Tuesday, February 16, 2016

album review: 'ghostlights' by avantasia

So when I talked about The Mute Gods a few days ago, I brought how supergroups tend to market themselves - these people are attached to something you already know and like, and now they're working together, so you should buy that. In truth, that's one of a few ways, the second being a lot more complicated and unlikely: one artist with a defining vision recruiting a whole team of established artists in order to realize that grand plan.

Now some of you will inevitably point to hip-hop and say, 'Well, duh, we get this all the time', but this falls into a slightly different category, because how often do all those guest verses fit with the story or concept, presuming there's a story or concept at all. When you narrow it down like that, this list gets a lot smaller, and it also further divides into two categories, this time focusing on the man behind said project. Is he a musical genius capable of sketching out a vast world where every unique singer plays a distinct part, or is he simply an incredibly gifted networker who has some solid connections? In the former category in metal, the name that immediately jumps to mind is Arjen Lucassen, the founder of the progressive metal Ayreon project. And on the flipside, you have Tobias Sammet, frontman of Edguy and leader of the symphonic power metal project Avantasia.

Now I've been getting asked about my opinions on Avantasia since I mentioned that I like symphonic metal, but prior to doing this review, I had never really delved into them at length. So I took the opportunity to listen through their previous six albums and try to get a handle on the story that Sammet is writing - that's the big reason why this review is as late as it is. In short... I wish I liked this group a lot more than I do. Don't get me wrong, the group can often put together some spectacular symphonic metal songs, but the albums can feel pretty uneven, partially thanks to tracks not always doing enough to stand out from each other - with the exception of some godawful synth choices - partially because the writing can dip a little too often into metal cliche, and partially because the stories can get incomprehensible if you're trying to follow the plots. Now this upcoming record is following along from the story started on their 2013 project The Mystery of Time, a record aiming for grander symphonic presence, which focuses on a character in Victorian England falling in with what I'd basically described a steampunk machine cult. I definitely think it's a good, if hard-to-follow and frequently overwritten album, although I wouldn't say it always gives us their best individual songs, but apparently Ghostlights was going to be even bigger, even darker, even more grandiose... was that really the case?

Well, it certainly has a bigger, heavier feel - although if I was being honest, I have a hard time considering this all that dark by symphonic metal standards, which is a criticism I'd make of pretty much all of Avantasia's material. But yeah, I can definitely dig this, probably even more when I was able to sit down and decode the lyrics... and yet on some level, it's probably going to fall into what I'd say about every Avantasia record: a fair few great songs, but as a whole I keep wishing it had a bit more of a unique defining sound rather than the somewhat patchwork feel it does have. That said, in terms of Avantasia records, this is definitely one of the better ones, a great slice of symphonic metal that hits more consistent high notes than I expected.

So let's start with the vocalists, and in addition to a few returning singers from The Mystery of Time, with Ronnie Atkins and Michael Kiske doing a fair bit of heavy lifting, we also get our new cast. The names that'll immediately jump off the page are Dee Snider formerly of Twisted Sister playing with his brand of broad theatricality on 'The Haunting', plus Geoff Tate of Queensryche stepping up for an imposing and methodical force of entropy. And I'd be remiss not to mention Within Temptation's Sharon Den Adel's return as the muse set to depart on 'Isle Of Evermore', or how glad I was to hear Marco Hietala just owning his cult mastermind role on 'Master Of The Pendulum'. The biggest surprise for me came with Robert Mason formerly of Warrant, who has a clarity of tone that really stood out in a pretty overstuffed and bombastic mix... but my favourite was easily Jorn Lande, who brings a ton of texture, personality, and range to his howls as the Lucifer figure on this record. If I were to find a criticism of the vocals, they might come with Tobias Sammet himself - yes, he's improved by leaps and bounds since he started Avantasia, but partially by playing the point-of-view character and partially because he got such a murderer's row of talent, he doesn't always stand out in the same way. Granted, when you have so many power metal vocalists who have similar tenors, it can be tricky to tell them apart regardless, but there are a few places where the vocal layering or arrangement could have emphasized the harmonies a bit better. I definitely appreciated how they had Herbie Langhans of Sinbreed sing in his lower register on 'Draconian Love' - hell, it's something they could have done more across this record!

This takes us to production and instrumentation, where yes, it's definitely true that this album is heavy and dark by Avantasia standards, but in comparison to other symphonic metal bands, it's never quite as eerie or truly bleak as it could be. Part of this is the composition, which is the mixed blessing when Avantasia can write killer hooks... most of which are grounded in major chord progressions that don't always lend themselves to darker tones. But a larger issue comes in the production: while it's definitely clear the guitar work is the star of the show - with solos like on 'Babylon Vampyres' just being flat out insane - the actual guitar tones that carry more weight can be a bit hit and miss. Sure, we do get some thunderous grooves and crunch like on 'Seduction Of Decay', but I find myself often wishing we got a bit more bass texture to really provide an anchor point. But 'Seduction Of Decay' leads to another issue I've had with Avantasia: the songs that sound like they could have been pulled straight from other metal albums, in that case with the horns accenting the groove like 'Sahara' from Nightwish's Dark Passion Play. And that's not counting tracks that actually feature Nightwish and Within Temptation members that sound like cuts that could have been pulled from Imaginaerum and The Silent Force respectively... which isn't a full complaint as I love both those albums, but it does mean this album doesn't quite have as much unique instrumental identity as I was hoping. And while the synths definitely take more of a backseat than when they have in the past, I can't say I loved when they showed up on both 'Master Of The Pendulum' or 'Isle Of Evermore' respectively, or the murkier feel of 'Draconian Love' - it shows up most in the vocal layering and effects, but it still can feel a bit exasperating. And then there's the lead-off track 'Mystery Of A Blood Red Rose', clearly included on this album for the Eurovision entry... and from the female choral vocals to the slightly lighter riffs, you can tell this was written for Meat Loaf, only for him to decline and Sammet to record it himself. And yet with all of that, I can't deny how great some of these hooks and melodies are - there's not a bad instrumental on this record, and even the ones that are less distinctive are still damn solid songs on their own!

But what I think draws this record together, more than I expected it would, are the lyrics and themes. Now full disclosure, as much as The Mystery Of Time does provide connective tissue and a bit of additional context, you really don't need it for this record to be understood. It does follow off of that album, with our lead character falling in with the machine cult and being driven on the path of relentless reason and logic, but the scene is set very early and it's well done, especially considering how our protagonist isn't quite sure hard reason is enough of an answer, especially in the face of death and decay and entropy, elements beyond his control. This is where the titular ghostlights come into play, flickers that might seem supernatural and raise doubts that everything can be easily explained. And what I love here is the framing: you see the attractive power of reason, especially in the face of a God that can seem capricious or uncaring, but he also comes to see how quickly that machine logic burns individuality and creativity out of a person - like it or not, the humanity shines through. And when pursuing that wild human emotion all the way through, our protagonist encounters quite literally Lucifer, who tempts him towards throwing aside all reason in favor of wild passion - and yet even he is framed more sympathetically than you would expect. It's clear the moral balance on this record is less good and evil than individualistic and authoritarian - and while it would have been easy for this record to take a hard stand in favour of one or the other, Avantasia doesn't do this. Instead, it puts forwards the knowledge that both options exist, and then consciously takes a step back, knowing that each side has its own purpose, just that the choice is most important as it sets the example. Now if I'm being honest, this dichotomy does feel a little shaky, mostly because the writing plays towards dramatic abstraction, but I will applaud the open answer and providing a fair amount of flexible framing to both sides.

And as such, I really dig this album. I'm still not quite convinced Avantasia has delivered their best release yet - I think that slightly tighter writing and a greater sense of musical diversity and dynamics to really establish personality would make the supergroup stand out a lot more - but I also can't deny how much the hooks, writing, and vocal performances really clicked for me. As such... yeah, for me, this is a light 8/10 and definitely a recommendation. It might be a late review, but I definitely think Ghostlights by Avantasia was worth it, so if you haven't had the chance, definitely check this out.

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