Thursday, 25 February 2016

Avantasia's 'Ghostlights' - Album Review

I am now about to use what is probably my most-used phrase on this blog: Tobias Sammet is one of the most prolific and consistent songwriters in metal today! Since I started writing album reviews on this site, he has released two albums: one with his main band Edguy in 2014, the excellent Space Police: Defenders of the Crown which I reviewed here; and one with his epic side project Avantasia the year before, the equally great The Mystery of Time which I reviewed here. Both of those albums ended up in my Top 10 Albums lists for their respective years, and both left me looking forward immensely for Sammet's next outing. Whether writing succinct songs for Edguy in the band's trademark hard rock/power metal fusion sound, or writing sprawling symphonic epics for multiple singers for Avantasia, Sammet always makes memorable music. Melody is a big part of his songwriting style, and the vast majority of his songs have stadium-sized choruses and plenty of soaring vocals. After The Mystery of Time Sammet had hinted that he was done with Avantasia, but it did not take him long to change his mind. Carrying on the story started in The Mystery of Time, Ghostlights (Avantasia's seventh album) is very much a continuation of the sound established on the 2013 release, albeit with a heavier overall sound. Much of the team that worked on The Mystery of Time return here. Guitarist and producer Sascha Paeth and keyboardist and orchestral arranger Michael 'Miro' Rodenberg are both involved again, as are singers Michael Kiske (Helloween; Place Vendome; Unisonic), Ronnie Atkins (Pretty Maids; Nordic Union), and Bob Catley (Magnum; Hard Rain). Sammet seems to have a knack for recruiting the very best musicians and singers for Avantasia's albums, and this one is no exception! Jørn Lande (Ark; Masterplan), who has appeared on Avantasia albums in the past, is featured again here, and we see Avantasia debuts for legends like Dee Snider (Twisted Sister; Desperado) and Geoff Tate (Queensrÿche; Operation: Mindcrime) among others. Sammet's Edguy bandmate Felix Bohnke plays drums on the album, and he is no stranger to Avantasia having played on some of the band's previous albums and on all of the band's live appearances so far. Ghostlights is the first Avantasia album that will be supported by a full headline tour. Avantasia have usually only played at festivals and a few selected headline performances, but this time Sammet has decided to pull out all the stops and take this mammoth beast on the road properly for the first time!

Opening with the very Jim Steinman-esque piano-led rocker Mystery of a Blood Red Rose, Ghostlights gets off to a fantastic start with this explosive little number. I can imagine this song sitting nicely on Meat Loaf's Bat Out of Hell album, and it seems Sammet wanted Meat Loaf himself to sing on the song, but talks between the two parties fell through. Sammet handles the vocals himself and does fantastically. The albums first chorus is a winner, and the huge choral arrangements emphasise his melodic songwriting style. Miro's piano really drives the song, evoking the great Roy Bittan's style, and Paeth lets rip with plenty of fluid lead sections. After the rather upbeat album opening, the epic 12 minute plus Let the Storm Descend Upon You kicks off with a dark riff and plenty of gothic strings to back it up. I shall right away that this is probably one of the best songs Sammet has ever written. It moves through several sections, but it is never long before the next earworm section arrives. Sammet, Lande, and Atkins trade vocal sections during the early part of the song, with Lande adding his trademark melodramatic style to really push the song to new heights. After a lengthy verse section, with some of the best theatrical vocal melodies ever written, the song's bombastic chorus invades with Lande's over-the-top vocal delivery to drive it. Avantasia newcomer Robert Mason (Lynch Mob; Warrant) adds his smooth 1980s-inspired vocals to the song too, which adds as a nice contrast as the gritter tones of Lande and Atkins. As the song progresses, all four singers trade off parts between each other in a downbeat slower section with doomy drums and overpowering orchestrations. Regular Avantasia collaborator Oliver Hartmann (At Vance) also contributes a guitar solo. After that epic song, The Haunting comes along and brings you back down to earth with it's creepy piano intro and strange vocals from Snider. This song is a little different from the type songs Sammet usually writes, but it works well in the context of the album. It reminds me a little bit of a heavier, more gothic version of Alice Cooper's Welcome to my Nightmare, with Snider really sending chills down the spine with this howling vocals. It still has a strong chorus however, which explodes from the rather sparse verses. I was quite apprehensive when I heard that Geoff Tate was going to be a part of this album, as his vocal performances recently have been pretty poor. I was pleasantly surprised then when I heard the song Seduction of Decay and Tate actually sounded really strong! This is easily his best vocal performance for years, and shows he can still hit some pretty high notes when he puts his mind to it. This is another fairly downbeat and moody song, but it really works. There are a few really strong riffs, excellent orchestration, and a great effects-drenched solo from Paeth. One of my favourite songs on the album, and gives me hope that maybe one day Tate can do something great again. After that semi-masterpiece, the generic power metal of the album's title track feels a little flat. Kiske puts in a fantastic vocal performance though, with his naturally high range used to the max. He has never been a favourite singer of mine, but he really nails it here. The chorus has more Meat Loaf-isms too, with plenty of backing vocals and a good sense of drama. The song is still pretty strong, just does not feel as creative as what has come before. Creativeness returns in Draconian Love a gothic rocker featuring the deep vocals of Herbie Langhans (Seventh Avenue; Beyond the Bridge; Sinbreed). This is another song that has quite a different to feel to anything Avantasia has released before, and it works well. The combination of Sammet and Langhans' vocals works well, giving a dark feel to the piece.

Master of the Pendulum is the album's heaviest song, with a muscular speed metal riff and an excellent vocal performance from Marco Hietala (Tarot; Nightwish). His work with Nightwish was clearly an influence for Sammet here, as the circus-style vocal melody sounds like something from Nightwish's 2011 release Imaginaerum. Hietala has an instantly recognisable voice, and always nails whatever it is he is singing. This is no exception, and the song contains the most frantic chorus of the album that fits well with Bohnke's fast drumming. Sammet always seems to find a way to get the best out of the singers he uses on his Avantasia albums, and each brings their unique personalities to the songs they are on. From the album's heaviest song, to the album's lightest one. Isle of Evermore, a ballad featuring Sharon den Adel (Within Temptation), is nice but a little tepid. We all know that den Adel can rock, listen to Within Temptation's earlier albums, but these days she seems content to hold back. Her performance here is no different, although she is fairly limited within this piano ballad setting. I wish Sammet had written a song for her to rock out on, as she seems somewhat wasted here. The excellent Babylon Vampyres gets the back on track, and sees Sammet and Mason rocking out on this upbeat power metal song. This song would not have sounded out of place on an Edguy album, and shows that Sammet's simpler songs can be as good as him more complex creations. There is an excellent guitar solo section here too. Paeth, Hartmann and Bruce Kulick (Kiss; Union; Grand Funk Railroad) all trade licks, and the result is an excellent cacophony of heavy metal guitar playing. It is the highlight of the song, but the song's fast-paced chorus delivered by Mason gives it a run for it's money. Lucifer, opening with a beautiful piano melody, is another showcase for Lande's excellent vocal talents. Earlier he showed his rock credentials, and here he gets to show us his gentler side. Midway though however the song picks up with an explosive Kulick guitar solo, and Lande leads the charge with his serious vocal power. He is easily one of the best traditional modern metal singers, and he shows his diversity here. Unchain the Light is a fairly understated song, but Sammet, Atkins, and Kiske all deliver vocally throughout. The song's verses are fairly unmemorable, but as soon as Kiske's ridiculously high vocals some in and drive the chorus, the song picks up. I really like Miro's keyboard riff that sits atop the heavy rhythm guitars between the chorus and the verses as it contains real melody. The album's final song, A Restless Heart and Obsidian Skies, is a great one to go out on. As always Catley's magestic vocals are used well by Sammet, and adds some real class to Ghostlights as a whole. After Let the Storm Descend Upon You, this is the most epic song on the album, and the huge choral arrangement in the chorus to back Sammet and Catley's voices up is breathtaking. This is not a heavy song, but it contains all of Sammet's songwriting hallmarks and is the perfect song to close the album with. Overall, Ghostlights is another triumph of songwriting and performance from Sammet and his band of merry men. He has proved that my most-used statement on this blog is correct, and I sure he will keep continuing to do this in future!

The album was released on 29th January 2016 via Nuclear Blast Records. Below is the band's promotional video for Mystery of a Blood Red Rose.

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