Saturday, May 4, 2013

REVIEW: Avantasia - The Mystery Of Time

Feel free to disregard this review in light of my current musical preferences but my patience for extravagant theatrical epics has waned considerably since the last Avantasia album graced my speakers three years ago. Granted, I wasn't aware of this until hearing their latest opus, The Mystery Of Time.

I've been a fervent supporter of Tobias Sammet for the past ten years due primarily to the following flaming arrows: 2004's Hellfire Club (Edguy) and 2008's The Scarecrow (Avantasia). As far as I'm concerned, the aforementioned albums are the creative benchmark for both respective projects and have cemented me as a fan regardless of the philosophical and musical shifts both outfits have subsequently adopted. Beginning with Edguy's Tinnitus Sanctus and Avantasia's The Wicked Symphony/Angel Of Babylon, both bands began a noticeable drift towards a hard rock oriented sound evident not only in the production but in Tobi's vocal delivery as well. The operatic power screams were replaced with a more rough and ready, rock n' roll wearied rasp and the frenetic and beefy Euro-styled rhythms were paired down to a rawer street swagger. I love hard rock but even so, I find myself less and less enamored with the sounds Tobi wants to make these days.

As with all Avantasia projects there is an underlying story tacked on to The Mystery Of Time but understanding or relating to it in any manner is not required and in my experience not entirely possible. I really have no idea what's going on here from a story standpoint. That being said, musically, The Mystery Of Time makes a genuine effort to revisit the velocities of earlier Avantasia works. The problem here is the inability to maintain these velocities throughout entire tracks. In the attempt at grandiosity, many of these songs simply forget to rock. Some tracks seem epic just for the sake of being epic. Savior In The Clockwork and The Great Mystery (the song), both clock in at ten minutes and both squander precious time. Savior kicks off with an absolutely killer power metal riff but then diverges from it for the last half of the song. This would have been so much more effective as a four minute face-melter. Instead, I find myself disappointed. The promise of that glorious riff is never realized. Mystery has a similar problem. It's a diverse and detailed pomp smorgasbord that reminds me of a much heavier Styx. It's also in possession of a fantastic cloud-clearing chorus and yet, it never seems to get there quite fast enough. Instead, preferring to dive into quiet introspective passages and odd time changes. I get it. It's a progressive styled rock opera. I just find it tiresome and would much prefer something more immediate. Get to the point already.

Thankfully, tracks like the symphonic Black Orchid and Invoke The Machine fill the void for straight-up ass-kickers.  Orchid is what I want from Avantasia. It's a dark metal pounder with cryptic lyrics and a huge menacing hook. This is the type of stuff Tobi should be doing more of. Now, I'm obviously biased towards Ronnie Atkins (Pretty Maids), but his brief appearance on Invoke The Machine stands out amongst the layers of clean, operatic vocals filling up every other nook and cranny of the album. I wish he was featured more.

There is a noticeable emphasis this time on singers from a general hard rock background than ever before. Remember, this is no longer a "metal opera" but instead, a "rock epic." Unfortunately, legendary vocalists like Joe Lynn Turner (Yngwie Malmsteen, Deep Purple), Biff Byford (Saxon), and Bob Catley (Magnum) seem to be lost in the mix.  Michael Kiske (Helloween), however, is always recognizable and still manages to thrill on old school power metaller Where Clockhands Freeze and Eric Martin (Mr. Big) is also a big surprise on the record's best ballad What's Left Of Me. The other ballad, Sleepwalking, features a duet between Tobi and Cloudy Yang and is the type of track Tobi needs to start leaving on the cutting room floor. Very much in the vein of What Kind Of Love from The Scarecrow and like that one, the worst track on offer and a real flow killer.

Don't get me wrong. This is a good album...but I feel it's also the weakest of the six. Something just seems off here. Something is missing. Could it be the absence of long time collaborator Jorn Lande? Perhaps. But, I think it's more than that. Some of these songs just don't have the magic one associates with Avantasia. The opener, Spectres, for example, kicks things off in fine form with some truly stirring orchestral work but then drops the ball with a rather middle-of-the-road hook. The same can be said of The Watchmaker's Dream. Fantastic musically, but mundane come chorus time.

The special edition of the album features two bonus tracks, one being an alternate version of Death Is Only A Feeling from the Angel Of Babylon album and featuring John Oliva (Savatage) on vocals. This was one of my least favorite songs on the previous slab and the new version doesn't win me over. I always felt this was a weak attempt to follow up The Toy Master and I never warmed to Oliva's strange vocal delivery on it...even though I remain a huge Savatage fan. The other bonus track is a straight up hard rocker called The Cross And You. After all the belabored epics on the album proper this is actually a breath of fresh air. It's a fun track for the reason that it sheds all the pomposity and self importance of the album and just simply rocks. I think that may be my main problem with Avantasia these days. Yes, I realize this is billed as a "rock epic" but I was somehow hoping Tobi would start delivering some kick ass metal without all the theatrical dressing. If you're looking for something over the top and perhaps a bit ridiculous in the lyrical department then this Mystery will suit you fine. However, if you're like me and were hoping for more of a serious power metal vibe without all the high-minded frilliness you may want skip this one.


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