I had no idea this album was even happening until late Friday evening. It arrived in the Promo Department and Madam X sent a minion scurrying to my stately offices inquiring if I was expecting something new from Avatarium. After said minion was soundly whipped for making eye contact and disturbing my righteous Steelsleep, I reflected on the question. Having heard nothing whatsoever of a new album I assumed it was just an EP, remix or some such nonsense. Not so, as it’s actually the third album of bluesy, 70s influenced quasi-doom rock from Candlemass founder Leif Edling and company. That’s a pretty big deal around the AMG offices, because to date Avatarium has done no wrong, starting life as a folksy doom band, then morphing into a 70s rock monster. Hurricanes and Halos continues the evolution, following Opeth down the rabbit hole into 70s psychedelic prog rock. The moments that qualify as doom are now few, but the material is still heavy in its own way and the band has a charm that’s tough to resist, even when they explore sounds far afield from their doom roots.
The album certainly opens with a bang, as “Into the Fire – Into the Storm” charges hard with a Deep Purple-esque guitar and Hammond organ assault. Songbird Jennie-Ann Smith’s sultry, jazz club vocals soar over the urgent rock to deliver a snappy and simple chorus, and the guitar solos conjure the glory days of Rainbow. This makes for an instantly likable dose of 70s doom rock, light on the doom. The truly interesting material begins with “Road to Jerusalem” – a folksy, jaunty, Middle Eastern flavored number with a bouncy swagger, beautiful vocals from Mrs. Smith and gorgeous guitar-work on tap throughout. The extended guitar jams are a joy and it’s a great little number full of atmosphere and mood.
The album centerpiece is the nine-minute epic “Medusa’s Child,” and it’s a pretty unusual creature, leaping between quasi-doom and strange Jefferson Airplane-styled weirdness with Jennie joined by creepy children’s sing-alongs. It feels a bit long in the snake after a spell, but the inspired keyboard and guitar jams are worth the price of admission. The album’s best material arrives late with “The Sky at the Bottom of the Sea” which could have wandered off a Hellwell album. It’s a herky-jerky, schizophrenic mess with crazy organ runs and a generally mushroom addled vibe. Jennie completely owns the chorus and her powerful voice offers a firm guide rope through the tumultuous prog-rock extravaganza. Imagine Ann Wilson of Heart jamming with Yes and Genesis and you’re in the general ballpark.
The album standout for my money is “A Kiss (From the End of the World),” which is a mammoth, olde-timey doom nugget recalling the classic Dio-era Sabbath platters. The heavy riffs feel very welcome after an album nearly devoid of them, and Jennie gives her best performance on a simple but powerhouse chorus. It has a sad, forlorn feeling1 and to my ears it almost sounds like a response to Sabbath‘s “Lonely is the Word.”
At a trim 44 minutes, Hurricanes is an easy listen despite a few long cuts. However, I’m not overly enamored with how it closes out on the mostly-ambient instrumental title track. It comes across like a mix of the Clockwork Orange soundtrack and a graduation march, and ends an interesting, eclectic album on a bland note.
As with every Avatarium release, Jennie-Ann Smith’s vocals are the main attraction. She has a warm, lovely voice, capable of real power and a smokey, nightclub purr. No matter where the music goes she is able to fit in and own her surroundings. She reminds me a lot of Ann Wilson and she adds gravitas and charisma to whatever the band comes up with. Soen guitarist Marcus Jidell once again impresses with all sorts of 70s rock stylings, showing his affinity for psychedelic and prog rock while never dragging the music too far from a given song’s logical path. His solos on tracks like “Road to Jerusalem” and “Medusa’s Child” are wonderfully tripped out and he plays with a lot of emotion and feeling. The keyboard wizardry of Carl Westholm (ex-Candlemass) also deserves praise, as it bathes the material in a thick coat of 70s rock glory. There’s a lot of Jon Lord in his playing, and a fair amount of Ray Manzarek too.
Hurricanes and Halos finds Avatarium very comfortable in their own skin doing whatever they want creatively, and I admire that. It isn’t as powerful a collection of songs as their debut or The Girl With the Raven Mask, but it’s another impressive showcase for the talents of those involved. Highly recommended.