While not as widely known on this side of the Atlantic, international supergroup Avantasia is kind of a big deal: their new rock opera The Mystery of Time not only charted highly in their home base of Germany, but also hit the Top 10 album sales charts in Finland, Sweden and the UK in the first few weeks of its release. The record recently reached North American shores via Nuclear Blast Records, and it's picking up some positive buzz among gothic/symphonic metal fans, so it's high time I gave this one a spin.
Founded in 1999 by composer/singer Tobias Sammet (above, frontman for popular power-metallers Edguy), Avantasia is a “supergroup” in every sense of the word: not only does it feature an all-star cast of artists, it's more of an army than a mere band. Sammet gathers icons of pop, hard rock and metal for Avantasia's globe-spanning projects, with guests including former KISS guitarist Bruce Kulick and members (or ex-members) of the bands Saxon, Rainbow, Uriah Heep, Rhapsody, Deep Purple, Kamelot, Helloween and many more on this album alone. That lineup is backed by the 60-piece German Filmorchestra Babelsberg, giving epic scale to a concept album themed on no less than the forces of Time itself. It's an ambitious undertaking, but Sammet and company have met the challenge with a suitably massive record; after all, this is the same act that turned out the colossal trilogy The Scarecrow, The Wicked Symphony and Angel of Babylon (the last two released at the same time) and then performed the whole damn thing on tour. While Mystery's runtime is shorter, it's no less ambitious or impressive... in fact it may be the group's most bombastic work to date.
While metal is always very much in play at the core of things, The Mystery of Time edges more into melodic hard rock and elements of pop – but with a muscular, fist-pumping aesthetic fueled by Sammet's dynamic vocal range, which lends itself to everything from radio-rock ballads to '80s-style British steel. While he could easily sustain the vocal duties solo, multiple male and female guest vocalists help to enhance the operatic scope. Adding even more mythical weight is the artwork by acclaimed UK fantasy artist Rodney Matthews, whose portfolio includes album covers for Thin Lizzy, Scorpions and Nazareth, as well as cover art for novels by Michael Moorcock (Elric of Melniboné). The result is an all-encompassing dark fantasy experience that ranks among the band's finest work.
The curtain rises on the pulsing synth atmospheres of "Spectres,” which give way to a soaring orchestral/choral intro before Tobias' high-range vocal finally takes command. The rhythmic undercurrent is formed from punchy drums, guitar and piano, with a memorable chorus hook and a proggish instrumental bridge. The tempo jumps wildly ahead for the frenzied arpeggios of "The Watchmakers' Dream,” which feels like it emerged fully-formed from a time machine set to the UK circa 1981, complete with falsetto vocal and harmonies... plus that Hammond organ solo is sweeeet. "Black Orchid" is a touch more modern, in the mode of Dream Theater or Symphony X, but with a robust, slightly menacing edge. The mood becomes more somber with the opening of "Where Clock Hands Freeze," which quickly morphs into an up-tempo beast with a narrower dynamic range, but still frantic and emotionally energized. "Sleepwalking" is a pure pop-rock ballad, but with a strong, warm rhythmic pulse and a smooth duet between Tobias and Cloudy Yang (both of whom appear in the video below).
The first of two extended tracks, the nearly eleven-minute "Savior in the Clockwork" perfectly represents Avantasia's essence of “Metal Opera,” with its film-score passages juxtaposed with double-kick beats and furious tremolo riffage, and Sammet's vocals run the full spectrum from gentle to triumphant. "Invoke the Machine" is a rougher beast, with gritty riffs supporting arena-sized vocals (including some massive harmonies) and a massive, head-banging breakdown. We get a breather with the traditional power ballad "What's Left of Me," a ready-made “raise your lighter” moment... and yes, I know it's more about “raise your phone” now, but this song owes its spirit to an earlier generation. The keyboard/guitar arpeggios return in "Dweller in a Dream," which ascends to an uplifting choral finale. The second mega-track "The Great Mystery” closes with another full gamut of styles, from a simple piano-backed vocal to profound multi-part choruses, occasionally interspersed with power-metal riffs and harmonized guitar leads before a goosebumps-inducing operatic finale, bringing all vocalists and the full orchestra to bear.
Fans of mega-sized symphonic rock and metal (this band never thinks small) will no doubt be swept up in the dark, cinematic majesty of this record, which for my money stands among Avantasia's most impressive accomplishments. It's also an ideal introduction to the diversity of styles the band brings to the game – not to mention Sammet's knack for forming a effortlessly tight unit from such a wide-reaching array of artists.
For a sample of the more pop-flavored side of Avantasia, check out the video for "Sleepwalking"...