I like Avantasia, yet again prefaced by project leader Tobias Sammet's name, but, as promising as this ninth album appeared, with its gorgeous cover art and typically droolworthy line-up of guest vocalists, I found myself a little underwhelmed with it for the longest time. It was only on my third or fourth time through, struggling to deal with the shifts within opener Welcome to the Shadows and further shifts to The Wicked Rule the Night, that I came to terms with it. Oddly, what made it work was accepting that the cover art depicts a sort of supernatural variety show, meaning that I needed to look at a droolworthy line-up of guest vocalists strutting their stuff for our edification and pleasure, all in different ways, to find sense in it.
Certainly, the opener, Welcome to the Shadows, feels a little awkward, shifting as it does between a few key Avantasia sounds. Initially, it's elegant progressive rock in the Queensrÿche vein and it's evocative and theatrical. Then it adds a choir to deepen the sound, in readiness for a ramp up into a form of heavy melodic metal for the chorus. I liked all the individual parts of this song but not so much the song itself, as if it's one jigsaw made from pieces from multiple puzzles.
It didn't help when The Wicked Rule the Night promptly heavies up proceedings considerably, as I was struggling to grasp what Sammet was trying to do this time out. The choir is still there, but it's soon drowned out by a faster, heavier, in every way more song. I liked it and I'm never going to find flaw with Ralf Scheepers of Primal Fear leading the way, but it started to feel like I'd stumbled on a compilation album of European metal legends performing songs I hadn't heard before instead of a new Avantasia release. And, quite frankly, it doesn't get easier unless we can get on board.
The good news is that I got on board, eventually, even though this still feels like an album that I'd experience better as a celebratory stage show rather than a studio recording playing in my office. And so, even more urgently than usual, I should talk about those performers. The musicians are a stable set, with Sammet; his colleague in Edguy, Sascha Paeth; and Felix Bohnke covering guitar, bass, drums and keyboards between them. There are guests to help them out but only a couple—Oliver Hartmann of At Vance gets a guitar solo, while Michael Rodenberg, Bohnke's colleague in Aina, contributes keyboards to a couple of songs.
The overt guest list is the line-up of vocalists and it's especially strong this time out, even given a crazy standard set over the past eight albums, with Scheepers, Floor Jansen, Michael Kiske, Jørn Lande, Ronnie Atkins, Bob Catley, Eric Martin and Geoff Tate all leading or duetting with Sammet on at least one song. Every one of them is a legend and I shouldn't need to tell you who their main bands are. Just in case: Jansen is best known for Nightwish, Kiske Helloween, Atkins Pretty Maids, Catley Magnum, Martin Mr. Big and Tate Queensrÿche. When Lande, ex of Ark and Masterplan and now of his own band, Jørn, is the least known name, you know you're dealing with the A list. Now, go check out all those bands and relish the experience.
Talking of Lande, its his first song that stands out the most for me as a highlight. It's a pure power metal number in the European vein called I Tame the Storm and it does everything right and stays in the mind the longest. It's also short and sweet, wrapping up in just under four minutes, with an exquisite ending. After that, I'm rather fond of The Inmost Light, which doesn't just give Kiske yet another opportunity to shine—like he needs that—but does so with backing that's tailored to his voice. Sammet tailored many of these songs to fit the talents bringing voice to them, even though Mr. Big never sounded this heavy.
I should also mention Arabesque, because it stands out in other ways. The first ten songs here only feature one guest, who either takes over or duets with Sammet, but Arabesque combines talents, with Lande and Kiske both on board and Rodenberg too on keyboards. It's almost twice as long as anything else here, as the closing ten minute epic, and that added length gives it the opportunity to take its time and breathe and build instrumentally. It grows with bagpipes into an Arabian feel, which is a fantastic groove to open up with. It's not a bad song either but it's a great intro.
And so this is better than I initially thought it was, but it took me a few listens to come to grip with it. What puzzles me is why, because I've heard Avantasia before. In fact, I've reviewed Avantasia's previous album, Moonglow, and I've enjoyed earlier albums. I know how theatrical their sound is. I know how the many vocalists shift the tone and feel from track to track, sometimes within a track. Maybe it was something in those two openers that jarred me in a specific way. Maybe you won't be impacted at all and take every song here in stride, like typical Avantasia. For now, though, I think I prefer Moonglow.