Dark Moor has been tilting at windmills a very long time. As one of Spain’s longest-running power metal bands, they’ve had successful early albums like The Hall of the Olden Dreams and The Gates of Oblivion which benefited from crisp writing and the raspy roar of Elisa Martin. When she was replaced by Alfred Romero on the band’s eponymous 2003 album, they lost a bit of what made them stand out. From there they toyed with a myriad of different styles, reinventing themselves in small and large ways as they dabbled in traditional power metal and the much more symphonic and fruity variety. This resulted in some hit or miss releases which I paid only cursory attention to (though Tarot and Autumnal were both pretty solid). Project X is yet another reinvention for these shape-shifting Spaniards, dialing back the symphonics in favor of a more prog-rock orientated sound. The goofy “aliens are out there” themed material is understated and much less neo-classical than prior works, arriving at what can best be described as a power prog-rock opera with Broadway-styled cheesiness. A power-prog-rock musical about E.T.? Can that even be?
Strangely enough, yes it can. As offbeat as this album is at times, it actually works more often than not. This is largely due to the strong 70s rock influences they graft onto what are essentially show tunes suitable for community and dinner theater. Songs like “Beyond the Stars” sound like segments of a musical co-written by Savatage and Styx with a strong Rocky Horror element tossed in for unknown reasons. It shouldn’t work and it annoys me how much the jazz handsy chorus entertains me. The same goes for “Bon Voyage” which is even more Rocky Horrible in design, including frequent callbacks from a peanut gallery choir. Damn it, planet!
“Conspiracy Revealed” sounds like a more rock-centric Sonata Arctica with off-kilter symphonics lurking in the background, and “The Existence” is like 80s pop rock with slight metal overtones and a chorus made for MTV circa 1984. Likewise, “Gabriel” walks a fine line between Euro-power, prog-rock and show tunery, escaping disaster via sharp writing and a chorus bigger than Mars. Even the sappy ballad “I Want to Believe” survives strict scrutiny by incorporating a 70s sensibility and going for the soft sell rather than overwrought hair metal silliness.
There isn’t a bad song here, but closer “There’s Something in the Skies” is too overblown and too Broadway for its own good and by crossing into full Phantom of the Opera territory it becomes too jarring to serve as the proper end cap on what is a fairly restrained, underplayed album. Other than that, this is a consistently enjoyable platter of odd, intergalactic cheese.
While I still miss the rougher vocal attack of Elisa, Alfred Romero has improved a lot over the years and grown into capable and charismatic frontman. He proves versatile here as well, adapting to this odd lot of different styles. To his credit, he doesn’t spend all his time straining for ball-shattering high notes and exists comfortably in a smooth mid-range. He’ll never be my first choice for the Power Metal Hall of Fame, but he’s enjoyable and easy to listen to. Enrik Garcia impresses as well with a laid back, restrained performance. In keeping with the tone of the material, he often resists the urge to go all Luca Turilli, but when he does indulge his inner wank, he makes up for lost time.
Perhaps in keeping with the 70s prog influences, the band opted for a decently full and open production. Though things do get layered at times, they never feel messy or compressed, with everything sitting in it’s own space able to be heard.
This is much more quirky than I expected and that’s partly why I’m enjoying it. There are hooks aplenty and an interesting approach that’s sure to divide fans. I wasn’t consciously aware of wanting a metal musical about Area 51, alien probes and Uranus, but I’m happy it finally arrived in my cornfield nonetheless. Watch the skies. Ayreon is out there.