Avantasia - Angel of Babylon 3/5

Reviewed: 6-1-10





Tracklist:

1. Stargazers
2. Angel of Babylon
3. Your love is evil
4. Death is just a feeling
5. Rat race
6. Down in the dark
7. Blowing out the flame
8. Symphony of life
9. Alone I remember
10. Promised land
11. Journey to Arcadia


I said in my review of ‘The wicked symphony’ that a listener going in expecting a power metal CD would be set for disappointment. For its companion piece, ‘Angel of Babylon’, the disclaimer should probably read that one should barely expect a metal CD at all. The dramatic, Steinman-esque rock music that had a part to play on the fist half of Avantasia’s newest outing takes up even more of the stage on part 2, to the point where the metallic moments probably find themselves in the minority.

I hasten to point out that while this in of itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing, a project that started with 2 CDs called ‘The metal opera’ is bound to leave a lot of disappointed fans when switching style so drastically.

Things start in very strong fashion, however, just like ‘The wicked symphony’, with the CD’s longest song. “Stargazers” is less bombastic than its counterpart, with a clean guitar intro rather than a sweeping orchestral one, which allows the 4 main vocalists, Sammet, Lande, Allen and Kiske (a real dream team, with Oliver Hartmann also making a small contribution), to line up one after the other before launching into a galloping, lightly symphonic metal song. The chorus is much more of a direct power metal effort than the massive choir on “The wicked symphony”, which makes for a nice contrast. Also in contrast to the other song’s more orchestral approach, “Stargazers” instead opts for a huge solo section, Bruce Kulick leading the way with a drawn-out, atmospheric wander before jacking up into some ruthless shredding before going into a superlative harmony with Sascha Paeth. As if to parallel the other CD’s opener, it also slows down onto a heavier riff towards the end and fades out rather abruptly, but on this song it feels a bit less out of place, even if one more go at the chorus before the end would have been appreciated.

Softer but still metallic is the title track, beginning on verses that rely on picking rather than riffing and featuring a very melodic chorus that is sung alternately by Sammet and Lande (with the latter coming out on top as usual). The main keyboard refrain eventually leads to a guess spot by Stratovarius maestro Jens Johansson, who offers an involved and intricate solo, which tries to offer something a little different rather than just a speed up and down the keys for a few seconds.

One thing that has to be noted about both new Avantasia CDs is a slightly more modest approach from Sammet – he still undoubtedly sings the most of the vocals, but definitely allows at least some of the guest vocalists a far bigger share than on the first 3 CDs. Lande in particular features on 7 of the 11 songs, and you get the idea the boss knows what his strongest card is, and likes to play it whenever possible.

In complete contrast to ‘The wicked symphony’, which had easily its heaviest track lined up 3rd, ‘Angel of Babylon’ instead offers the first of a large amount of melodic rock songs (dressed up in metallic production, but still) in the form of “Your love is evil”. The chorus is suitably big and also quite good, but the song on the whole is nothing amazing, featuring no guest vocalists and ultimately feeling a bit empty.

This is unfortunately the case for most of the rock-based songs on ‘Angel of Babylon’. It isn’t that the songs not being metal makes them automatically bad per se, but they undoubtedly feel less intricate and involving than the heavier moments. “Rat race” has a good, energetic opening riff, but swiftly fades into merely another song that is half-decent overall with a reasonably diverting chorus. It is immediately followed by “Down in the dark”, another song in the same style on which Lande is excellent as always, but ultimately it is just more of the same; a decent enough song with a big choir chorus, but musically completely unexciting.

The truly great moments are few and far between, Stargazers being an obvious one, and one of the others being provided by a song that – shock horror – actually dares to do something quite different. The Special Guest Star for this CD, following Alice Cooper and Klaus Meine on the last 2, is Jon Oliva who makes a telling contribution to the success of “Death is just a feeling”. Totally different to the rest of the CD, you get the feeling it was written specifically for the big man, as the tinkling, clockwork music box-style intro and trilling strings create a suitably creepy fairytale atmosphere that suits his theatrical style perfectly. His ragged vocals create subtle, eerie menace on the verses, and soar with effortless emotion on the incredible chorus.

Sadly the decent-to-mediocre songs aren’t the lowest the CD goes, with a bizarre venture into “seriously, what the hell?” territory with 2 of the songs nearer the end. “Symphony of life” was actually written entirely by Paeth, but don’t expect a return to the classic metal of Heaven’s Gate. The song is a truly unusual moment on the CD, with Sammet ceding all vocal duties to Cloudy Yang (who performed as a backing singer on the 2008 Avantasia tour), who sounds very out of place above the heavy, yet very repetitive guitar riffs. Hampered by more irritating sound effects and a vocalist shifting between lilting operatic and husky pop tones, it is a real low point on the CD and even for Avantasia as a whole.

In immediate pursuit is “Alone I remember”, an almost equally off the wall entry built on a swaggering, 70s-style classic rock riff. Again featuring Lande, on one of his solo CDs it may even have fitted in at some point, but here the song is just so helplessly out of place that it yanks the listener out of whatever atmosphere the CD has managed to create. The story, as it were, is nigh incomprehensible, with the booklet offering no hints at all (which is why I haven’t bothered mentioning it until now), but whatever is going on with the Scarecrow, his friends, enemies and ghosts, the brash nature of this song doesn’t feel appropriate to it in any way.

After this disastrous misadventure, some sanity is restored with the partial re-recording of “Promised land” from the 'Lost in space pt. 2' EP. It feels like a bit of a cheat recycling the song with the only change being Lande replacing all of Kiske’s vocals, but there is no denying how welcome a bit of uplifting power metal is by this point on the CD, and the song remains one of the best Sammet has written in a long time despite its recycled nature.

Thankfully they manage to carry the inspiration onto the final song to end the CD in a positive fashion, with the ballad “Journey to Arcadia” providing a resonant note to close proceedings on. An emotional semi-epic, it begins in typical but no less satisfying fashion with gentle acoustic guitars and orchestral touches, and gradually builds before coming to a soft fade out. Magnum’s Bob Catley is on hand to add his inimitable vocals to the mix, his aged and romantic tones synchronising flawlessly with the bittersweet nature of the song.

Despite the positive ending, there are definite and obvious problems with ‘Angel of Babylon’ that just can’t be ignored. To break it down into simple blocks, there are 5 really good songs, 2 that are really bad and the remaining 4 all just above or below average, so it can’t really come with a very strong recommendation. Definitely the weaker of the 2 new Avantasia CDs, and probably the weakest overall, there is still some positive material on here that is well worth hearing, but caution is most definitely advised.

The overall feeling left in the end after the latest offerings from Avantasia is that one single CD of brilliant quality could easily have been hewed from the 22 tracks that ended up being spread over 2. Ambition is always to be applauded, but it seems to have gotten the better of this project in the end.



CREAG




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