Wednesday, 2 May 2018

Kamelot's 'The Shadow Theory' - Album Review

Kamelot are one of my favourite symphonic/power metal bands, and I have been listening to them on a regular basis since first discovering them back in 2009. Their mix of upbeat power metal with dark gothic melodrama makes them stand out from the crowd, and I think it is fair to say that no other band truly sounds like them - despite a few trying over the years. One of the reasons that I rate them so highly is their consistency. Prior to last month, the band had released eleven studio albums - only one of which has never really grabbed me (1998's Siége Perilous). Even their first couple of albums, which featured vocalist Mark Vanderbilt who has since totally disappeared from the metal scene, are enjoyable, if derivative, pieces of work. Crimson Glory and Queensrÿche were being channelled there but, despite moving on and creating their own sound, those influences are still present today. The introduction of enigmatic frontman Roy Khan, who incidentally has just announced his return to music with his pre-Kamelot band Conception after a lengthy hiatus, in 1998 started Kamelot down the path that we know them for today. The influences from bands like Queensrÿche can still be found, but mixed in with plenty of darker moods, helped by big symphonic backings and darker guitar riffs. Now, well into their third decade as a band, Kamelot are well into their third era - which began in 2012 when current frontman Tommy Karevik joined the band. Karevik's introduction did little to change the Kamelot formula, and the albums they have released with him at the helm certainly follow the same blueprints as the last few albums to feature Khan. 2012's Silverthorn was an epic concept album that played it quite safe; focusing on big choruses and hooks throughout. It was a big success for the band, and is one of my more regularly-played Kamelot albums. 2015's Haven (which I reviewed here) was similar, but there seemed to be a conscious attempt from the band to inject a little more darkness into the songwriting. It contained some of their heaviest material to date, and is another real favourite of mine. Fast forward three years and we now have The Shadow Theory in front of us - the band's twelfth studio album that was released last month. This album is the third to feature Karevik, and sees the band once again delving into the darker depths of their sound. Founding member Thomas Youngblood's guitars dominate the album, with Oliver Palotai's keyboards sometimes taking on a bit more of a supporting role. Fans of Palotai's playing will still find plenty to enjoy here, as the German still manages to fit in plenty of keyboard solos throughout - as well as some industrial-sounding synths at times which give the album a modern edge when compared to Kamelot's traditional sound. Despite these tweaks in sound, this is still very much a Kamelot album, and fans of the band's work will find lots of familiar tropes alongside these new additions. I do not think that this album is as overtly melodic as the previous two, but there is still something enchanting about the songs here. Incidentally, it is also the first Kamelot album to feature drummer Johan Nunez (Nightrage; Firewind; Meridian Dawn), who was officially announced as the band's new drummer earlier this year as long-time member Casey Grillo had decided to leave Kamelot to pursue other ventures.

After the orchestral intro The Mission, a typical symphonic metal album trope, the album gets underway properly with Phantom Divine (Shadow Empire) - which also served as the album's first true single and had a music video filmed for it. It is one of the more immediate songs on the album, opening with a driving double bass drum pattern from Nunez that backs a dramatic gothic orchestral motif. This is typical Kamelot, but the pace seems initially more urgent than many of the band's previous singles. The verses are murky, with Karevik using his lower register to croon the lyrics while Youngblood's snaking riff provides some groove. The chorus is one of the album's best, and uses the intro melodies as its basis. Karevik really shines here, and uses his powerful voice to really push the vocal melodies home. Lauren Hart (Once Human) provides some guest vocals, both clean and harsh, to a bridge section - carrying on the band's tradition of finding great female guest vocalists to add colour to their songs. Phantom Divine (Shadow Empire) is a powerful opening song that gets the album off to a strong start, and recalls some of the best moments of the band's recent work. RavenLight definitely has more of an old-school Kamelot vibe, and seems to hark back to albums like 2007's Ghost Opera and 2010's Poetry for the Poisoned. Youngblood's guitar drives the entire song, with his juddering riffs locking in perfectly with Nunez's precise footwork for an almost mechanical sound. Palotai's keyboards mostly sit in the background, but help to enhance the song's dark atmosphere without ever really dominating the sound. This works well however, and allows Karevik to really shine with a dynamic vocal performance. His use of falsetto at choice moments throughout the song is great, and shows off his diversity. Amnesiac is quite a schizophrenic song, with lots of sounds being merged together to create an interesting mix. The intro is quite chaotic, with some speedy synth melodies, while the verses follow a more straight forward pattern with Sean Tibbetts' bass really holding everything together. Pop metal bands like Amaranthe seem to have influenced the chorus, as the synths are pushed to the fore once again and they are used to create quite a trippy, electronic vibe. This, coupled with Karevik's poppy high vocal sections, creates something which does not sound like a traditional Kamelot chorus, but works through a good use of melody. Burns to Embrace starts off slowly, with distant percussion and synths creating a sparse backing for Karevik's low croons, before the song explodes into a mid-paced rocker complete with folky melodies during the main riff. There are no additional musicians credited for providing the folk instruments, so I assume that these sounds are courtesy of Palotai's keyboards. It works well however, and helps to create a bit more of an organic sound after the electronics-heavy previous song, despite the fact that synths still play a big part here. The chorus, while not as catchy as others here, is still a good one. The mid-pace helps to create a strident rock feel - with Nunez's drums really driving everything with his powerful, crashing style. The song also contains one of the best guitar solos of the album, with Youngblood really letting rip with a lengthy exercise in melodic metal soloing. A children's choir sees the song to a hard-hitting close, which is not something featured on too many metal albums.

In Twilight Hours is the album's obligatory ballad, but it is one of the better ones the band have written in recent years. Jennifer Haben (Beyond the Black) adds her gorgeous voice to the song, and her voice mixes in perfectly with Karevik's throughout creating the perfect duet. Despite being a ballad, there is still a lot going on musically. Palotai plays the piano as might be expected, but there is a strong pulse from the drums throughout which helps to keep the song moving to a metronomic beat rather than being a simple piano piece. The song does build gradually as it moves along, and the last chorus in particular is excellent as both Karevik and Haben push their voices to turn in an emotional final section. Kevlar Skin is a mid-paced rocker, but is the first piece on the album that fails to really excite. Youngblood's guitar simply chugs through the verses, and Karevik does little to make his voice stand out. The melodies here are quite basic, and fail to really sink into the brain. This is the same for the chorus, which does see things speed up for a bit more of an energetic kick, but the vocal melodies just do not do the job which they are supposed to. Kamelot can certainly do better, and the hookless chorus ends up just representing the whole song, as sadly there is little here that stands out. Static is better, but still falls a little short of the excellent opening run of songs. The song is a little slower, and features a strong keyboard melody during the opening sections but it is actually Tibbetts that turns in the most interesting performance here. The verses are totally dominated by his excellent bass playing, and he makes the most of this rare time in the spotlight. The bass has rarely been used in a dominant role in Kamelot's songs previously, so hearing him play here is great. The chorus is decent too, with moody overtones that allow Karevik to deliver an emotion and melodramatic performance. The orchestrations dance around behind him, which adds to the gothic atmosphere, and help to bring the album to life again after the weak previous song. MindFall Remedy gets things properly back on track however, as the pace is once again raised for a much-needed injection of energy. Palotai shines during the intro section with some excellent orchestral keyboards, but it is Youngblood that drives the verses with a cutting guitar riff complete with squealing pinch harmonics for that modern touch. The chorus again sees Karevik utilising his falsetto vocals, which is extremely catchy, and he is joined again throughout by Hart who adds some of her powerful harsh vocals during the chorus - which works as a great contrast to Karevik's falsetto. Kamelot's continual sparing use of harsh vocals has always served them well, and it works in their favour again here. Hart adds a lot to the song, and fits in with the heavier mood created by Youngblood's riffing.

Stories Unheard opens with some simple acoustic guitar lines, fooling you into thinking that it will be a ballad, but the song does soon build up towards something more rocky - despite still resembling a ballad at times. The chorus certainly has the feel of a ballad, but the driving double bass drums make sure that there is still plenty of crunch. The way Karevik sings makes the piece sound more gentle than it actually is, and I like the way these different styles have been mixed together to create quite a dynamic piece. I would have liked more to be made of the acoustic guitar parts however, as it would have helped to add a different side to the album. It does close out with some more of the acoustic playing, but it would have been nice to have this incorporated more throughout the song. Vespertine (My Crimson Bride) picks up the pace again, and recalls the sound the band forged on Haven. This is a fairly simple, melodic song that plays to the band's strengths and adds a song that can easily be sung  along with to the closing third of the album. The chorus is instantly memorable, and sees Karevik singing the lyrics with his typical smoothness. There are few people out that there would not get this chorus in their head after only a handful of listens - which to me is the mark of a well-written song. Other songs on this album have played with the Kamelot blueprint a bit to include new sounds and feelings, but this one is happy to be fairly predictable. There is nothing wrong with the familiar if it has been done well, and this is a song that pushes all the right buttons for me. The Proud and the Broken is the last true song on the album, and makes for a truly epic closing piece. It is the heaviest song here, and makes good use of the industrial elements featured on the album's earlier songs. Youngblood's guitar tone here takes on a slightly darker tone, and his riffs really dominate despite the use of some quite cold synths throughout. The chorus is extremely memorable, and sees Karevik laying down some of the best melodies of the album. The band's long-time producer Sascha Paeth adds some harsh vocals throughout the piece, and his almost black metal-esque style adds to the drama, especially when his vocals are mixed with Palotai's dark, dramatic strings. There are plenty of opportunities for Youngblood and Palotai to solo throughout, with guitar and keyboard leads cutting through the mix often. This feels like a song where everyone is working at full pelt to make the most epic song that they can, and they certainly manage that. While the band have done longer, more progressive pieces in the past - this more contained effort packs a lot into a shorter space and ends up really shining as a result. The closing instrumental piece Ministrium (Shadow Key) feels relaxing after the heavy and varied previous song, and helps to add sense of calm to the album's end. Overall, despite a few weaker songs, The Shadow Theory is still a strong album from Kamelot. I like the fact that they have tried to shake up their established formula a bit here which, although this does not always work, makes the album stand out when compared to their other recent work. There is plenty here for the band's fans to enjoy, and it is a worthy entry into their excellent discography.

The album was released on 6th April 2018 via Napalm Records. Below is the band's promotional video for Phantom Divine (Shadow Empire).

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