A talented singer can become, in the hands of a skilled songsmith, a powerful tool for artistic expression. In such a craftsman’s nimble fingers, powerful vocals can be woven and molded to create a truly sublime listening experience. Likewise, in the hands of a rank amateur, those same vocal gifts can become nothing but a hammer, and every song the nail. While Sir Russell Allen has always had the stellar musical vehicle of Symphony X to shape his prodigious gifts, his friend, the Norwegian Titan of Rock, has often been underserved by whomever writes his solo material. Luckily, the moonfaced master of Dio influenced metal had this project to fall back on, where Magnus Karlsson (Primal Fear) provided him with three albums worth of quality song writing on which to graft his gravelly roars. Times change, and people move on, and so Karlsson departed, leaving the newest collaboration of elite pipes to be backstopped by none other than…Timo Tolkki (ex-Stratovarius, ex-Revolution Renaissance, Timo Tolkki’s Avalon)? Did the air just go out of the room? Out of this project? Is the blonde bellower forever doomed to wallow in third rate writing?
Quite surprisingly, no. While The Great Divide is a step down in quality from the first three albums by this esteemed duo, it’s still a very enjoyable outing, which benefits from a few surprises and slight shifts in direction. While the radio friendly hard rock approach of the previous albums is still present, Timo’s writing provides a newfound power metal dynamic with a bit more cheese than usual. For the most part, it works and provides a solid foundation, thereby allowing the golden pipes to fly free once again.
Songs like “Come Dream With Me” are almost indistinguishable from the slick hard rock heard on the older albums and it’s like a heavier version of Journey and just as hook heavy. The Euro-power rears it’s pirate beshirted head on “Down From the Mountain,” bringing to mind “Future World” by Pretty Maids, but He Who Shall Not Be Named According to Arbitrary AMG Edict makes the song seem heavier with his snarling, raspy delivery and it has an undeniable cheese-tastic charm. The power flows strong through “Hands of Time” as well, which comes across like an outtake from the recent Avantasia albums (which is a good thing).
Other fine moments arrive with the mega-overblown power ballad “Lady of Winter,” where the duo fights to see who can be more overdramatic in their delivery of somewhat clunky lines; and “The Hymn to the Fallen,” where “The Voice of Rock” shows how he earned that title with a particularly feisty performance. The album standout to these ears is “Reaching for the Stars,” where Sir Allen gives a hearty yet understated performance on a rousing and motivational “Eye of the Tiger” kind of song that one could easily see playing during a training montage in Rocky III or IV, but not V because that sucked.
Sadly, there are a few lesser cuts even these magicians cannot salvage. The title track is a painfully drawn out and dull slog intended to be emotional, but the grizzly bear mega-rasps are merely annoying. Album closer “Bittersweet” is better, and seems to be a continuation of “Master of Sorrow” from The Revenge, but it’s rather trite and not fully realized, despite some excellent vocals.
This is the point in the review where I usually go full fanboy and gush about the staggering power and heartbreaking talent these two possess. But by now, everyone knows Russell Allen could make the mythical sirens jump into his boat merely by singing a Chinese takeout menu. Likewise, the Scandinavian Screamer has a host of formidable attributes that make him a joy to listen to, whether he’s aping David Coverdale, Dio or even Jack Black (yes, sometimes he goes there). What’s made all these duet albums so enjoyable is how well their voices compliment each other. They fit together seamlessly, play off each other effortlessly, and elevate whatever song they grace.
At the end of the day, can any album featuring these two legends end up a complete loss? Though I was highly skeptical Timo could step into the sizeable shoes left by Magnus Karlsson, he did an admirable job, providing some of his best writing since the salad days of Stratovarius and gave the dynamic duo some pretty juicy tunes to ply their wares upon. If you liked the older works, you’ll enjoy this as well. These gentlemen are among the brightest lights in metaldom and always a pleasure to hear from, even if I can only name one of them.