Avantasia - The wicked symphony 3.5/5
1. The wicked symphony
3. Scales of justice
4. Dying for an angel
5. Blizzard on a broken mirror
6. Runaway train
8. Forever is a long time
9. Black wings
10. States of matter
11. The edge
I must admit, I approached the 2 new CDs from Tobias Sammet’s Avantasia with much less trepidation than I did ‘The scarecrow’. Not because I was under the impression that it would be more in line with the far superior ‘Metal opera’ CDs that kicked the project off nearly a decade ago now, but more because I had resigned myself to the fact that the old Avantasia style was gone and not coming back, and was fully ready for any unpleasant surprises. Sad in a way, as it seems the magic has been sucked from the project, and the news of 2 consecutive full-lengths being released really came to me as matter of course rather than a source of great excitement.
In saying that, these 2 new CDs, starting with ‘The wicked symphony’, are doubtlessly going to prove less contentious than ‘The scarecrow’ did. While it should be clear by now that anyone going into a Sammet-helmed project looking for a power metal CD is digging in the wrong place, thankfully the mixture of symphonic metal and rock he has concocted for this CD is mostly a successful one.
While there are still some - in fact, possibly more – decidedly non-metal moments along the way, the softer songs aren’t the obvious stabs at chart success that “Lost in space” and the reprehensible “Carry me over” were, flowing more evenly with the rest of the CD instead of providing jarring leaps in style.
Things start in strong, metallic fashion though, with a powerful, varied trio of opening songs. The title track starts with the biggest, most ambitious song on the CD, the most massively orchestral and featuring an impressive vocal battle between Sammet, Jorn Lande (star of the show last time around) and Avantasia debutant Russell Allen. The chorus rightly serves as the centerpiece, though Sascha Paeth’s lead playing and Miro’s grandiose arrangements tie together to make a terrific, varied piece that is sadly let down a little by a slightly awkward grooving slowdown towards the end.
Things really get going though with “Wastelands”, which is a majestic offering of power/speed metal, sadly not to be repeated very often. The sort of stuff Sammet used to write for the AFM era of his career but has largely abandoned recently, it throws up nostalgia and gleeful abandon in equal amounts. And of course, for something reminiscent of 80s Helloween at their most joyous, it features the vocals of everyone’s favourite renegade, Michael Kiske, in one of the meagre 2 appearances he makes on the CD.
The pace doesn’t let up there, with “Scales of justice” screaming out of the speakers on a jagged opening riff with Tim “Ripper” Owens shrieking his lungs out in his own predictable-but-brilliant way. Maybe - although he’d never admit it - an answer to the criticism he received for the pop songs on the last CD, Sammet has made good on his promise of one of the heaviest songs of his career here, and he wisely staying out of Owens way most of the time to let the ex-Priest frontman do what he does best.
The next track (and I promise this isn’t going to descend into a song-by-song review) is the one obviously recorded with the singles market in mind, and features the biggest guest star on the CD in the form of Scorpions legend Klaus Meine. Unlike the shamelessly modern sounding commercial rock songs on ‘The scarecrow’ though, Sammet has taken a more honest-sounding 80s approach for a simple, yet still effective song built around a big, booming chorus. The only letdown on the song is the grating artificial keyboard sound that has been used instead of something a little more elegant. It is indicative of the extremely polished production style that mostly does the CD no harm, but on occasions like these it does stand out as being a little too synthetic.
While there are a few songs, mostly to be found around the middle, that don’t offer anything special, there is only one track that can easily – in fact, practically demands to be – skipped. “Crestfallen” falls victim the most to production trickery and annoying keyboard effects, and is finished once and for all by the time it reaches its bizarre, shouted vocal refrain, as big a misuse of Lande’s amazing pipes as you are ever likely to hear. A real black mark on an otherwise solid CD, it thankfully doesn’t stick around for long or have much in the way of company.
Things get back on track with the more hard-hitting “Black wings”, which it will please Avantasia fans of old to know features Ralf Zdiarstek, a guy who never quite made it on his own despite his powerful, rasping voice, and it is a nice touch to see him back in the spotlight. This is followed by “States of matter”, which provides another welcome blast of soaring, upbeat power metal - that greatest of rarities – before the CD fades out with the more rock-centric “The edge”, which features some great lead playing from Kiss alumnus Bruce Kulick, but sadly still feels like a bit of a weak way to wrap things up.
Just like Tobias Sammet’s career as a whole, Avantasia really needs to be viewed as belonging to 2 distinct eras – the AFM years, and the Nuclear Blast years. While not a patch on the first 2 CDs, now something of a power metal relic, ‘The wicked symphony’ is probably about a match for ‘The scarecrow’. More consistent but with less standout moments of quality, it makes for an ever-so-slightly lesser, but altogether more comfortable listen than it’s controversial predecessor.
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