Monday, February 25, 2019

album review: 'moonglow' by avantasia

So when I reviewed the newest Saor project, I made the statement it was one of my most anticipated metal releases of 2019... and funnily enough, the other one was released on the same day, and we're going to talk about it now. 

So, Avantasia - symphonic power metal project by mastermind Tobias Sammet, it was something that took a while to truly grip me. Unlike their progressive metal peer in Ayreon, the production wasn't always would it should be - especially early on - and while the projects could trigger some immediate standout tracks, I struggled to love the larger albums as a whole, all the more frustrating given they were intended to stand as album statements. More often they were uneven albums, good but not precisely great, and while I was initially high on their 2016 album Ghostlights as reaching that pinnacle, I expected it to fade on me... and I was dead wrong, because that album wound up making my year-end list and one of its songs cracking my top five favourite songs of 2016! And discovering how and why that album and the band's highlights in their larger discography have risen in my estimations in comparison with other acts has been a little fascinating, especially as my early opinions was that the project could trend toward overwrought cheesiness and being derivative, but with so many of those acts underwhelming in the 2010s with Avantasia only picking up steam with better production, more potent melodies, and better writing, I found myself really looking forward to this album! And like with all Avantasia projects, the guest vocalist lineup was stacked: Jorn Lande, Geoff Tate, Hansi Kursch of Blind Guardian, Candice Night of Blackmore's Night, Michael Kiske of Helloween, it was another stacked lineup and I was all ready for a gloriously theatrical release, which was exactly what Tobias Sammet was promising - and after the disappointment with Within Temptation, I needed that! So, enough fussing around: what did we get with Moonglow?

Honestly... as much as I really don't want to admit it, Moonglow fell short of my expectations. I'm not going to call this bad by any means - I enjoyed this a lot more than what Within Temptation put out earlier this year - but Avantasia fell a bit short of greatness with Moonglow, and as much as I was trying to love this album, it feels indicative of a problem I've seen in some stripes of metal before: following a critical success that comes with expanding the sound and refining the core, instead of doubling down on that refinement they pile on more layers and ideas that start to actively detract from it. Again, that's not saying this isn't a good album - it absolutely is, and there are some fantastic highlights - but it's a more scattered and frustrating listen than Ghostlights, and also indicative the band might be sliding back towards some bad habits. And yes, I know this is a review that should have come out last week, but I really wanted to give this so many chances to hit that apex point and I'm just not sure it measures up.

And I want to start with the content, and let's go back to Ghostlights for a second. One reason that record built up so much resonance and staying power for me was the fact that it was a concept album that wound up picking up a fair amount of nuance and thematic density: the inventor convinced to the side of science and pure reason now seeing the mystical world deliver its stunning counterattack, and him trying to find a middle ground between the two, the rare sequel album that I'd argue surpassed the original. But Moonglow doesn't seem to have that conceptual framework in the same way - which can be fine enough, power metal and symphonic metal doesn't have to have a concept to be awesome, especially if that means a focus on self-contained individual track stunners. But for as grand and theatrical as Avantasia has always been, am I the only one who finds some of the gravitas is undercut by not giving these cuts a more cohesive arc? Tobias Sammet has said in interviews that each song is representative of a different creature thrown into a world where they can't connect and thus drift towards a comforting darkness - and really, if you want a larger metaphor for how and why people connect with this sort of metal, it's a good one - but when you have such a wealth of guest talent and they don't seem to play more distinctive roles in song after song, that idea can feel even more diffuse and scattered. Hell, when you tack on a cover of Michael Sembello's 'Maniac' to the end of the album, that's only reinforces that feeling! I guess if I were to try and trace a larger arc and just ignore the cover, I could see Tobias Sammet's 'character' as the protagonist, but if you're comparing the sense of heightened stakes and urgency that pulsated through the writing of Ghostlights, Moonglow feels more relaxed, a little looser, almost a bit smaller by design - which is weird to say when it's being sold by some of the most powerful belters in power metal!

Now don't get me wrong, I'm definitely not complaining about the frankly stacked roster on this project: I expected Jorn Lande, Michael Kiske and Ronnie Atkins to bring some visceral presence, and Hansi Kursch always shows off his range and well-arranged firepower on projects like these. And while I did expect quality from Bob Catley's more level tones, they proved especially valuable on songs like 'Lavender' and served as a great contrast. What actually caught me off-guard was the presence that Candice Night delivered on the title track - she doesn't normally sing opposite heavier production but was pretty damn credible here; makes me wish she was on more than one song! And really, if I'm looking at many of the instrumental elements and production tones, there still a lot I like about this project - while I'd argue that many of the hooks are quite as impressive as the best of Ghostlights, there are a few that are genuinely terrific, the most notable coming with the opening track 'Ghost Of The Moon' that's handily the best song on the project with the huge choral backing choir and driving melodic riffs ramping up the crescendos - similar case for 'Lavender' especially with a bridge that owes a considerable debt to Jim Steinman and the monster hook of 'Requiem For a Dream' that I'm still not quite convinced should work at all. Hell, I put the title track in a similar category, and even if I think the song feels a bit too short, it still works - and that doesn't count the tracks that are outright saved by a unique passage or compositional choice: the Celtic folk acoustic elements and baritone choir against the horns on 'The Raven Child', or the killer guitar solo on 'The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn' that saves the song from a ugly gurgling synth that pops up more than it should - sadly, like previous Avantasia projects, whenever more electronic keyboard passages creep in like on 'Alchemy' and 'Starlight', they're underweight and never can match the sheer power of the rest of compositions.

But if I were to pinpoint an issue that I have with the project as a whole... you know, it might come down to Tobias Sammet himself. Not his vocals - although you can tell he is straining to keep up with some of the heavier powerhouses on this project, something a bit more restraint could have eased - but with the compositional choices, several of which just don't feel like they coalesce the way they should. Going back to 'Ghost In The Moon', for as much as I love the song the final coda feels completely unnecessary and doesn't melodically link back into the hook to pay itself off - also an issue with 'The Raven Child' where for as many movements and solos are added to the song, they don't feel like they support a strong enough hook to justify themselves. And to drill even deeper, for both songs with Geoff Tate midway through the album 'Invincible' and 'Alchemy', we have melodic passages that feel undercomposed - setting up dramatic swell but landing on bad notes or chords to truly resolve them, and underweight drum lines and grooves don't help. And when you couple that with songs running long and feeling more thematically diffuse, you run into tracks that not only have as much distinctive identity, but also meander and bring a lot of bombast but lack proper payoff - which is awkward when you have songs like the title track that could have used a more developed bridge and just winds up ending abruptly. 

So look, if this review is coming off more negative... maybe my expectations were too high again? To be honest, I'm not sure I want to take the blame here: the talent is plainly evident and the moments of pure awesomeness only grow on me more with every listen - 'Ghost In The Moon' will likely wind up being among my favourite songs of the year, and 'Lavender' and 'Requiem For A Dream' are not far behind! But for the most part... I'm just not convinced the songs are entirely here, or if they are, there's more extraneous elements that detract from a powerful core. And as such... I'm giving this an extremely strong 7/10 and absolutely a recommendation, but I'll also say for Avantasia fans to temper their expectations a bit. Still good, and again, it only grows on me with every listen, but Avantasia is just shy of greatness with the Moonglow - although knowing this project, returning to that point is only a matter of time.

No comments:

Post a Comment