Friday, June 26, 2015

album review: 'haven' by kamelot

Back when I first got into metal in high school, I remember having a conversation with a fellow student who was a year or two older than me who was also into metal. I told him that I was listening to a fair amount of power metal and symphonic metal, and I remember him snickering and saying, "What, like Kamelot?" At that time, I was only just getting into the genre, so I had never heard of the band, so I went home and picked up what few tracks I could find, most of which were off of the band's 2003 album Epica. And I remember thinking that while there were a few songs I dug, the band just didn't impress me in the same way that Nightwish or Blind Guardian ever did. Sure, they weren't bad, but they didn't seem all that special to me. And just like my abortive attempt to get into the band Epica around that time, I put the band aside for nearly a decade.

Fast forward to, well, now, and I started getting requests whether I would cover the newest album from Kamelot titled Haven. And at this point, I was in the mood to hear some good power metal and I figured the band deserved a more complete re-evaluation, so I began working my way through the extensive discography of Kamelot and their almost dozen albums of material across line-up changes and nearly twenty years of existence. To me, the band started hitting more of their mark on their second album Dominion, with much tighter and cohesive tracks than their debut Eternity, which featured great guitar work from their one consistent member Thomas Youngblood but definitely needed work in putting together cohesive tracks, instrumentally and lyrically. But it wouldn't be until the replacement of their drummer and lead vocalist with longtime powerhouse Roy Khan that things would materialize more, with the next two records giving them a chance to get their bearings before the absolutely stellar three punch that was Karma in 2001, Epica in 2003, and The Black Halo in 2005. And let's make this clear, if I was looking for records to win a metal fan over on Kamelot, it'd be those.

After that, Kamelot went in a more aggressively heavy direction with their next two records... unfortunately to diminishing returns, with their 2010 release Poetry For The Poisoned probably being their weakest in over a decade. But that wasn't the only issue, as singer Roy Khan left the band due to burnout, something this critic can believe given how his vocals sounded on that last record. He was replaced Tommy Karevik for their 2012 album and their third concept record Silverthorn, which actually turned out to be a pretty damn solid return to form, even if it wasn't quite at their best. So, extremely late to the punch, I decided to dig into their follow-up three years later with Haven - how does it measure up?

Well, I'm a little torn on this release. I'll be honest, I've been sitting with this longer than I do with most, listening through it over and over again - which in turn only pushed back this review longer and longer - but while I definitely think this is a strong release, I don't quite love it as much as I wanted to. Don't get me wrong, there are some absolutely stellar songs on it, a few that might even have a shot at being my favourites of the year - but as a whole it feels a little hit-and-miss across the board, lacking the driving narrative of their best work and straying into melodrama more often than I'd like to see in symphonic metal. In other words, definitely a good album, but it's not a great one, sitting comfortably in their middle tier of releases and falling the category of great metal acts I like not quite living up to high standards they set for themselves.

So what happened with this release? Well, let's start with the instrumentation and production - and I'll give Kamelot this, it's been a while since I've heard the band deliver such a lush, symphonic, sonically diverse and dare-I-say pop-friendly record. I've always thought it's been one of Kamelot's unsung strengths that they can write phenomenally strong melodic hooks, which is why their mid-to-late 2000s material tended to drag with me, and they've got some of their best here. It does take a little while to get going - the minor-key driven 'Insomnia' with the spiky film of static over the guitars and the Lacuna Coil-esque opening keys on 'Citizen Zero' don't exactly win me over as their best, even though the punishing groove and symphonic interlude on that song have a ton of force. But when 'Veil of Elysium' kicks in, with the key change for the solo, they've got a bonafide smash. The odd thing is that as the grooves tend to get thicker and meatier as the album continues, the percussion grows almost industrial like on 'Beautiful Apocalypse' and especially 'Revolution', to the point where the groove becomes so dense and frenetic that it doesn't always give the melodies the same room to breathe, no matter how much the overworked guitar and strings try to give it prominence. Of course, there are exceptions, like the delicate symphonic ballad 'Here To The Fall', where the odd key progression doesn't really land as well as I'd like, as well as the Delain-esque track 'My Therapy', especially with that sparkling keyboard line that runs through the entire song.

Hell, they even recruit Delain frontwoman Charlotte Wessels for the duet 'Under Grey Skies' with Nightwish bagpipes player Troy Donockley on the tin whistle... and yeah, there's no dancing around it, 'Under Grey Skies' is the best power ballad I've heard in months if not years. Both singers sell the hell out of it and have great chemistry, the orchestral backdrop is beautiful, and the melodic focus lends the song an epic swell that I honestly wish more of this record could have landed. A little more frustrating of a guest star is Alissa White-Gluz - yeah, her clean vocals are fantastic on 'Liar Liar (Wasteland Monarchy)', but her growls... yeah, I appreciate the effort, but it doesn't nearly feel as raw or visceral as it should, and with all of the effects piled on her voice especially on 'Revolution', it feels like an attempt to force power through production rather than delivery. Granted, I take issue with a lot of the vocal effects piled onto Tommy Kaverik's voice as well, mostly because he's a damn expressive vocalist who doesn't need them. The one area I'm a bit underwhelmed by him as a vocalist is in his falsetto, especially on the lead-off track 'Fallen Star', but he doesn't use it often.

Now this takes us to lyrics and themes. Unlike their last album, this record doesn't have an underlying narrative - and I'll be blunt and say that does work a bit against them, given how that narrative can amplify strong lyrical elements. But that doesn't mean there isn't a dramatic arc of sorts on this album, in this case exploring how one learns to draw focus and strength of character from within instead of from a world of projected fake smiles. Unsurprisingly for any power metal band, Kamelot tends to stick with more abstract broad strokes, but capturing the chill of being forgotten on 'Fallen Star' later reprised as acceptance of doing what will be remembered but done for oneself has real power to it - and those are on the songs that I don't really like! Where this album gains lyrical heft is in the idealism and romanticism of tracks like 'Veil of Elysium', 'Under Grey Skies', and especially 'End Of Innocence', as they call back simpler optimism, which Kamelot plays beautifully. And I even dug the nuance on 'Liar Liar (Wasteland Monarchy)', tearing into religion that offers contradictory standards of salvation and damnation in the same hand, and yet still provides a security that our frontman can crave. Where I feel this album slips us is where it can tip towards melodrama, with 'My Therapy' being the primary example - maybe it's just me, but it always makes me feel uneasy when people describe their lovers as therapeutic, it just feels creepy, and even if that was intentional, it didn't quite resonate. 'Citizen Zero' is another case, where it seems like Kaverik is taking on the persona of original sin itself - a sentiment later echoed on 'Revolution' and 'End Of Innocence' - and combined with other self-flagellating tracks, it can feel a little overwrought. And yeah, I get the intention to highlight the shift between insecurity and finding acceptance within oneself, but the concepts feel like they demand more subtlety than the instrumentation and lyrics really give them.

So to conclude, this is a record with incredible highs, but not quite enough of them to elevate it into being one of Kamelot's best. Let's be honest, they've got an upper tier of records that's pretty hard to crack with Karma, Epica, and The Black Halo, and while Haven does have a few songs that would fit in that category, it feels a little thin and loosely sketched, especially with the inclusion of peripheral instrumental interludes that don't really add a lot. So for me, it sits at a solid 7/10, definitely recommended for a couple of their best songs and as a potent metal record, but I get the feeling it could have been a bit better. And hell, even if you're not a metal fan, give Kamelot a listen anyway - they're definitely worth it and you don't want to be this late catching up.

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