Avantasia – The Scarecrow
When did Tobias Sammet transform from a goofy German power metal singer into one of the most reviled musicians working in the genre? He has been accused of being a sell-out, seeking Bon Jovi levels of popularity, a self-important artiste with more interest in haughty metaphors than actual music, and a mediocre singer surrounding himself with superior talent to mask his own ineptitude. I’m not going to give you the “he has made five albums in the last five years”-shtick, but the man deserves a fair trial just like the rest of us. A short disclaimer before I dive into it: I won’t be discussing the story of The Scarecrow and sequels here. I could make elaborate guesses to the meaning behind it all, and maybe one day I will do some extensive research, but for now I want to talk about the music.
Avantasia’s first sign of life since the much-lauded Metal Operas (part one more than two) seven years back was always going to be compared to that power metal milestone, and one wonders if Sammet shouldn’t have released his “Wicked Trilogy” under a new moniker, even though we all know he didn’t for name-brand reasons. Plus, it gave AFM another chance to make money off The Metal Operas by re-releasing them in a shiny new box. Those sly bastards. The music here is just so damn different, it’s almost like comparing Theater Of Salvation to Tinnitus Sanctus…
Which is of course the whole point. Musicians are fickle creatures, prone to strive for bigger and better ideas, and whether you are stubbornly spinning your copy of Mandrake with crossed arms and a pouty lip in protest, or openly embracing innovation and ambition, the fact stands that Tobias Sammet anno 2008 is not Tobias Sammet anno 1998. Not to judge anyone who sticks to the old power metal days as being close-minded freaks, but it’s a waste of energy to fume on message boards about how you want another Vain Glory Opera. It simply isn’t going to happen. Sammet wears top hats and twirls canes now, even though not much has changed in the leopard skin pants department.
Coming off two largely cash-grabbing Lost In Space-EPs which between them had less original material than Hammerfall’s best-of album Steel Meets Steel (the only saving graces are the atmospheric “The Story Ain’t Over” and the vibrant “Promised Land”), The Scarecrow was now an even tougher sell, since single “Lost In Space” hardly had the potential to be the new “Reach Out For The Light”. And to this day you can’t go into it with the expectations you usually set for your late-nineties power metal, because only in a few instances here does Sammet take to the heights of his very own rise to fame.
It helps a little that the opener “Twisted Mind” is many a power metal fan’s wet dream: Tobias Sammet in a duet with Roy Khan, back in the simpler time where the latter was still a part of Kamelot and not some religious nut. On paper, this combination seems golden, but upon closer inspection, it’s hard to imagine how it would work, since both singers have such completely different voices. Yet Khan’s eerie slur fits the verses perfectly (obviously by design) and when Sammet’s smooth croon comes in for the anthemic chorus it never feels out of place. Some of the guest spots here may seem like namedropping, but Khan complements the mid-tempo stomper perfectly and we’re off to a good start.
The title track immediately throws us into a loop with an unexpected Celtic-influenced intro. I’ve said before that I like this side of Sammet, and maybe he should commit to a full-blown folk album in the future (when and if everyone’s sick of him anyway so it won’t hurt his career). Verses are slow and calm before bursting into an arena-worthy sing-along refrain. If there’s anything Sammet never fumbles, it’s his choruses. Jorn Lande joins him, in a more supporting capacity than on the sequels, and it’s he who picks up the pace of the song leading into that brilliant bridge where he and Sammet trade lines like they’re melodic bullets, while Sascha Paeth tears the rhythm section a new one. Paeth is mostly known as a first-rate producer, but I know from Heaven’s Gate and Aina that he’s a none-too-shabby guitarist either. Post-climax Michael Kiske drops by for some irrelevant fills and his role is expanded on “Shelter From The Rain”, the first fairly traditional track on this unconventional album. Big leads, big melodies, big themes; it’s power metal at its most deliriously and deliciously pompous.
Now the torches and pitchforks come out as we segue into “Carry Me Over”, a radio-friendly piece of fluff that has very little connective tissue with the general understanding of metal. This and “What Kind Of Love” would’ve sunk the album if the second half hadn’t dramatically improved. I never had as much problems with this diptych as the collective internet, but halfway through Amanda Somerville’s (who is an otherwise underappreciated singer) second chorus I was kind of hoping this wouldn’t take too long anymore. It’s a decent show-off moment for Sammet’s vocal capabilities, but maybe the song around it could’ve have highlighted his songwriting and particularly ballad-writing talent as well. Luckily the shimmering ball of “Another Angel Down” is there to drag us out of the slump and even though it might not be the most original composition, damn is it ever effective. The first time the words “WE ROCK THE BALL!” echoed through my living room I was ecstatic with joy in a way not many power metal bands can get me. Great work by Sammet and Lande throughout and a serious contender for best track.
“The Toy Master” is another tailor-made song to one of the guest performers as Alice Cooper takes to the stage to do his usual creepy weirdo, could-be-a-Tim-Burton-protagonist routine. Cooper provides an interesting change in tone, and if anything Sammet should have kept himself even more on the sidelines for this one, as it’s Cooper’s moment de gloire. Back to the speedy power metal we all signed up for with “Devil In The Belfry”, which is the signature “Sammet’s still got it”-song. I have no doubt the man could fill an album with material like this, as so many crave, but it’s at least good to see he hasn’t completely forgotten his roots. Another firecracker of a chorus and I know it’s becoming trite and derivative to sing the praises of Jorn Lande, but the Norse bear is just too many kinds of awesome to ignore.
Balladry abound in “Cry Just A Little”, where Bob Catley makes a longer appearance (after a short stint in “Shelter From The Rain”) in order for Sammet to pay tribute to Magnum, by whom he was more than a little influenced. It’s strange he didn’t craft a more On A Storyteller’s Night-like tune for his vocal hero, something he’d sort-of make up for with “Runaway Train” from The Wicked Symphony. The final guest spot is reserved for Oliver Hartmann, a.k.a. that guy who was in a band you can’t remember (it’s At Vance), and he gives the mid-tempo rocker a nice theatrical edge. Sammet descends into cussing again with some questionable teenage-angst lyrics and another shout-out to his favorite flower: the rose. Which he now suddenly doesn’t give a fuck about. Twice cursed single “Lost In Space” is not the best choice for album-closer, but sticking it at the end at least gave listeners the opportunity to skip it with ease. I’m still partial about it: the Sammet-fan in me merrily sings along, the grown-up music critic in me dismisses it as a harmless distraction. I’m certainly not the type to go screaming in YouTube-comment sections about it with Caps Lock on.
I have had a long and personal love affair with The Scarecrow and it has (to use a heart-and-gut-wrenching cliché) helped me through some tough times (cue the river of tears). Such a close bond can never be exactly recreated by another album for better or worse. Yet when you yourself change, the listening experience changes with it. Anno 2012, I still appreciate Sammet’s single-minded creative vision, free from the public’s or press’ desire, as an uplifting, if flawed, musical journey, but it doesn’t pack the same punch anymore as it did three years ago. Part of that is over-exposure, part of that is maturing as a music critic with evolving tastes, and as a human being in general. My reaction to the sequels was one of disillusionment with an artist’s genius (one many people already started to feel with Edguy’s Rocket Ride) and maybe The Scarecrow has suffered in retrospect. I can look at it more clearly and fairly now, instead of blindly welcoming it into my arms as the next big thing in music.
When you take stock, there are seven stellar and four disappointing songs on here, and the former only can only make up so much for the latter. By any normal rating standard that would result in a 3.75 or less, but never underestimate the emotional value of an album in favor of rational grades. Music is not an exact science and the reason why it’s so easy to give a new album a systematic score is because you don’t have a history with it yet. The promotional poster for The Scarecrow still hangs on my wall, and the disc still makes regular trips from shelf to stereo. Even though somewhere along the way the crow has flown away, it’s still very important to me. The Scarecrow is a moment in time, for artist and audience, but due to its inherent musical quality more than just a slice of nostalgia. I’m quite sure there will never be anything like it again.
Arno Callens’ Rating: 4.5 out of 5