Sunday, 9 July 2017

Secret Sphere's 'The Nature of Time' - Album Review

While Italy has always been a hot bed of power metal, and I am big fan of Labyrinth and all of the variations of Rhapsody, I must admit that Secret Sphere eluded me until very recently. Power metal was a very important part of my musical development in my teens, but these days is a much smaller part of a wider scope of genres that I enjoy. That being said, I do return to it fairly often always like making new discoveries. Secret Sphere was one of those new discoveries, and I purchased their 2012 album Portrait of a Dying Heart a few months ago after finding out that former Vision Divine frontman and current Whitesnake keyboardist Michele Luppi was the band's current singer. I first heard of Luppi when he was announced as Whitesnake's latest keyboardist, and was impressed with his performance during the show I saw on their tour supporting The Purple Album. His strong harmony vocals really helped the ageing David Coverdale, and was interested to hear more from him. I enjoyed my time with Portrait of a Dying Heart, but it did not blow me away. The performances were strong but I felt the songwriting was not as good as it could have been. Not long after I heard that album however, I saw an announcement that Secret Sphere's eighth album, The Nature of Time, was imminent and was immediately pulled in by the lead single The Calling. Italian power metal bands have a distinct sound that other European power metal bands just do not have. The romantic feel that these bands utilise leads to a less-heavy and urgent sound as many of the other big names in the power metal world. Keyboards always play a big role in the Italian power metal and help to create a floaty atmosphere that form a great backing to the strong guitar riffing and dreamy vocals. Luppi proves himself on this new album to be a fantastic vocalist, and he is easily the star here, despite being one of the band's newest recruits. Formed in 1997 by guitarist and songwriter Aldo Lonobile, Secret Sphere have gone through quite a few line-up changes over the years. Fellow original member Andrea Buratto, who plays the bass, has stayed with Lonobile throughout the band's history but the other three current members are all fairly new recruits. Keyboardist Gabriele Ciaccia joined in 2009, Luppi joined in 2012, and drummer Marco Lazzarini joined in 2013. The Nature of Time marks the first studio album that Lazzarini has performed on (not including the re-recording of 2001's A Time Never Come which was released in 2015) and the first that the band have recorded as a five-piece with Lonobile handling all of the album's guitar parts after the departure of long-time rhythm guitarist Marco Pastorino. Former keyboardist and original member Antonio Agate has helped out with some of the songwriting here, but the majority of the material was written by Luppi and Lonobile.

As is typical with melodic metal albums, a cinematic intro piece called Intermission gets the music here underway with subtle strings and a mournful piano line. This is nowhere near as bombastic as might be expected of a metal album, but it helps to set the scene nicely and makes the first true song here, The Calling, crash in with more power after the slow, gradual build up. The Calling has a strong intro riff that is backed up by swirling symphonic elements, but the song overall is somewhat laid back with a mid-paced chugging verse, atmospheric pre-choruses, and an almost-AOR feel during the choruses which makes the most of Luppi's excellent voice. The song is instantly catchy and, after the initially heaviness of the opening riff, is a fairly moderate affair. Lonobile's first guitar solo of the album is not the shred fest you might expect, and he employs a style somewhat reminiscent of Marillion's Steve Rothery with a less-is-more approach. The song does speed up while approaching the final chorus, but overall this an accessible and extremely melodic slab of power metal. The next song, the first part of the album's The Seven Virtues saga, is called Love and opens with a chiming clean guitar melody and a strong percussive feel from Lazzarini's sparse drumming. This is another song that reigns in the heaviness quite a lot and goes for a pseudo-ballad feel with a strong atmosphere and a gorgeous vocal display. The chorus really soars, with more strong guitar lines from Lonobile and layers of harmony vocals to really give the song a big feel. The guitar solo is another real highlight that packs an emotional punch with a great economy of notes that really ooze out of the speakers and compliment the atmosphere created throughout the rest of the song. Courage is the first 'heavy' moment on the album with a great neo-classic guitar riff and plenty of double bass drumming. Despite the emphasis on speed here, the melodies are still pushed to the fore with another stellar performance from Luppi with plenty of harmonies to accent certain lines. The chorus is a bombastic moment, with plenty of keyboard backing and a melodramatic vocal performance that brings to mind bands like Avantasia. A more traditional power metal instrumental break towards the end of the song sees both Lonobile and Ciaccia showing off with fast-paced guitar and keyboard duels. This style is vastly different from that used in the early couple of numbers and helps to add some diversity to the album. After that burst of speed, Kindness returns the album to a slower pace with a gorgeous and lengthy guitar intro that soon leads into a keyboard-heavy verse with Luppi's voice sitting more in his lower register for more of an emotional push. While again not quite a ballad, the song always stays towards the softer end of the band's sound with plenty of chiming guitar chords and a floaty keyboard atmosphere. While the band does the heavier stuff well, they seem to excel more at this emotionally-charged mid-paced sound. Lonobile is definitely more an emotional guitarist than a shredder, and this style also seems to bring the best out of Luppi's voice. Those who would like a little more heaviness however will enjoy Honesty which opens with a muscular staccato riff and the song mostly steams along at a faster pace. Luppi's voice takes on a somewhat gruffer edge here too, which adds a different element to the band's sound. The chorus is more typical of the rest of the album however with soaring melodies and a reliance and keyboard soundscapes.

The slightly darker feel of the previous song is carries over into Faith which open with some dark soundscapes, but a jaunty keyboard line that sits underneath the main guitar riff somewhat dispels this once the song proper gets going. This is another heavier piece however with a grinding riff during the verses and plenty of busy drumming. Lonobile is happy to use clean sounds for his guitar throughout much of the album, so the metallic riffing here is a nice change and shows off his chops nicely. While the riffing is fairly standard, it is not overused here so when he does break out into a heavier riff it packs the punch that it is intended to do. There are plenty of bursts of shredded lead guitar throughout this song too, which again packs a punch as this is something that is not heavily used throughout the album. Lonobile really knows how to play for the song, and knows when to let rip and what to hold back - a virtue that many guitarists lack. Reliance opens with easily the heaviest moment on the album with a prog/thrash riff that just comes out of nowhere with off-kilter rhythms and a real gritty edge with plenty of venom. The song itself is not as heavy as the intro would suggest, with plenty of soaring melodies that sit atop a jaunty mid-paced drum pattern as Lonobile plays some John Petrucci-esque chords underneath. The band seems to relish the opportunity to cut loose a little more here though, and the exuberance in which the heavier riffs are launched into make them stand out but also make them feel right at home in a lighter overall album. Even Buratto, who's bass is often buried in the mix, seems to be more prominent here with a fluid bassline during the heavier moments that adds extra depth. Commitment is an instrumental, and the last of the seven song cycle, and it is one of the few parts of the album that really focuses on virtuoso playing from both Lonobile and Ciaccia. There is definitely a strong Dream Theater vibe here with duelling guitar and keyboard lines, but also jazzy sections that sound like something Toto might try if they were into playing metal. The Awakening is the album's longest song at just under nine minutes in length and it starts with a lengthy symphonic section that builds up towards an explosive section of shredding from Lonobile which then in turn leads into a keyboard run. The second half of this album definitely ramps up the heaviness compared to the earlier numbers, and this song again steams along at a nice pace with a strong drumming performance and a commanding vocal display. While I prefer the band's more concise efforts, they are also capable of writing memorable longer songs and this one does not outstay it's welcome with another memorable chorus and plenty of interesting musical interludes. The song comes to an end as it started, with a symphonic outro although this time with a narration courtesy of Paul Logue (Eden's Curse) who seems to be making quite a little side-job for himself after also contributing some spoken word to Firewind's latest effort earlier in the year. The closing number, The New Beginning, returns to the cleaner sound that dominated the early parts of this album and creates a feeling of going full circle after a few heavier pieces in a row. That being said, the song still does a great job of creating one last burst of energy and you really feel that Luppi is giving the performance of his life as he pours so much of himself emotionally into the lyrics here. It provides an excellent end to what is a great album that is packed full of strong songwriting and soaring melodies. After spending some time with this album over the past month or so, I will definitely have to go back and revisit Portrait of a Dying Heart, and then sample some of their older material as this album is a real winner.

The album was released on 2nd June 2017 via Frontiers Records. Below is the band's promotional video for The Calling.

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