So here we have The Wicked Symphony, one of two new albums released this week by Avantasia, the brainchild of one Tobias Sammet (Angel of Babylon being the companion album). Many of you likely know Mr. Sammet as the singer of German power metallers Edguy. Avantasia is his long running mega-sized side project where he collaborates with varied musicians across the metal/hard rock spectrum and experiments with moods and sounds that might not necessarily fit within the paradigm of the more straightforward Edguy. Wicked Symphony and Angel of Babylon complete the trilogy started by 2008’s Scarecrow album. For an easy point of reference, think of Avantasia as a more metalized and less (but still quite) self-indulgent version of Ayreon.
Upfront, I will admit that my humble take on musical projects with numerous guest musicians is that they tend to be dicey propositions, and keeping a sense of consistency, flow and unity from track to track can be tough to pull off. Therefore, with all relevant biases identified for your benefit, my cynical self approached this with suitable caution, suspicion and skepticism.
After a very Conan the Barbarian-esque opening, the festivities kick off in fine form with the title track, a rousing, stomping number with Tobias engaging in very effective dueling vocals with Jorn Lande (Jorn, ex-Mastermind) and Russell Allen (Symphony X). Even at nine plus minutes, the song never gets boring because of the sheer quality of songwriting and musicianship on display. This is 100% epic, bombastic power metal with memorable hook after hook. If I were forced at gunpoint to compare it to a more established band, I would have to say Episode era Stratovarius.
From there we get Tobias accompanied by the legendary Klaus Meine of Scorpions fame on “Dying for an Angel” (the first single and video) with Meine’s vocal lines really sounding classy and oh so familiar and adding a real legitimacy to the proceedings. Thereafter we get “Scales of Justice” with the mighty Tim “the Ripper” Owens sounding extra mighty and in full air raid siren mode. This track sounds like it could have been lifted right off of Judas Priest’s Jugulator (if that album didn’t suck) and is pretty damn heavy! Both songs benefit from the trade off vocal approach and catchy songwriting with big choruses that really get stuck in your head after one or two listens.
What makes this album (and Angel of Babylon) work is the fact that Tobias is a gifted songwriter with a knack for wringing the maximum power and drama from his guest’s performances as well as making things memorable and catchy as hell. It is important to note that the musical focus of all the tracks is centered around the vocals rather than the guitar. This works because Mr. Sammet clearly did his homework and selected some major metal talent to join the campaign and his hired guns do not disappoint. At times it sounds like each is trying to outdo the others for the title of Lord of Metal Pipes (with Jorn usually winning by sounding like he just gargled moonshine before recording his vox). A perfect example of this vocal combat is Runaway Train where Tobias, Jorn Lande, Bob Catley and Michael Kiske (of old school Helloween fame) all hurl vocal lines at each other over the course of a slowly building eight minute plus epic power ballad.
Despite featuring different singers and musicians from track to track, the entire album manages to feel like one cohesive whole and that whole kicks a whole lot of ass!!! If there is a downside, it’s that a few songs lack the power and punch of the previously mentioned standout cuts, though none are complete throwaways. If you forgive the minor filler, this is a standout vocal driven power metal album that really lets the vocals do all the talking! Highly recommended to power metal aficionados.