Angra needs no introduction. The band has been a power metal fixture since the early 1990s and are one of the biggest metal bands to ever breach the borders of their native Brazil. Still, the last decade(ish) has been rocky for these guys, and you might not be blamed for having thought they called it quits. Not only did half the band quit in the early-aughts to go and start Shaman, but they’ve had dust-ups with management and were put on hold—even having been mistakenly reported as split-up entirely. Hell, between 2010’s Aqua and the release of Secret Garden they lost both a singer—who was replaced by Rhapsody [of Fire]‘s Fabio Lione—and got a new 23 year-old drummer to boot. Consistency has been hard to come by for Angra of late.
But I’m gonna be frank here: instability isn’t necessary a problem in this case. I am not a fan of older Angra, and while I’ve never looked down my nose at them as I do with bands containing Jørn Lande, they have long suffered from a bad case of vocalistitis: the condition of being a talented band ruined by a (frequently douchey) singer that makes the music hard to enjoy1. Regardless of whether or not you agree with my dislike of previous singers Matos and Falaschi, it’s tough not to admit that it’s been a bit of a rocky ride for these Brazilian power-mongers and yet Secret Garden sounds very good; focused, tight, diverse and fun.
Secret Garden doesn’t start out sounding like it should be a wandering into anything other than run-of-the-mill power metal circa 2008 with its opening strains. Opener “Newborn Me” treads dangerously near to Amaranthe and Stratovarius‘ terrible tonality before Fabio jumps in. And while the song is a pretty good power opener, what kept me listening was the noodly breakdown around 3 minutes, followed by a truly inspired acoustic solo with Spanish guitar influences. On follow-up “Black Heartened Soul,” Secret Garden really takes off with its choral introduction, and Iron Maiden á la Helloween twin leads. Even later in the record when Secret Garden backs into its most “predictable” of straight power metal tracks—such as “Perfect Symmetry” or the chunky and mid-paced “Upper Levels”—the record shines with vigor and beauty.
But Secret Garden shines because it is anything but predictable or straight. First, while Fabio is Angra‘s primary vocalist in 2015, Simone Simons (Epica) steps in admirably on the title track, carrying the moody melodies and pseudo-swing admirably on her silky voice. And while Simons sounds great, she’s not even the best guest vocalist on the record. Doro Pesch absolutely crushes the Eurovision ready “Crushing Room,” where she does a duet with Rafael Bittencourt. This song is not only masterfully written, with an immensely hooky chorus, but the vocal performances are absolutely lights out. In fact, no disrespect meant to Fabio, Rafael nearly steals the show with his vocals on Secret Garden. The man has a truly epic metal voice evoking Dan Swanö’s best of times, and his performances on the aforementioned “Crushing Room,” “Violet Sky” and the final track “Silent Call” add a dimension to Secret Garden that has been missing from the previous Angra records I’ve heard.
Musically, too, Secret Garden runs the gamut of styles from straight, double-bass driven power metal, to Yes and Rushesque prog and Spanish guitar solo work—and takes a breather in the middle of the record to rock out a great cover of The Police‘s “Synchronicity II.” The use of ‘tribal’ drumming styles makes even the more traditional songs pop with energy, too, leaning on a sound that Angra hasn’t used a lot on past records. While the musicianship among power metal bands is ridiculous as a rule, the combination of an ensemble approach to vocal duties, and some heavy, emotional writing (“Crushing Room” and “Silent Call”), makes for a memorable listening experience. Secret Garden isn’t just well-performed, the songwriting is poignant and heavy and loaded with drama. And, surprisingly enough, Angra manages to do all this without sounding cheesy or overblown. Counter intuitively, Fabio’s vocal performance on Secret Garden may be simply one of the best he’s ever done. Rhapsody [of Fire]‘s own master of melodrama nails home a remarkably nuanced (if extremely well enunciated) performance on “Storm of Emotions,” and his duet with Bittencourt on that track is immense—and that’s not a fluke, but rather the rule.
The big drawback to Secret Garden, for me anyway, is really the tonality of the whole record. Secret Garden is a modern power metal record, and that means that it has that pristine (some might say sterile), condensed tonality that Sweden and Devin Townsend have foisted on an unsuspecting and innocent world. The guitars at the beginning of “Final Light” and “Newborn Me” reek of the plastic sound of Sonic Syndicate and Deadlock and while it’s heavy, I think there are other ways of producing this music (see: Turisas). Further, the industry standard DR6 production on Secret Garden is masterfully handled by Herr Bogren out of Örebro’s Fascination Street Studios, but the use of non-standard percussion instruments and classical guitars leaves a little bit to be desired in terms of the breadth and depth of the dynamics.
Even with these sonic drawbacks, though, I am genuinely enthusiastic about Secret Garden. Angra sound better to me in 2015 than they’ve sounded ever before, and they’ve made a lot of good decisions in recent years that seem to be paying off. While Secret Garden never pushes into truly novel territory, it executes Angra‘s brand of power/prog with alacrity and sounds truly inspired. From hardship often arises great artistic production and this album is just one more piece of totally non-verifiable statistical noise that confirms my bias that this is an undeniable truth. Regardless of where it comes from, Secret Garden is gonna get a ton of play in Casa de Angry Metal Guy this year.