Monday, January 11, 2016

Album Review: Avantasia - Ghostlights

It's hard to believe it's been fifteen years since Tobias Sammet stepped outside of Edguy and redefined the world of power metal. That might sound like a dramatic statement, but consider where we were at that time. The first wave of power metal bands were running on fumes, either completely devoid of new ideas, or trudging along with replacement members. The entire scene was stale, and waiting for someone to justify why new music should continue being made. Then along came "The Metal Opera", which not only made people stand up and take note, it gave every composer something to shoot for. The multi-singer concept album became a standard trope, and we are still seeing bands following Avantasia's lead.

Even for a trail-blazer, continuing to lead the masses is difficult. After releasing what is, depending on the day, my favorite metal record in the form of "The Metal Opera Pt II", Avantasia has been a bit of a hit and miss affair. Tobi was still writing songs that no other metal composer could match, but as the Avantasia world expanded, the music got stretched into places it wasn't meant for. Those detours aside, I still loved the records Avantasia was putting out, until we hit "The Mystery Of Time". That record, with the darker atmosphere, and singers who too closely resembled each other, for the first time felt tired. There were a handful of gems, but the record as a whole seemed to be a signal that Avantasia might be running out of steam. So while I am always excited to see what Tobi has come up with, the prospect of the second part of that story did make me have doubts.

Oh, how wrong I was.

If Tobi redefined power metal fifteen years ago, "Ghostlights" has the potential to do the same thing for another generation.

"Mystery Of A Blood Red Rose" kicks the album off, and sets the stage for high drama. A song written with Meat Loaf in mind, Tobi does his best impression as he sings one of the best Jim Steinman songs he never wrote. He has so perfectly captured the sound and spirit of that music, from the percussive piano to the spot-on backing vocals, that it warmed the heart of this lifelong Meat Loaf fan. It is such a glorious song to open the record with, that from the first time I heard the pre-release single, I wondered how Tobi would be able to top it.

That is answered with the remaining tracks, which never let up. "Let The Storm Descend Upon You" fills both the slot and the role of "The Scarecrow", a twelve minute epic that oozes drama. The orchestral flourishes tear through you, Jorn makes his welcome return to Avantasia, and the whole thing gets capped off with the kind of swelling melody where you can't help but smile. I can see why someone might call it derivative, but when the writing is this good, there's nothing wrong with revisiting an old favorite.

And that's what I take away from "Ghostlights", that it's an album as much about looking through the history of Avantasia as it is looking towards the future. "The Haunting" is a cousin to "Death Is Just A Feeling", with Dee Snider in the sinister role, but it takes a song we knew, spins it to dizzying dramatic heights, and gives us something more amazing than we could have expected. "Isle Of Evermore" recalls "What Kind Of Love", while Bob Catley returns for the closing "A Restless Heart And Obsidian Skies", which borrows a hint of the chorus from the masterful "The Story Ain't Over", but both tracks use that familiarity as a comforting decoy that hides just how sharp the songwriting is.

We get evidence of that in a song like "Seduction Of Decay", which gets the best performance out of Geoff Tate in ages. At first glance, it sounds like a track that didn't come together, one that is lacking the Avantasia spirit... until it's a day later and you find yourself singing it back in your head. Even what appeared to be a weak track will, in time, reveal itself to be one that etches itself in the hardened surface of your mind. And where I have taken issue with Tobi lately is in his more traditional power metal songs, but the two on display here are the best he's written in a decade. Both the title track and "Unchain The Light" speed along with the typical gusto, but boast choruses that fuse the traditional with Tobi's hookier modern style. They have converted even me back to that side.

Even when Tobi throws out a gigantic curveball in the form of "Draconian Love", with slathered on Gothic influence and vocals that could have come from Type O Negative, for lack of a better term, it feels like home. Combine all of that with a production that is the heaviest Avantasia has ever had, but remains crisp, clear, and dynamic, and you have a record that is nearly flawless. In fact, despite being a critic, there is only one complaint I can register about the entire seventy minute affair. Michael Kiske might be a legend, and he has all the power and range he ever did, but his performance on the record is a bit of a lazy, slurred mess. His lines are nearly unintelligible, and his sloppy singing is the only scar on an otherwise perfect record.

I don't give out star ratings, but if I did, "Ghostlights" would be one of those rare albums that gets a perfect score. I've been following Tobi's music for at least a decade, and I consider him my favorite songwriter in all of heavy metal, and I can't say I've ever heard him better than he is here. Nostalgia will probably make it so that "Ghostlights" will have a hard time becoming my favorite, but that doesn't stop me from being able to assess the situation and tell you this; "Ghostlights" is the best record Tobi has ever written. It is a stunning display of the power of metal, and the beauty of melody. "Ghostlights" is Tobi's masterpiece, it raises the bar for all of power metal once again, and it is the probably unconquerable front-runner to be the album of the year.

Albums like this are why I love music.

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