I get it. I get why symphonic metal is so popular, how unremarkable bands are able to convert unremarkable music into legions of determined followers and Facebook likes. It wraps up the teenage rebelliousness of heavy music in the comforting folds of palatable vocals, unsubtle melodies, and often attractive front-women for fans to drool over. Is this an oversimplification? Perhaps, but I would have a hard time being persuaded that there is not some truth in this. Leah aims for greater things. She is a Canadian penning songs with Celtic themes who hires some notable talent to execute her vision; The Quest is her third record and is supported by performances from members of such bands as Nightwish, Delain, Blind Guardian, and even Orphaned Land. Surely such a star-studded line-up bodes well for the record’s quality?
This roster is misleading. One may assume from it that there would be something notable about any of the instrumentation, but this is not the case. The Quest is indeed symphonic metal; that is, all instruments are geared towards facilitating and accentuating Leah‘s voice and don’t offer much engagement past that. The chugging guitars offer rhythm and sometimes a solo, but can’t be said to offer great riffs. Meanwhile, the orchestrations include a piano, strings, a choir, an occasional Celtic whistle, and a harp, among a few other instruments. These all flesh out the musical background behind the vocals but rarely take control of the key melodies. To be fair, said vocals are strong. They have that breathy, ethereal style which symphonic metalheads seem to agree is the most worthy technique, but also has some gravitas where required. It is in the soft, atmospheric conclusion called “The Water Is Wide” that her quality is most evident given that many of the backing layers are stripped away, exposing her vocals.
Such overt reliance on one element of the album is not inherently flawed but runs the risk of falling flat where the vocal melodies don’t excel. Some can manage this, if only for one record, such as The Silent Force by Within Temptation. Indeed, The Quest‘s easy highlight is “Edge of Your Sword” as its huge chorus nails a memorable melody and is tinged with the epic tone for which much of the record strives. The integration of orchestral elements targets a “big” sound and grandiose feel but this begins with the songwriting and not instrumentation. It’s unsurprising that the moments that are actually epic are on the tracks with the best melodies (also including “Ghost Upon a Throne” with its concluding flourishes). However, such parts are unfortunately outweighed by mediocrity. Most melodies are not particularly memorable and the accompanying orchestral parts therefore fail to confer the majesty which the best symphonic metal can boast. Even on the opening title track which extends past the ten-minute mark, a ballsy statement of intent, the first five minutes meanders until a lens-narrowing solo kicks in. The Quest is simply not as epic as it intends to be.
There are other passages which also don’t contribute much to the proceedings. Things progress into obsolescence in the run from “Labyrinth” to “Oblivion (Between Two Worlds),” which is the definite weakest section, doing nothing that isn’t done better elsewhere. These tracks are all inexplicably one to two minutes longer than the preceding passage of a similar duration and significantly higher quality spanning “Edge of Your Sword” to “Ruins of Illusion.” To call them featureless would perhaps be harsh, but my notes remained short and generic after several listens; in some ways, it’s worse that I could not muster the words than being able to muster unflattering ones. Worse is that these most plain tracks are also drawn out for longer than those more densely packed with better ideas.
The real acid test of an album’s mettle is whether I would bother to listen to it above another album of the same style. Though I’m no fanboy of symphonic metal, there are undoubtedly great releases falling under the genre. The Quest is not one of them in spite of its high-profile roster and occasional moments of quality. Despite my earlier comments about unsubtle melodies, grander hooks would serve Leah well. I would not choose to listen to The Quest again, even with a hankering for cheese and symphonic bombast.