It's almost two decades since Edguy vocalist Tobias Sammet unleashed his side project, Avantasia, onto the world with The Metal Opera and a sequel, inevitably titled The Metal Opera Pt. II. Well, for a side project, it's doing rather well, thank you very much, and this is their eighth album which apparently begins the fourth period of activity for the band.
Avantasia are rather like a Broadway musical, with all the theatrics and overblown melodies that might suggest, but performed by a European power metal band with a dozen different vocalists to meet any need that might arise. It's overblown stuff from first moment to last, which is why the guests feel like cast members rather than band members, but Avantasia are very aware of it and frankly revel in it. There are reasons why some of this has the bombastic arrogance of a Jim Steinman.
It has to be said that the core band are outrageously good at this to the point that the extremes, both soft and hard, are visited without seams, and I actually went back to a couple of moments to see how they did that.
For instance, the hard end comes three minutes into Book of Shallows. It's only a five minute song but there are four guest vocalists: Hansi Kürsch from Blind Guardian, Ronnie Atkins of Pretty Maids, Jørn Lande of Jørn and Masterplan and Mille Petrozza from Kreator. Yeah, you can see the odd man out there but the point where the track shifts into Petrozza's section is like a magic trick. It's power metal until we suddenly realise it isn't and we blink in shock and grin in admiration. And then it's all gone like a dream and we're back to where we were. This is surely the heaviest thing Avantasia have ever done but it feels utterly natural and we can't help but wonder if they've been doing it all along and we just didn't notice.
The soft end ought to be the presence of Candice Night on the title track and the soft acoustic guitarwork on The Raven Child does feel rather like it wouldn't have been out of place on a Blackmore's Night album. However, there are moments all over the album that dip tentatively into softness like a strawberry gaining a chocolate edge. Ronnie Atkins has a few such moments on Starlight, which somehow retains its power throughout.
Geoff Tate delivers a glorious vocal on Invincible, which is easily the best thing I've heard from him in years. It's a ballad in the Meat Loaf style with the inherent power of the chorus underlined by a bass that has ambitions of being a thunderstorm. He's on top form here but so is Bob Catley and listening to the both of them, plus Atkins and Lande and Eric Martin for good measure, on the same track, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, is fantastic. Hey, Three Tremors, this is how vocal duties can be viably shared on a song!
Given that I've mentioned almost all the vocalists thus far, I should add that Michael Kiske also returns, of course, given that he hasn't missed a full length Avantasia album thus far. The new fish this time out are Hansi Kürsch, Candice Night and Mille Petrozza, each of whom made their presence count. Kürsch in particular shines here, like he was there for the last seven albums and had it all down before starting here.
I haven't heard everything that Avantasia have done, but I've heard some of it, including the album that kicked things off for them, and I haven't enjoyed any of it to this degree before, right down to Sammet's bass runs on Requiem for a Dream.
The only real downside is the inclusion of an odd cover version, Michael Sembello's disco hit, Maniac, best known for its inclusion in Flashdance. It's not as embarrassing as it ought to be, but it feels notably out of place here, especially when a weird electronic backing kicks in halfway through. It's interesting B-side material but it should never have been included on the album. It lessens the rest.