Avantasia // The Mystery of Time
Rating: 3.5/5.0 — Fine German craftsmanship and gourmet cheese
Label: Nuclear Blast Records [EU] [US]
Websites: tobiassammet.com/eng/index.php  |  myspace.com/tobiassammet
Release Dates: EU: 2013.03.29  |  NA: 04.30.2013 (WTF??)

Avantasia You have to give Tobias Sammet his steely props. He doesn’t do things half-assed. Nope, he goes big, bold and lets the Metal Gods sort shit out. His Edguy material is plenty pretentious and overblown, but it can’t hold a magic candle to the sheer pretentious pomposity and bombast of his Avantasia project. Taking cues from Arjen Luccasen’s Ayreon outings, Sammet drags in every singer, guitarist and hanger-on he can as if he’s playing a metallic version of Pokemon (gotta catch em all). His last feat was the impressive double release of the Angel of Babylon and The Wicked Symphony albums (my fanboyish reviews of which, landed me a spot at AMG Industries, Ltd. for some reason), and I was very curious how he could top those massive platters of symphonic excess. Several years later we get The Mystery of Time and the answer is: he can’t. This time Sammet chose to dial things back and focus on a more direct, cohesive album. It results in some great, über hooky, polished metal, but at times it lacks the charm and finesse of earlier material. Another issue is the cast of supporting voices, which falls short of the stellar rosters of old. While classic rock vocalists like Joe Lynn Turner (Rainbow, Deep Purple, Yngwie) and reliable metal voices like Michael Kiske (ex-Helloween, etc.) and Biff Byford (Saxon) are fine, some of the other additions are rather weak, and vocal titans Russell Allen and Jorn Lande are sorely missed. Still, there are some amazing songs and though a few are less than wonderful, none are outright bad and fans of the old stuff will welcome this with girlish glee.

This is the pure, puffed up Avantasia you’ve come to expect, sometimes more symphonic, sometimes less so, and Sammet’s affinity for writing huge, hooky choruses is still intact. As per usual, Sammet is joined by different vocalists on every track and this revolving door of voices is supposed to add spice and variety. While songs like “Spectres” and “The Watchmaker’s Dream” are both highly enjoyable doses of Euro-metal, Joe Lynn Turner’s vocals add very little to the mix and Sammet does most of the heavy lifting. Though the songs are still good, they lack the extra wow factor former guests like Roy Kahn, Russell Allen and Jorn Lande provided.

Faring better is Biff Byford who joins Sammet for the standout, “Black Orchid,” and his trademark nasal whine provides a cool counterpoint to Sammet’s classic power metal wail. The song is a big winner which builds to the kind ofAvantasia2013 enormous chorus that put Edguy on the map and has since established Avantasia as the de jure symphonic project. Good old Biff gets to come back for the other big slobberkocker track, “Savior in the Clockwork,” where he’s joined by Michael Kiske and Turner. It’s a great song and it’s a trip to hear his old school NWoBHM voice amid all the symphonic fluffer-nuttery and hijinks. The chorus is big enough to crush a Buick and the trade offs between singers is expertly managed. Kiske gets a bigger roll on ” Where Clock Hands Freeze” which is like a nostalgia trip back to the Keeper of the Seven Keys albums. Big singing, big chorus and lots of Euro-power zip and charm. Kiske still has the chops and he’s the right man for this job.

When things gets heavier and more urgent on “Invoke the Machine,” Sammet brings in Ronnie Atkins (Pretty Maids) and his rough n ready vocals are fine, but this kind of material is perfectly suited to Jorn’s raspy voice and Atkins ain’t no Jorn. The song is still fun, but I can’t help thinking it could be so much better. More perplexing is the inclusion of Eric Martin (Mr. Big) on the sapptastic power ballad “What’s Left of Me,” which is radio-friendly, 80s hair metal. It works fairly well, but why Eric Martin of all people? Was Kip Winger busy that week? Don Dokken wasn’t returning calls? For the other maudlin ballad, Sammet swaps lines with unknown German singer Cloudy Yang and both the song and her performance are a bit underwhelming.

Things wrap up with the ten minute long “The Great Mystery,” which features Bob Catley (Magnum). All Sammet’s tricks are on display here as he drapes everything in drama, pathos, Mentos and anything else he could squeeze in. Catley sounds fine, Byford and Turner add some variety and though the song is long, it keeps the listener involved. It isn’t their best lengthy piece, but it’s still plenty good. It’s also the first time Avantasia reminded me of Trans-Siberian Orchestra (I’m not sure what I think about that).

BiffByfordThe core band is again composed of Sammet, guitarist Sascha Paeth and keyboardist Miro, with drumming handled this time by Russell Gilbrook (Uriah Heap). Guest musicians include Arjen Luccasen, Bruce Kulick (KISS) and Oliver Hartman (At Vance). Everything sounds great and they can all obviously play. The guitars feel a bit heavier and meaner than usual and some of this stuff gets fairly aggressive. Though it’s very symphonic, they get big credit for never letting it get as fruity and un-metal sounding as the new Stratovarius.

Overall, The Mystery of Time is another success for the man with the masterplan. It says something for Sammet that he can bring in a “B Team” of vocalists and still achieve this much win. If you love power metal with tons of frills, you likely already have season tickets for the Avantasia bandwagon. Those tickets pay for the whole seat, but during some of these songs, you’ll only need…THE EDGE!!