Tuesday 30 March 2021

Heart Healer - The Metal Opera by Magnus Karlsson (2021)

Country: Sweden
Style: Symphonic Power Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 12 Mar 2021
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Magnus Karlsson has to be the busiest musician in Sweden right now. His day job is to play guitars in a German power metal band called Primal Fear and his six studio albums with them include one from last year that I liked a great deal, Metal Commando. He also has his own outfit, Magnus Karlsson's Free Fall, playing every instrument but the drums, and this also put out a studio album in 2020, a wild and frenetic affair which I did hear and enjoy, even if I didn't get round to reviewing it.

However, if I'm counting correctly, these are just two of nine active projects that he's associated with right now and they release albums too. The Ferrymen put one out in 2019 with him on guitar, bass and keyboards. He provided the same services on the Allen/Olzon album that I thoroughly enjoyed in 2020 and now, he's kicking off 2021 with an album from another new project, Heart Healer, obviously as the composer, given the title, but also as performer, once again on guitar, bass and keyboards. Does the man ever sleep?

This one is notable for featuring a number of guest vocalists in the fashion of Avantasia, though I wasn't able to discern a concept and the songs are less varied than Tobias Sammet tends to compose, a state of affairs not entirely due to all seven of these guests being female and very comfortable singing in a symphonic metal framework. Given the working relationship that Karlsson already has with his fellow Swede, Anette Olzon, formerly of Nightwish and now of the Dark Element, it isn't at all surprising to discover her here on three tracks, or indeed to find Allen/Olzon's drummer, Anders Köllerfors, on all of them, but the other singers are notable too.

Most prolific is Adrienne Cowan, who's on five tracks. She's American and I believe her primary band is Seven Spires, though I don't believe I've heard them. She gets the first song, Awake, which means that its her delivering the fantastic vocal escalation a couple of minutes in that's precisely what YouTube reactors and talent show judges love to hear. She sounds great to begin with, but she keeps taking an extended note higher and higher until she's past where any of us expect her to end up and she keeps on going. Her range is stellar and her breath control excellent.

Only three of the seven get a song all to themselves, Cowan receiving two and Olzon one. The other is Noora Louhimo of Finnish heavy metal band Battle Beast and she gets to strut her stuff on the wildly varied Into the Unknown. When I reviewed the most recent Battle Beast album in 2019, she was easily the best thing about it and it's good to hear her on a song where she doesn't dominate so much, even though she still shines. She's also on Evil's Around the Corner, which is one of my favourite songs here, with its cinematic opening swell, though she shares the mike there with Cowan.

The other songs team these singers up, in many combinations too, from pairings to all seven showing back up for the album's closer, tellingly titled This is Not the End. This suggests that these ladies play characters in the titular opera and those characters move and interact as the story goes, but I wasn't able to follow their shifts any more than the underling concept. I recognised different voices, though there isn't a particularly vast gulf between Cowan and Louhimo, to cite just one example, so the duet between them doesn't sound like a duet at all.

In fact, the only other name I recognise here, that of Ailyn Giménez, who recently moved from Sirenia to the new Trail of Tears, is kind of lost in the mix because her three songs always combine her with at least two others and these ladies, as great as they all sound, aren't able to delineate themselves too well in this context, at least until This is Not the End where it's impossible to miss that there are many different voices in play.

Oddly, I found myself impressed on the macro and micro scales, thoroughly enjoying the whole album and catching wonderful little touches here and there throughout, but glossing over all the individual performances and, for the most part, the individual songs too. Louhimo carved out her ground best, a blistering showing on the final track underlining that.

Much of that is because the style is so consistent throughout. Sure, Weaker, which ironically may well be the strongest song here, has a majestic sweep; This is Not the End gets even more symphonic with prominent violin and cello; and Awake highlights how much Rainbow still influence European metal with its exotic touches. There's a lot going on here musically, most of it due to Karlsson himself, and I enjoyed all of it, but there's not a heck of a lot of dynamics in play. He took a very different approach to metal opera than Tobias Sammet. This is more consistently heavy than Avantasia and it's easily as much fun, but it's not remotely as interesting.

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