Avantasia – The Metal Opera
Minstrels are still singing songs about my (in)famous Edguy-rewind, and already I return with more musings on the music of Tobias Sammet. This time I tackle Avantasia, everyone’s favorite portmanteau of Avalon and Fantasia – not to slam the dozens of Fantalon-fans of course. Designed as a side project featuring multiple guest vocalists and other musicians and taking place in a completely fictional setting, this is Sammet’s first attempt at a full-blown concept album, and even further, a metal opera. There is a plot, characters, twists and turns, etc., absolutely none of which I will address in this review for the sake of focus and clarity! In any case, the story is pretty well explained in the booklet and open to your interpretation. I know I’ve had multiple theories and thoughts about it, and perhaps so will you.
Let’s track-by-track this thing, shall we? The title of the opener is a smash hit of simplicity, named “Prelude”, and it is EXACTLY that, providing a symphonic backdrop to the spiritual and transcendental events we are about to witness. After this suitably epic introduction, the melodic fury of “Reach Out For The Light” descends upon us with the thunder of a thousand “Babylons”. Michael Kiske (ex-Helloween, Unisonic) is the first guest singer to appear, and he would take up residence in Sammet’s basement for the continuation of the project up until Angel Of Babylon. Watch out for a pre-chorus section with stately choirs layered with Sammet’s solo voice, a clear influence on a little band called Theocracy, and not the only instance of such practices on this album. Not just the chorus of this speed monster is catchy, the whole bloody affair is, and I’d say you’d feel this is Sammet’s passion project, if his contemporary work with Edguy wasn’t of an equally smashing quality.
“Serpents In Paradise” continues in a similar up tempo fashion, this time supported by the inhuman-shriek-turned-soft-whisper of Virgin Steele’s David DeFeis. Anyone who has paid close attention to the Americans’ “The Marriage Of Heaven And Hell” and subsequent releases knows that Virgin Steele has had an influence on Edguy in its use of grandiose melodies, so here it all comes full circle. Speaking of inspiration, there is a bridge section reminiscent of Queen, something that would pop up more and more in Edguy’s future output. “Malleus Maleficarum” (named after a famous medieval household “guide” to witch-interrogation and torture) is an interlude interspersed with the occasional sorceress’ scream, providing Ralf Zdiarstek with a chance to pull out his inquisitional side. It segues nicely into “Breaking Away”, the closest thing The Metal Opera has to a filler track, and it’s still a lot of escapist fun (GET IT?).
Some bands have tried their hand at the folky ballad in an attempt to rival Blind Guardian’s classic one-two of “Lord Of The Rings” and “The Bard’s Song (In The Forest)”. Avantasia gets pretty damn close with the emotional “Farewell”, highlighted by a melancholy violin lead and sing-along refrain. Sharon Den Adel from Dutch sensation-at-the-time Within Temptation shows up for some angelic guest vocals, a role she would reprise on the saga’s closer “Into The Unknown”. I have never been to the Italian capital and former hubbub of classic civilization, but when I ever do, I want “The Glory Of Rome” playing as I enter its gates. You can feel the majesty of the city rubbing off on you, seen through the eyes of Sammet and the assembled clergy of Zdiarstek, Rob Rock, and Oliver Hartmann (ex-Axel Rudi Pell) as the pope. Vatican Open Air, anyone? We stay in Catholic spheres with the interlude “In Nomine Patris” before arriving to the single “Avantasia”, an upbeat hymn to free will as only Sammet can write them.
“Inside” is led by Sammet’s own private Fellowship of the Ring, with Andre Matos (ex-Angra, ex-Shaman) as an elf and Kai Hansen (Gamma Ray, Unisonic) as a dwarf. This would have been the perfect moment for a song called “Skateboarding Legolas” or “Counting Corpses”, but instead we get a bittersweet ballad about loss of imagination. As we come to the highpoint of the album, “Sign Of The Cross”, the cast of “Inside” returns, this time for an instant power metal classic with the kind of chorus you’ll want to howl for ages. Elf and dwarf get more time to shine and if this record has one flaw, it’s that there is still an almost ten minute ten epic to go. “The Tower” has the misfortune of following “Sign Of The Cross” and therefore feels out of place, past the album’s prime. Still, there is a lot of interesting material with its “Theater Of Salvation”-type choral sections (Glory, glory, hallelujah, and so forth!), Helloween-esque soaring chorus, and a strange spoken word appearance by Timo Tolkki (ex-Stratovarius), as the “voice in the tower”. Music critics now believe Tolkki has never slipped out of this part and still thinks he rules from a heightened structure over the power metal world. DeFeis draws the curtain with a cliffhanger for the sequel, because apparently Avantasia is in some kind of peril.
For his Metal Operas, Sammet has not only surrounded himself with several vocal celebrities, he also has the power metal equivalent of The Avengers as his backing band. With Henjo Richter (Gamma Ray) on guitar, Markus Grosskopf (Helloween) on bass, and Alex Holzwarth (Rhapsody Of Fire) on drums, this could have been one of those failed super groups: instead it’s the lineup of your dreams. Sammet himself handled piano, keyboards and orchestration, aside from stealing the spotlight from his guest singers. You can hardly blame him, since he is in fine form and more importantly has crafted an unforgettable experience competing only with his work in Edguy, at that stage close to releasing Mandrake. You may not agree with the anti-Catholic message of this album, but it’s energy, power and versatility are undeniable. Sign of the cross to you all until the second installment!
Arno Callens’ Rating: 5 out of 5