Avantasia - The scarecrow 3.5/5
1. Twisted mind
2. The scarecrow
3. Shelter from the rain
4. Carry me over
5. What kind of love
6. Another angel down
7. The toy master
8. Devil in the belfry
9. Cry just a little
10. I don't believe in your love
11. Lost in space
If there is one thing that is clearer in my mind now than ever after listening to this baffling CD it is this: Tobias Sammet needs to make his bloody mind up. Which is he - a rock or a pop artist? Because another CD like this one that tries to get the best of both worlds will be simply intolerable.
No one really expected a complete power metal CD from his resurrected Avantasia side project (at least, not anyone with any sort of grasp on reality), but the levels to which Sammet has sunk as a songwriter present themselves in the form of 3 serious low blows. The remaining 8 songs, however, are more or less all some form of heavy metal, and are all damn fine examples of it at that. Essentially, Sammet is asking for his established fan base to shell out for 3 quarters of a CD while attempts to lure in a new audience with the honey trap that is the remaining segment. And that simply isn't fair.
The reassembled Avantasia now features Sammet on bass as well as the bulk of the vocals, Eric Singer on drums and producer Sascha Paeth providing the biggest percentage of the guitars. The number of guest vocalists has been trimmed down to 7, with 3 returning 'The metal opera' veterans and 4 new associates (but oddly still no place for Hansi Kursch). Oliver Hartmann and Michael Kiske make less of a contribution than they did previously, while the level of input from Magnum's Bob Catley remains about the same. While Amanda Somerville proves a pretty predictable presence as the story's love interest, there are a couple of surprise vocal appearances that should indicate to the listener right away that even the metal songs on this CD will be done in a different style to the Avantasia of old. On 'The scarecrow' there are only 3 fully-blown, card-carrying power metal songs. "Shelter from the rain", while slightly generic, offers the first excursion into pounding double-bass territory, and features an incredible solo duel between Gamma Ray bandmates Kai Hansen and Henjo Richter. Richter pops up again several times on the CD and his input is as inspired as always.
The rollicking "Another angel down", already featured on one of the preceding EP releases, is one of the 'The scarecrow's' best tracks, and not least due to the input of the undoubted star of the show, Jorn Lande. The Norwegian's roaring vocals are a perfect fit to the song, and everything else he touches on the CD turns to gold - his inclusion was most definitely a shrewd bit of business. The final power metal endeavour, again featuring Lande and another explosive solo section from Richter, is the bitter, venomous "Devil in the belfry" – a final flurry of speed before the CD begins to wind down.
... And now comes the unfortunate matter of the commercial twaddle. "Lost in space", which closes the CD on a miserable whimper, sounds no better here than it did on any of the previous releases to feature it. The piano intro does sound oddly appropriate as a gentle fade out, but as soon as those bouncy drums and wimpy vocals kick in the song - and the CD - is over, leaving nothing but a bitter aftertaste in its wake. The 2nd single, 4th in the tracklist, is another lifeless commercial rock song – "Carry me over", featuring no guest vocalists, it comes from the same stable as the woeful Edguy songs "Blessing in disguise" and "Matrix", featuring the same electronic sounds, empty guitar playing and ridiculously simplistic composition. The only noteworthy thing about this illegitimate grab at the spotlight is that the CD – somehow – contrives to get even worse on the very next song. "What kind of love" features the vocals of Somerville and, well, very little else. Sammet and Kiske both offer minimal contribution to this pop ballad that is all manipulative string arrangements, tiny hints of acoustic guitar, and styrofoam programmed drums. To call this song an abomination would be to do it credit and to say it wouldn't sound out of place on a LeAnn Rimes CD is no exaggeration. You would almost expect the next song to be a sassy number about Amanda just wanting to go out dancing with her gals, and how she don't need no sleazy guy pawing over her. Somerville has done some decent work for metal over the last few years, but her calling is pop music, and it is on display for all to hear in this dreadful song. My words may be harsh, but this sort of music simply has no place on an Avantasia CD, and Sammet's suggestions that he is somehow doing metal a favour by writing this sort of thing is almost offensive.
The truly remarkable thing is that 'The Scarecrow' somehow survives all this to remain a good CD. The remaining songs that are neither power metal nor pop are a mix of styles, and all work very well indeed. Projects such as this often feature songs that feel as though they were written to suit their respective guest vocalist, and Sammet has used this to his advantage with 2 tracks in particular. The verses on the midtempo opener, "Twisted mind", would sound at home on Kamelot's 'Ghost opera' CD, and Roy Khan's reassuring-yet-sinister 'Mephisto voice' starts proceedings in an unexpected fashion before the song bursts into a huge chorus that is actually quite similar to "Sacrifice", one of the better songs on Edguy's disappointing (in my opinion) 'Rocket ride' CD. It sets out a clear statement of intent that things are indeed going to be a little different this time around.
The real 'special guest star' of the CD has to be the king of schlock 'n' roll himself, Alice Cooper, who sneers his way through the menacing "The toy master" with gusto. A completely unanticipated addition to the CD, the song begins on a sort of quasi-industrial groove before bursting into life for its 2nd half. Cooper's voice has admittedly seen better days, but to hear the great man singing on a bonafide metal song is a rare treat indeed. Joining Cooper and Catley – who makes the only worthwhile ballad on the CD, "Cry just a little", something special – in the 60s-or-thereabouts club is Scorpions legend Rudolph Schenker. Schenker, having spent his career in the shadow of 3 excellent players, has always been an underrated guitarist, and knocks out some excellent 80s rock/metal leads on "I don't believe in your love", which also features the CD's singular, but appreciated, vocal contribution from Hartmann.
But to get back to Avantasia's real trump card this time around, it has to be said that Lande completely steals the show from Sammet on the CD's mammoth title track, an enthralling 11-minute, Celtic-hued epic that stands proud as the best song on the CD. This is surely an attempt to rival "The seven angels" from 'The metal opera part II', and even though it doesn't topple its glorious forebear, it is easily the best thing Sammet has written in quite some time. Beginning on chiming acoustic guitars and crashing percussion, the song proceeds through several phases – notably a very atmospheric midsection – before Lande completely tears the house down at the song's thunderous conclusion. With music this good on 'The scarecrow' it is impossible to dismiss the CD even if an important percentage of it is unforgivably soulless, but it does make issuing a score a more difficult task than usual. As an Avantasia CD this is a disappointment considering the band's legacy - but as any sort of metal CD there is no way this could be looked upon as entirely satisfying. It is unusual to see such a contrast, as normally when a band sells out (there, I finally said it) the full CD is infected. In this instance it is almost as though the 3 pop songs were written, recorded, and quarantined in a completely separate environment until the final master took place.
Avantasia enthusiasts that already have this CD and both 'Lost in space' EPs have a simple solution – cobbling together a CD-R that features the 8 proper songs from 'The scarecrow' with "Promised land", "The story ain't over" and maybe even "Scary eyes" will birth a CD that could have been a potential best of 2008 contender already. Those who haven't already parted with their money may want to think about what they're investing in. Where Tobias Sammet goes from here is impossible to say, but one thing is abundantly clear – 'The scarecrow' is as far as he can go in his current mindset, the absolute most he can get away with. A single step further away from his own territory will see the next Edguy CD and his reputation crashing and burning horribly - and, despite our frustrations, that's something none of us want to see.
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