Friday, April 27, 2018

album review: 'the shadow theory' by kamelot

So when a band gets twelve albums into their career... hell, what is even left to say? Their high and low points are well-known, as are their moments of genre experimentation and flair. They've become an established quantity, and unless there is a massive paradigm shift, there becomes very little for critics like me to say...

And yet Kamelot has been different, mostly because their past few albums have been a pretty stark departure in sound with new frontman Tommy Karevik. The symphonic bombast had been ramped up, the tones were more aggressive and borderline progressive, and while Silverthorn was pretty damn solid in its own right, their 2015 follow-up Haven featured two of the best songs of 2015 and easily one of the best power ballads of the decade! It was a height that Kamelot hadn't reached in any capacity for me in over a decade, and thus I was genuinely curious how they could follow that up or if the album could match the extremely high quality of some of the individual cuts that came before. Granted, this was also coming with the departure of their longtime drummer Casey Grillo, but replacement Johan Nunez had a respectable pedigree and I was confident that Kamelot could still deliver. So, what did we get with The Shadow Theory?

Alright here's the thing: this is the sort of project that I'm not surprised Kamelot made in 2018, because when you're this far into your career and you're looking to make a modern symphonic power metal record, many of the choices Kamelot made are to be expected and will probably satisfy the diehard fans. But as someone who knows the heights to which Kamelot can reach, this fell short for me - not a bad record by any stretch but one that does not have the soaring high moments of their best and ultimately suffering under some artistic choices made for the sake of modernization and 'updating the sound' that just don't flatter the band in the same way. In other words, it's a decent record, but not one I can see myself revisiting very often.

And to explain where I'm coming from on this, I want to start by focusing on what Kamelot has done right throughout their career, because the strengths of this group are pretty damn distinctive. Like on the last two records, Tommy Karevik remains an absolute powerhouse behind the microphone - he's a singer with a huge dramatic range and presence and while there are a few cuts that don't quite give him the space he could use, they're definitely in the minority as his singing is genuinely excellent. And while I could argue that Jennifer Haben of Beyond the Black isn't quite as impressive as Charlotte Wessels was on 'Under Grey Skies', that's more because the song isn't quite as strong and she does have good chemistry with Karevik. Who I found even more impressive was Lauren Hart of Once Human, who contributes both clean vocals and growling to multiple songs on this record and I'd say she's a solid step above what Alissa White-Gluz did on Haven. But of course at the end of the day what makes Kamelot so compelling are how these vocal performances are married to huge symphonic hooks, at their best anchored in Thomas Youngblood's meticulous guitarwork and excellent solos, and on cuts like the minor-key driven, string-assisted 'Phantom Divine (Shadow Empire)' or the more traditional symphonic bombast of 'Vespertine (My Crimson Bride)', Kamelot absolutely gets there! And any concerns I had about Johan Nunez were very quickly put to rest, because while I wouldn't quite call his drumwork overly complex or progressive, it's aggressive and complex enough to fill in the rhythm section without getting distracting.

And if anything, I wish I could say more about his contributions, but this is where we have to get to the production and synth choices for this record... and if there's a place Kamelot stumbles hard, it is here. For starters, I have no idea why there is any need to include programmed percussion at all - you've got a great new drummer, blatantly synthetic drum machines just don't have the depth and knack for organic cadence that you need with a symphonic arrangement, and even if it did, it's not like this is an Ayreon record where those tones actively play a role in defining the atmosphere. But these drum machines do feel more cohesive with the buzzy, tinnny, frequently unnecessary synths like on 'Amnesiac' or 'Burns To Embrace' that I'd be inclined to say are industrial but don't have anywhere close to the roiling groove to be effective. And if they were just clutter in the mix they wouldn't be precisely bad, but the placement of these tones is often right at the front and top, a thin filmy distortion that only gets more irritating when they actively lie on top of more interesting symphonic melodies or the guitars like on 'Kevlar Skin' or the hook on 'Stories Unhead' - and while this can happen with higher backing vocals as well like on 'RavenLight' and also not work, at least that's trying to add bombast. And it would be one thing if they were actively contributing to the melodic arrangement, but they seem to have been added more for texture than actual tone, which only serves to diminish great hooks and guitarwork, or worse provide some substitution for melody when the guitar tone gets chunkier. Hell, on songs like 'RavenLight' and 'MindFall Remedy', it only seems to make the tracks sound more choppy and staccato and contribute very little to the groove or flow of the song. And that's not even counting the more processed guitar tones that have all of the tinny shrillness but none of the actual body to be impressive or memorable.

And is there really a point going into the lyrics? The band has stressed there's something of a theme to this record, tied into the idea of shadows of the mind and the psychological insecurity that might come with them, but the larger truth is that unless Kamelot is aiming to tell a more cohesive story, the broad strokes of their writing rarely manage to be all that compelling or distinctive within the genre. And on this record... look, even if the more synthetic elements in the production were intended to reinforce totalitarian paranoia in the modern age, the melodrama we get on songs like 'RavenLight' or 'Kevlar Skin' is definitely pushing it for me - although in the latter case that more comes with a nitpick that if you're pushing some sort of future dystopia defaulting to modern brand names or technology feels like a cop-out. Now there are thematic undercurrents of individualism beneath songs like 'MindFall Remedy' and 'Amnesiac' and even some of the melancholic elements of 'In Twilight Hours' can work, but when juxtaposed against all the melodrama and self-flagellation it reads as more self-absorbed than outright cohesive surrounding any larger theme. Hell, the more I traced through the lyrics the more I found that the flowery romanticism that we got on songs like 'Vespertine (My Crimson Bride)' or even the abstraction of 'Static' had more staying power than a surface reading of what Epica has done with far more philosophical heft. Granted, this is symphonic metal and I've always said that lyrics are seldom if ever the main focus, but when you don't have that deeper story and you do have such a good singer with Tommy Karevik, you wish more of what he was singing had dramatic weight, especially when the thinner synthetic production elements seem to be actively detracting from it.

But as a whole... man, this was a letdown. Again, not a bad record, but when Kamelot has throughout their career hit that high water mark, for them to make a record with textures and writing that'd be closer to a group like Delain is a problem, especially when it comes at the expense of those huge symphonic hooks that have been their core strength. It's far from the worst record they've made, but definitely a step back from Haven, netting a 6/10 from me and only a recommendation for the fans. If you're looking to get into Kamelot, I recommend starting with 2001's Karma, 2003's Epica, and 2005's The Black Halo, then maybe coming to Silverthorn, Haven, and then maybe this. And even then, I'm not sure you'd be missing much.

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