Avantasia – The Wicked Symphony
When I first heard of the upcoming Avantasia double-albums The Wicked Symphony and Angel Of Babylon I must have been somewhere close to “overjoyed”. Coming off the heels of Edguy’s excellent Tinnitus Sanctus, which was itself released in the same year as The Scarecrow, I had full faith in Tobias Sammet to pull off another daring musical experiment, this time stretching over two full-lengths. Yet what I expected to be nothing short of a life-changing experience turned out to be an eye-opening disappointment, and I was forced to admit that Sammet had reached beyond his own limitations here, despite the undeniable quality of some of the presented material.
Thankfully, Angel Of Babylon suffered the most from Sammet’s setup, leaving The Wicked Symphony relatively unscathed. Still, I believe one outstanding release could’ve been edited out of the two, merging the best of both worlds. What we have now is one very good record with some stray average tracks and one mediocre record with the occasional highlight. Was it hubris, greed, or an urge to give as many guests as possible a chance to shine? Who knows, but I hope it has humbled Sammet as it has humbled some of his fans, including me.
The albums are, however, not without musical evolution. I have the distinct impression that the ingredients making up The Wicked Symphony surpass those of The Scarecrow. Gone are the poppy hits and ballads, and only once does Sammet truly slip up, doing some misguided Donald Duck-sounding screams/rasps in “Crestfallen”. There is more diversity and innovation, some of it to carry over onto Edguy’s Age Of The Joker. Notice for example the bluesy breakdown in “Black Wings”, reminiscent of similar occasions in “Pandora’s Box”, or the use of poppy keyboards in “Dying For Angel” and “Crestfallen” compared to “Breathe” and “Two Out Of Seven”. Surely the lines between main band and side project were blurring rapidly. The Wicked Symphony also improves the use of the guest vocalists. Whereas the songs on The Scarecrow could be referred to as “the one with Roy Khan” or “the one with Alice Cooper”, this time the guests are integrated better into the music and call less attention to themselves.
Opening with another power metal fan’s wet dream, the title track is a vocal battle between Sammet, the returning Jorn Lande, and newcomer Russell Allen. It’s a marvelous and swirling epic with a chorus that will last a lifetime. Grandiose and bombastic, it delivers on its title in every single way. “Wastelands” is a more nostalgic affair where Michael Kiske is appropriately recruited to pay tribute to Helloween. If repeated too often, traditional tunes such as this would become stale, but as a one-off it’s a welcome addition. Tim “Ripper” Owens makes his Avantasia-debut on the ripping (get it?) “Scales Of Justice”, an unusually guitar-heavy track for Sammet and all the more gratifying for it. With a great right hook of a chorus it takes the album in yet another direction without losing steam or catchiness. No shortage of the latter in single “Dying For An Angel” either, where Sammet teams up with his fellow countryman and youth idol Klaus Meine of The Scorpions for a radio-friendly arena rocker. It packs a lot more punch and staying power than “Lost In Space” and should be celebrated, if just for that.
Old friend Andre Matos, a.k.a. the man currently without a band deserving of his talents, strengthens the moody “Blizzard On A Broken Mirror”, an understated and subtly beautiful song. One to creep under your skin over multiple listens. After the lackluster attempts on The Scarecrow, it’s good to see Sammet spend more time on his token ballad this time around and “Runaway Train” is one of the very best he has ever written. Like “Cry Just A Little”, it starts with a soft intro by Magnum’s Bob Catley, but the song quickly transforms into something much more worthy of the British hard rock giants. Moving quiet passages lead to a sweeping refrain and the whole thing is crowned by a fantastic mesmerizing bridge where Catley steals the spotlight like only he could. Epic and emotional, it’s another standout in a splendid first half.
Why Sammet thought he should follow it with the misguided “Crestfallen” is beyond me. The melodies on offer are certainly not bad, but the electronic beats question its metal roots. On top of it all is a strangely ominous chorus, coming out of nowhere and featuring the aforementioned Sammet “screams”. Even Jorn Lande could only do so much to make this song anything more than vaguely interesting. The Masterplan frontman is mercifully back to save the day in the mid-tempo rocker “Forever Is A Long Time”, an infectious affair from start to finish.
The back end of the album sees Ralf Zdiarstek (friend to Sammet, stranger to the audience) cross over from his The Metal Opera-days, and his malicious croon turns the darkest track, “Black Wings”, into a sleeper hit. I didn’t notice how good it was until the fifth time around, and now there is no way I won’t sing along to it. Russell Allen shows up once more for the fast and loose “States Of Matter”, the power metal sendoff for this album and a great one at that. “The Edge” is an upbeat semi-ballad where Sammet just drunkenly slurs at the world. One of the better drinking songs I know, and I generally have a distaste for such things.
Glossing over the story (because in the booklet Sammet himself says to interpret it at will), I do want to point out the clever lyricism with such thought-provoking and quotable lines as “Where do we go when the world gets in the way?” and “Out in the rain, I hide under wings I’d curse in sunlight.” Much better when you imagine the words being sung, but I do prefer Sammet’s deeper side over his clownish quips.
I never developed such a touchy-feely relationship with The Wicked Symphony as I did with The Scarecrow, so even though rationally I think it’s the superior album, it still doesn’t blow its predecessor out of the water. The two are on the same level for me, and if only the momentum would have carried on for a third one, this might have been a wonderful trilogy instead of a truly wicked one. Angel Of Babylon would destroy that ambition, but when separated from its twin, The Wicked Symphony is the one with the most chance of survival and can perfectly stand on its own.
Arno Callens’ Rating: 4.5 out of 5