It’s no secret1 that Secret Sphere hasn’t seen a lot of love over their twenty year career. On top of being snubbed from AMG’s most prestigious of lists, their distinctly Italian take on the Euro-power formula has never come close to breaking away from second-rate status, and the band itself isn’t entirely free from blame. Though they’ve always been capable of writing excellent songs, their older records suffer from scattershot quality and crummy vocals, and it was only in 2012 with Portrait of a Dying Heart and the introduction of former Vision Divine vocalist Michele Luppi that it felt like they finally got the ball 2 rolling in terms of consistency. Even with how promising that record was, I could have never anticipated the direction its follow-up would take. Far from what most fans would expect (or even want) from a Secret Sphere album, The Nature of Time is a total rethinking of the band’s approach, and one of the most pleasant surprises I’ve encountered all year.
The Nature of Time reminds me much less of Secret Sphere‘s older works than it does Sonata Arctica’s The Days of Grays. It’s a similarly ambitious cocktail of power metal and progressive rock with a generous side helping of symphonic dressings, and although AMG Himself will probably fire me for saying this, I think that The Nature of Time bests that album at this fusion. The band clearly retains an immense love for their power metal roots as displayed in TNoT’s exuberant bouts of ripping speed (“Courage,” “The Awakening”), yet they feel just as confident in their more ambitious compositions. Songs like “Faith” and “Reliance” excel through intriguing dualities where quick, staccato metal riffs in the verses give way to softer, melodic prog rock refrains. Secret Sphere handles these stylistic shifts as though they built their entire career on them, leaving me puzzled as to why it took them so long to stray from the beaten path.
Secret Sphere‘s ability to balance traditional power metal sounds with melodic rock airiness transcends that of their peers, but TNoT is too soft, too often. There are three ballads on this thing, and while I would normally lump it in with the piles of other power metal records bogged down by embarrassing ballads, its fluffiest, fruitiest numbers kinda won me over in the end. That’s not to say they’re particularly engaging or free from dreadful lyrics (“Pillow talk is where our hearts belong” is the cringiest lyric I’ve heard in recent memory), but rather elevated by the record’s perpetually catchy hooks and excellent production. TNoT is an impeccably engineered record, its guitars, symphonic arrangements, synthesizers and electronic effects methodically layered while never leaving the bass guitar behind. It never sounds overcrowded, and even manages guitar and drum tones that sound like they belong on a metal record. If you’re searching for an example of how the “modern” power metal sound should be properly handled, look no further.
Fantastic production on a power metal album is nothing without memorable tunes that deliver proper emotional peaks, and in this regard, Secret Sphere more than delivers. “The Calling” in particular is a stunning track, sporting dramatic symphonic arrangements and a terrific chorus that recalls Voyager in terms of unconventional catchiness. “Reliance” is another winner, mimicking DGM’s effortless likability through its technical riffs and cheesy verses, while instrumental “Commitment” sports an infectiously funky mid-section that sounds like it could’ve been ripped from the Persona 5 soundtrack. All tracks are linked through thoughtfully composed interludes that never feel gimmicky, and the record is elevated further by Luppi’s distinct, flexible pipes and the ridiculous chops of new drummer Marco Lazzarini. From his Neil Peart-ian tom fills to his engaging kick patterns, Lazzrini brings a spark to his performances sorely absent from most genre releases.
The Nature of Time isn’t so much a a long awaited fulfillment of Secret Sphere’s potential as it is a complete reconstruction of their sound. It’s a colorful, well-rounded3 and immensely likable record with lush production, and thanks to the nuanced performances and instrumental layering, I’m still making discoveries a dozen or so listens later. Its excessive ballads, though good, bar me from making giving it a higher score that I was oh-so-tempted to hand out; even so, I have a feeling this will be very close to the top of my favorite power metal albums of the year.