Haven the most intriguing new release of 2015 for me, the very definition of a make or break situation that I nervously anticipated. I’ll be honest, I was still nervous even after my initial listen all the way through, but Haven has proven to harbor the trademarks of an expensive, well made perfume: underneath its initial sharp top notes are long lingering, pleasantly fragrant middle and base notes. Now thirty plus listens later, I feel confident about contextualizing its place in the band’s discography, and in deeming it their greatest album since The Black Halo —- a distinction I wouldn’t throw out without careful consideration. It is obviously far more accomplished than Silverthorn, with Karevik’s distinctive input in the songwriting directly translating into songs being written around the vocal melodies, the proper order of things in the Kamelot universe.
But perhaps more important than that is just how impactful his expansive vocal range is, urging the band to return to writing in largely major keys, with Karevik technically able to operate (with seeming effortlessness) in higher registers. Khan devotees (of which I consider myself to be) may balk at that statement for what it implies, but its the flip side of what is a rather uncomfortable topic for many Kamelot fans, namely, Khan’s degrading vocal range over the years. A few years ago, before Karevik was even announced as the successor, I wrote something for this blog called The Legacy of Roy Khan, a tribute of sorts as to why he was truly brilliant, and to why his void would be deeply felt by the band. Towards the end of the piece I briefly mentioned Khan’s declining range, but skipped over it perfunctorily, so as not to dwell so much on the very real difficulties he faced as a performer (a great deal of which was documented through live show recordings thrown on YouTube). It simply didn’t seem right to focus on it given the nature of the piece.
Yet its Karevik’s performance on Haven that drags this shadowy topic back into the light, as well as revealing a larger truth about the band in general —- that Khan’s declining range provoked a fundamental change in Kamelot’s sound and songwriting, a change that became habitual and they’ve yet to fully withdraw from. We can trace back Khan’s lowering vocal range to as early as The Black Halo, where he began to transition away from singing mostly in upper registers to settling into a comfortable mid-range with a few exceptions (“Serenade” and “Moonlight” come to mind immediately as that album’s upper register standouts). On Ghost Opera, this continued in large part, with Khan operating in a slightly lower register, even on a song like “Anthem” that required him to hit a few highs (studio effects on those vocals were noticeable, whether or not they were covering something up is entirely debatable). Where a song like “Up From the Ashes” should have had lead vocals that zoomed upwards through its soaring, arcing chorus, Khan hardly wavered from his mid-range delivery. Instead the band used layers of backing choral vocals to take care of the upper register work, a choir assembled of Gate Studios’ vets Amanda Somerville and both Robert and Cinzia Hunecke Rizzo, frequent choir contributors to Rhapsody, Avantasia, Edguy, etc, and all singers capable of filling in those high notes.
Even more noticeable than on the albums was Khan’s live performances beginning on the Ghost Opera tour. I myself attended their September 9th, 2007 Houston concert and despite my giddiness at seeing the band live for the first time, I was surprised to hear them down tuning for older songs in addition to new ones. They avoided included anything in their setlist from The Fourth Legacy, nothing all too surprising by considering its age and the vast amount of songs they had to choose from, but it was very telling in what the band viewed as the easy exclusions. When Poetry For the Poisoned was released in 2010, the common discussion from fans was just how dark the album sounded —- and it wasn’t just something felt in its admittedly depressing lyrics, but in its even more down tuned approach. Guitar tone alone wasn’t simply what was affecting us all, it was that such a change in tone was prompting Youngblood to think about songwriting differently —- heavier, chunkier riffs and rhythms to work better with Khan’s new register, slower tempos better suited to such sonic changes, and Palotai providing suitably darker atmospherics to work as adhesive.
The band as a songwriting unit had downshifted their approach away from their classic symphonic power metal approach of the late nineties / early aughts, and when fans would wish aloud for a return to a “classic” Kamelot sound, they were knowingly or unknowingly yearning for Khan to sing in a higher register again, something that could cause those tempos to pick up the pace once more —- they were hoping to go back in time in other words. There was spectacular work on those last two Khan era albums, by him in particular —- he still sounded great as a singer, and his vocal melodies and lyrics were always on point. But the tour supporting Poetry was the all too visible sign that Khan’s actual voice was deteriorating, and that he was incapable of even mid-ranged performances at times. The damning evidence is still on YouTube for anyone to relive (and I hated doing so for the purposes of pure research), and when he abruptly quit the tour it was hardly surprising despite our initial shock… for everyone who was paying attention, the end was in sight.
Both Youngblood and Palotai, as the surviving core of the writing team spent those final five to six Khan era years growing accustomed to the changes in the band’s sound, too accustomed it would seem. When they wrote for Silverthorn the tendency to down tune, rely on chunky riffing, and mid-paced tempos lingered on with a few exceptions. Its unfair to fault them, as the machinations of a creative process are hard to alter immediately, and the human tendency to rely upon developed habits is hard to shake. Nevertheless its one that they will have to, because in Karevik they have a vocalist whose natural register is higher, and who operates in that space with an ease that always seemed to elude Khan. If you’ve heard Karevik in Seventh Wonder, you’ll have heard him deliver vocals that seem to effortlessly dance across the top of major chords, deftly moving with an almost R&B influenced sense of alliteration and cadence —- he’s inherently poppier than Khan, less operatically inclined.
With a vocalist like Karevik, Kamelot can make its way back towards a sound that resembles its classic era, one replete with all the trimmings of their trademark symphonic power metal stylings that many of us have missed so much. The good news is that with a big chunk of the songs off Haven they’re well on their way. The bad news is that this flip side to the legacy of Roy Khan continues to plague a portion of their songwriting, in specific moments hampering the best use of Karevik’s abilities. Consider the not awful but rather clunky “Citizen Zero”, where the sludge-y tempo prevents the verse sections from developing into anything interesting, its down tuned riffs and overly aggressive approach resulting in heaviness that seemed forced and frankly boring. This faux-heaviness disrupts the structure of “Liar Liar (Wasteland Monarchy)”, wedging a bright, uptempo chorus in between two slabs of formless verses composed of floating keyboard atmospherics and meandering, un-melodic riffing.
The worst offender might be “Revolution”, as much an example of what not to do in a Kamelot song as there ever has been. No need to comment on the presence of the overused Alissa White-Gluz, whose aggressive vocals are indistinguishable from any other harsh vocalist (male or female), particularly when the biggest problem is the forced faux-heaviness of the guitar riffs. Youngblood is a supreme talent, one of the defining musicians of the genre and someone whose artistic legacy is already secure. He’s better than this quite frankly, and he of all people should know that we listen to his band for the melodies, not the riffs (this isn’t Melechesh!). This is the song that should’ve been left on the cutting room floor, or perhaps been singled out as the Japanese bonus track (more on that later). The last song to suffer from echoes of the past is “My Therapy”, where Karevik’s skillful treatment of the vocal melody (particularly in the chorus) saves the song from relatively lackluster verses fragments set to beds of uninspired riffs.
The path towards a future golden era for the band begins with the eternal classic “Fallen Star”, a supreme and glorious a moment that echoes the height of the Khan era in both melody and lyricism. Karevik’s piano accompanied solo intro to the song sets the tone and signals the approach —- that his vocal melodies will serve as the driving force and everything will yield to his will. In the mid-song instrumental bridge, Youngblood’s guitar solo echoes the vocal melody slightly by playing off its motifs, something he is peerless at. Karevik’s lyrics are evocative, with an almost Khan-like air of poetic imagery: “You are my reason to stay / Even if daylight’s a lifetime away / May the kings and the queens of the dawn / Remember my name / As dark as the fallen star”. The vocal melody guiding these words is cascading, rising and falling gently like a sloping hill, its shape infusing the lyrics with its required blend of romance and melancholy. It might be the best overall Kamelot song in a decade, a gem that matches the brilliance of songs from their classic era albums, and perhaps their best album opener ever.
Continuing the brilliance is “Insomnia”, an uptempo song built off Palotai’s inventive, swinging keyboard figures and finished by a multi-layered Karevik vocal performance that is simply astounding. On the chorus, he soars above himself, setting his lead vocal underneath waves of his own layered vocal arrangement, apparently fit to serve as his own choir. Those familiar with Karevik’s layering work on Mercy Falls and The Great Escape will feel as if the styles of the two bands are merging here, the multi-layered vocal flurries of Seventh Wonder meeting the dark symphony of Kamelot. And as if to further justify his inclusion in ground level songwriting, consider just how much he improves “Veil of Elysium”, arguably the spiritual successor to Silverthorn’s “Sacrimony (Angel of Afterlife)”. If you hadn’t noticed the similarities between both songs, take a moment to listen to them back to back and notice just how much more developed the song sounds now with Karevik able to expand on the chorus. Rather than being forced to shoehorn lyrics on top of a space reserved for a vocal melody, on “Veil of Elysium” he weaves the vocal melody around the phrasing of his diction, their very consonant structure providing the poetic meter within: “One day I know we will meet again / In the shade of a life to die for”. He also finds the time to serve up a particularly Khan-like piece of simple lyrical beauty, “Now winter has come and I’ll stand in the snow / I don’t feel the cold”, his treatment of the last line at the 1:04 mark being a prime example of his nimbleness as a singer.
The gorgeous, Troy Donockley’s pipes-assisted “Under Grey Skies” is a gem of a ballad, built almost entirely off Karevik’s vocal melodies, with help from the welcome Charlotte Wessels (Delain). She’s a breath of fresh air for the band’s choice of female collaborators, possessing a voice that is lighter than Simone Simons and more at home when set atop such cozy, acoustic guitar-plucked balladry. Some may find the lyrics here a little too cloying, but Karevik wisely avoids cliche diction and couches his romantic subtext in a stanza sung by Wessels, giving some respite to anyone who feels uncomfortable about having a guy sing them lines about kisses n’ stuff (if you feel guilty right about now you’re likely one of them). As a duet its a triumph, my favorite parts arriving towards the end when Karevik and Wessels trade off soaring layered vocals, singing under and around one another. Youngblood’s mid-song guitar solo here is note perfect, building off the vocal melody motif and extenuating it to sublime effect.
The highlights continue on the second half of the album, with “End of Innocence” proving itself to play along with the unusual coincidence of bands producing great songs under that particular title. I’m most struck by how well Youngblood manages to balance a dose of heavy guitar riffs without overpowering the melodies worked up by Palotai and Karevik. The MVP here might be Palotai, who answers the heaviness of the guitars with jaunty, symphonic keys that usher along a melody that works as a flamboyant counterpoint to successfully balance things out. Once again, Karevik knocks one out of the park with his choice vocal inflections and change-ups on the recurring chorus line, “And why must a hero die young / Not to be gone and forgotten” —- each time he gives it a new flavor. We’re treated to some Middle-Eastern flair in “Beautiful Apocalypse”, a song that took me a few listens to come around to. What sold it was Karevik’s simply stunning transition from gritty and tortured to smooth and sonorous (and back again), best exemplified at the 1:10 to 1:43 mark. Its one of the most dexterous things I’ve ever heard him accomplish.
A different kind of Khan influence creeps up on “Here’s to the Fall”, where Karevik sounds so eerily similar to his predecessor (particularly to open the song), that I wonder if Khan didn’t drop by the studio at any point to lay down some vocal fragments. This is of course the ability that won Karevik the job and was more frequently heard on Silverthorn, but here he uses it to great effect until the 3:10 mark, where the Tommy Karevik we’ve been hearing all album long pops up again in his more Seventh Wonder influenced mode. If Khan did drop by the studio, I’ll find out eventually, I don’t know how but I’m still not entirely convinced there wasn’t something sneaky going on (I’m only partially joking)! Normally I’d prefer an acoustic guitar/vocal pairing with keyboard embellishment (think in the vein of “Glory” from The Fourth Legacy) rather than solely keyboards/vocals, but Palotai does a nice job here of creating a moody atmosphere that actually works. I mentioned the Japanese bonus track earlier, one “The Ties That Bind”, a hooky, tuneful yet heavy-riff fueled song with a chorus that doesn’t quite arc fully, yet is infinitely better for the album proper than “Revolution”.
If like me you received the expanded edition of the album with a second disc full of alternate renditions and instrumental tracks, you’ll have probably indulged in the piano version of “End of Innocence” and the acoustic guitar version of “Veil of Elysium”. These songs, so uptempo and electric on the album are hushed here, left to operate only on the strength of their defining characteristic: their vocal melodies. Its a further testament to Karevik’s contributions to this album, that his melodies are strong enough to be the actual skeleton of a working song… one can call it practically Khan-esque even. And a final thought on Youngblood himself, who deserves individual praise alongside Palotai and Karevik for trusting his collaborators enough to breathe new life into his band. I’ve always regarded his style as being directly influenced by Chris DeGarmo (among others surely) in that during their respective classic eras they both wrote in crisp, clear melodic lines with razor sharp precision, anchored by a mindset that was unconcerned with any sort of “heavy factor”.
The difference was that DeGarmo eventually got off that train and ventured into lighter, jangly, less riff-based directions —- whereas Youngblood found himself having to forcibly get heavier, chunkier, and less melodic as a result. Both of them are tremendously gifted songwriters and guitarists, and in their work one attribute directly correlated with the other. They both operate best when writing and performing in what I call the DeGarmo gold standard, that thoughtful mix of melodic writing filtered through crisp riffing and clear open chord sequences. It may be too far gone for DeGarmo to ever bother returning, but Youngblood can easily find his way back to that standard. The first step is realizing that he now has a vocalist capable of hitting the highs needed to bring Kamelot’s sound back to its classically infused, symphonic metal roots… a return to their primordial musical waters so to speak. They’re halfway there with Haven. Karevik is the savior of the band’s sound, I suspect they’d surely be lost without him. Behind Bruce Dickinson, I can think of no better or more important replacement vocalist in the history of metal.