If there was ever a “Yacht Metal” band, Tobias Sammet’s aspirational ego project Avantasia is it. Perpetually over-sized, ostentatious, crowded with celebrities and in danger of sinking under the weight of its own pretentious pomposity, the entire catalog is a monument to the man’s inherent lack of restraint. Yet despite all the troubled waters and swirling eddies of doom that await these kinds of super projects, the H.M.S. Overblown is still afloat in its high-rent slip for one reason: quality song writing. And on the cringe-inducingly titled Ghostlights, the impressive writing somehow continues unabated. Yes, Tobias is back at the helm captaining his vessel of destiny alongside such loyal and battle tested crewmen as Jorn Lande, Michael Kiske and Bob Catley, and this time he’s impressed Dee Snider, Geoff Tate, Marco Hietala and Sharon Den Adel into service for this new voyage into excess. With a lineup like that, you can just picture an epic wreck upon the harsh reef of reality, and yet, that yacht keeps on yachting and my admiration grows ever more profound.
With twelve tracks spanning 1 hour 10 minutes, this certainly isn’t a single-serving symphonic metal platter. It dabbles in various styles and moods but at its attention-whoring heart is a big, throbbing rock opera – like Gutter Ballet era Savatage, Meatloaf and Nightwish dumped in a Smoothie King™ and sprinkled with…Jorn. Opener “Mystery of the Blood Red Rose” reeks of Meatloaf‘s oversized bombast, and in fact, Sammet wrote it with Mr. Loaf in mind. When that pairing never came to pass, he did all the vocals himself and layered them thicker than a triple-decker lasagna. As the song unfurls you can almost see Robert Paulson in his frilly shirt twirling his silk handkerchiefs, and though it’ll clog your arteries, there’s no point denying the hooks embedded in the song’s quasi-Broadway pop-pomp.
They fearlessly follow this with the 12 minute, Kamelot-y epic “Let the Storm Descend Upon You,” fortified with vocals from Admiral Jorn, Ronny Atkins (Pretty Maids) and Robert Mason (Warrant, Lynch Mob). It’s actually quite an awesome tune full of metallic swagger filtered through pop and hard rock sensibilities. Jorn’s big, raspy vocals rock the boat whenever they appear and he definitely steals the show, but everyone does yeoman’s work and the chorus is bigger than the Titanic. It’s a testament to the quality of the writing that the song never feels long or overstays its welcome.
Dee Snider turns in a dark and ominous performance on the creepy but catchy “The Haunting,” and Geoff Tate actually impresses on the brooding “Seduction of Decay.” Tate sounds much better and more lively than he has in years and he rides the heavy-prog music like a well-oiled exercise machine. Elsewhere, Kiske and Jorn aggressively throw down on the very Helloweeen-y title track, Marco Hietala (Nightwish, Tarot) lends his unusual vocals to the very Nightwish-like “Master of the Pendulum,” and Jorn does the heavy lifting on the Savatage inspired “Lucifer.” Oddly enough, the most addictive track is the emo/cock rocking “Draconian Love” where Sammet’s wailing vocals are juxtaposed with deep, gothy intonations by Herbie Langhans (Seventh Avenue, Sinbreed).
There are no bad tunes, though Within Temptation frontwoman Sharon Den Adel’s vehicle “Isle of Evermore’ is a bit dull. I was a bit let down by the scant use of Bob Catley (Magnum), but with a cast of thousands there’s only so much room for any one talent. This time out it’s Kiske that gets the lion’s share of airtime, even pushing Jorn out of the spotlight (sacrilege) and he sounds amazing throughout. Though some editing and trimming here and there could have helped increase the impact of tunes like “Seduction of Decay,” it’s a minor quibble in the grand scheme of things.
The music behind the revolving door of singers is handled by Sammet and long-time collaborators Sascha Paeth (Aina, ex-Luca Turilli, ex-Heavens Gate) and Michael “Miro” Rodenberg (Aina, ex-Luca Turilli). As usual they craft some interesting foundations for the diva drama. Sascha is a talented guitarist and his solos are impressive but sometimes feel a bit soulless and cold. The same can be said for some of Miro’s keys and orchestrations, but they hit way more than they miss, and that’s all that really matters. Sammet’s vocals are solid and sometimes excellent and he holds his own with the metal luminaries surrounding him.
The first review I ever penned for AMG was for Avantasia‘s The Wicked Symphony, and here I am six years later still gushing platitudes for a “band” I instinctively expect to flounder and go under with every release. Nothing seems capable of sinking Sammet’s big ship of dreams and there’s something inspiring about that, isn’t there? Keep reaching for the stars, Toby, and keep that yacht moving ever onward. Next time drag John Arch and Jennie-Ann Smith on-board and make them sing for their damn supper!