Avantasia - The Wicked Symphony (Nuclear Blast/Riot)

Tobi Sammet returns with his best work yet.

Avantasia’s prime mover, Tobias Sammet, is a man of such supreme vision that his albums deserve to be treated with consideration and respect, rather than be subjected to a half-cocked collection of poor puns and badinage. So, for the first time in my life, I’m going to review an album properly.

Here, then is a blow-by-blow look at the man’s latest meisterwerk, The Wicked Symphony.

 1.       The Wicked Symphony

After a shortish, portentious orchestral opening (think: Hans Zimmer scoring something for a film about men in leather skirts) we’re off and running with a fabulously epic, mid-paced cruncher. Featuring guest vocals from the ever-impressive Jorn Lande and Symphony X’s Russell Allen, The Wicked Symphony sets the scene perfectly for what’s to come. Built around a simply titanic chorus (the first of many on this album) the track ebbs and flows over nine and a half minutes of gloriously pompous symphonic mayhem.

2.       Wastelands

Perhaps the best thing about the album’s title track is that it isn’t the clichéd, heads-down, double-kick Helloween-style speed-fest that so many power metal albums open with. Wastelands, however, is just that. But – and in the context of this album it’s a big but - it’s done so well that you can’t help but stand, trousers round the ankles, bellowing the chorus and punching the air as soon as the damn thing comes on the ol’ death deck. The song’s cause is aided massively by the presence of ‘the man’ himself, Michael Kiske, whose pipes clearly add the necessary authenticity to what otherwise could have been a song dismissed as identikit.

3.       Scales of Justice

If there’s one thing Avantasia guru Tobias Sammet understands it’s light and shade, so after the out and out speed of Wastelands we’re taken down a notch or two with the snub-nosed brutality of Scales of Justice. Another mid-paced chugger, Sammet is joined here by the irrepressible Tim ‘Ripper’ Owens, who on this track is at last given a chorus worthy of his formidable lungpower. Released from the responsibility of screaming over everything to cover up its basic mundanity (as he was on his own solo album and the Charred Walls of the Dead album), Owens puts in a match-winning performance.

4.       Dying for an Angel

Wahaaaayyyyyyyy! That’s the only word your humble reviewer can think of to describe the utter majesty that is Dying for an Angel. Put simply, your won’t have heard a chorus as spine-tinglingly magnificent as this since 1986... nor, indeed, a sing-along guitar solo of such sheer hummabilty, courtesy of the unsung Sascha Paeth. But the ace in the pack here is the vocal performance of the sometimes unintentionally hilarious Scorpions throatsmith  Klaus Meine. Meine rocks like a hurricane here, on a song that is quite frankly perfect if we’re talking melodic, eighties-style hard rock. Which we are.

5.       Blizzard on a Broken Mirror

Were The Wicked Symphony to have any weak tracks, you’d expect them to be fitted in here after the glory of Dying for an Angel. But it doesn’t, so instead we’re treated to Blizzard on a Broken Mirror, an effortless piece of mid-to-late-period Maidenesque epicry. You’ll have to listen carefully, but Angra’s Andre Matos pops up here to add weight to an excellent vocal from Sammet.

6.       Runaway Train

This wouldn’t be an Avantasia album without a big production number, so here it is. Opening with the peerless vocals of Magnum’s Bob Catley, Runaway Train snakes its way through nearly nine minutes of bombast and drama, with Catley joined by Lande, Kiske and Sammet to devastating effect, on a song for which the chorus was surely stolen from a file of eighties hitmaker Desmond Child (Kiss, Bon Jovi, Scorpions, Michael Bolton, Aerosmith and, um, Robbie Williams)’s unused gems. Former Kiss alumnus Bruce Kulick adds his digital talents here, but, as ever, it’s all about the chorus with this album, and Runaway Train delivers in spades.

7.       Crestfallen

Probably the weakest track on the album, Crestfallen would still be a welcome addition to the albums of most other bands in this genre. Sammet puts in a spiteful vocal performance here aided again by the faultless Lande, whilst Paeth lifts the song out of the ordinary with some excellent guitarwork.

8.       Forever is a Long Time

Lande delivers his final vocal performance here, unsurprisingly his best on the album,  as the song brings to mind a mix of 1987-era Whitesnake with the man’s own solo outing of last year. Another splendid chorus  ushers in some more excellent guitarwork from Sascha Paeth, but Jorn Coverdal - sorry, Lande, is the star here – well, the co-star with the song, anyway.

9.       Black Wings

The slow burning Black Wings comes in on possibly the heaviest riff on the whole of The Wicked Symphony, a grinding headbanger that’ll have fans of true metal twitching at the thought of a few minutes of unadulterated physicality. But even this song has a gorgeous chorus, the melody of which serves perhaps to highlight the heaviness of the riff. The most traditionally heavy metal song of the set.

10.   States of Matter

Sammet ups the pace again as we enter the home straight, joined once more by Russell Allen for this enjoyable power metal romp. The shortest song on the album, it gets in, hits hard (thanks to another deliriously fine chorus), and then leaves almost before you have the chance to clock what’s going on.

11.   The Edge

Closing track The Edge is sadly not a paean to the ludicrously hatted U2 guitar man. It is, however, a rather splendid way of bringing proceedings to an end. In the same way that Sammet resisted the temptation to open proceedings in a hail of bluster and empty rhetoric, so he declines to end the show in the same manner. The Edge, pure and simple, is a great song, Sammet himself handling all the vocals on another song that sits on the hard rock side of the fence.

Conclusion

So there you have it. Ambition, passion, songwriting smarts, consummate skill – the perfect album? Almost certainly not, but if The Wicked Symphony doesn’t end up as one of the top five albums of the year then we’re in for a vintage next few months. Marvellous stuff.

 

Avantasia's The Wicked Symphony is out now on Nuclear Blast/Riot.