Friday, February 22, 2013

Avantasia - The Metal Opera (2001)

Tobias Sammet's Avantasia would have to be one of the most awesome projects this century. His idea - to get together a group of guest musicians - with many superstars of  the European Metal scene and produce an album. And oh, what an album it is!

I remember when I first heard about it. I don't think I have ever ordered a CD so fast, nor been so impatient waiting for it to arrive. Oh, the ripping off of the plastic, the laying it in the cd player (I'm not sure I even had a computer then), hearing it for the first time...

This album is, in one word, EPIC.

Here's the Cast:
Tobias Sammet (from Edguy) as Gabriel Laymann
"Ernie" as druid Lugaid Vandroiy*
Kai Hansen (Gamma Ray) as Regrin the Dwarf (a dwarf! Ha, go Kai!)
David DeFeis (Virgin Steele) as Jakob the Monk
Andre Matos (Angra) as Elderane the Elf (perfect, he does have the voice I would associate with the elven-kind)
Oliver Hartmann (At Vance) as Pop Clemes IIX
Sharon Del Adel (Within Temtpation) as Anna Held
Bob Rock as bishop Johann Adam von Bicken
Ralf Zdiarstek as bailiff Falk von Kronberg
Timo Tolkki (Stratovarius) as the Voice in the Tower
And playing the instruments:
Henjo Richter - rhythm and lead guitars
Markus Grosskopf (Helloween) - bass guitar
Alex Holzworth - drums
Frank Tischer - piano on one track
Norman Meiritz - acoustic guitars on one track
Tobias Sammet - piano, keyboards and orchaestration - because he's THAT awesome
Jens Ludwif - lead guitars on a couple of tracks

Wow, quite a star-studded line-up! From what I understand, Markus and Kiske got on okay, despite Kiske's earlier "divorce" from Helloween. And he and Kai still get on well, and have banded together once more.

The cover is pretty awesome. There's witches and jesters and spooky woods and a very cool emblem in the centre. Very High Fantasy. Inside are the lyrics and a rather lengthy synopsis of the album's plot, which I should really read some day. Like Right Now would be good.

Okay - before the Metal Opera begins, Gabriel is working as an inquisitor with Friar Jakob. He has been commended for getting confessions and so forth, and has been summoned to see the latest suspect - which turns out to be his stepsister, Anna, who was more like a real sister to him.

Could she really be a witch?

He seeks advice from his mentor, Jakob, and finds Jakob in the library. Jakob is acting a bit suspiciously, and has acquired a new book. A sinister book. Troubled by this, Gabriel later sneaks in and sneaks a peek at it. It is Old. And potentially Evil. And has a message at the back from a druid called Lugaid, addressed to the witch, Else, whom has recently been condemed. Also, a cryptic message about Rome that he doesn't understand. However, after reading the book, Gabriel finds his fingers permanently marked - and it turns out that the Friar had booby-trapped the book. Thus has Gabriel broken his trust and thus is to be arrested.

When they come to take him away, the old Friar says nothing just stares at the floor in silence.
And that is where the story begins:

Like all good Euro metal albums, we have an atmopsheric instrumental "Prelude" to welcome us in.

Then it rips into the inspiring "Reach Out for the Light".  Imprisoned in his dreary cell, Gabriel watches as his cell-mate paces, and together they share their stories. It turns out, his companion is one of the last Celt druids, no less than Lugaid Vandroiy. This is a duet between the two, aka Kiske and Sammet. Together their voices combined are a powerful force - especially with a chorus behind them. Noone has a voice like Kiske - it is quite unmistakable.

In the next track, "Serpents in Paradise", Gabriel begs forgiveness - from Else for her death  and worries about Anna. He pleads Vandroiy for help. This intersects with Jakob taking the stage, himself awash with  guilt over his betrayal of the novice, whom he loved like a son. This is a rather more aggressive song, filled with tortured anxieties.

In "Malleus Maleficarium" things take a turn for the sinister as Gabriel remembers Else's trial - of how she was threatened and killed. The music swells ominous and poisonous around the hiss/snarled vocals.

It splinters and unleashes "Breaking Away", which also brings Lugaid back on stage. Another epic and inspiring song. Realising that the only way to help Anna, and themselves, is to escape, Vandroiy and Gabriel stage a daring escape, the old druid knocking out the guard and the two of them fleeing the castle. However, Vandroiy urges him that they cannot rush straight to Anna's aid, and he must, for the time, bid her "Farewell" in a beautiful, and haunting, combining the three finest vocalists on the album -  Sammet's slightly raw edge lends itself well versus Den Adel's sweet tones, and Lugaid provides back-up vocals, softening Sammet's edges. Sadly, Den Adel is under-used and this is her only track on the album.

Meanwhile, in Rome.

Another heavier and nastier sounding number, "The Glory of Rome" brings the bailiff and the bishop together as they welcome the addition of Jakob and his book. Secret documents have been located - secrets revealed. By bringing seven seals together - the seals of Holy books, then ultimate wisdom, illumination and truth shall be revealed. The racing drums and snarled edge to the vocals suggest that it is not a kindly conversation.

The seals are brought together, and a new door opens, into the creepy and haunting little passage of "In Nomine Patris", over before it really begins.

For, Avantasia is, as you may have guessed, a spiritual world - not really Heaven, because it's a bit more fantasy-esque than that (although I suspect itmay be a kind of Heaven for Tobias) and it can be entered in two ways - spiriutally, by having your spirit transcend through a special place (and probably a ritual too) or physically - which is what happens should all seven seals be put together.

Therefore, many miles away from Rome, Gabriel and Vandroiy are in the forest. They have just been attacked by bandits and left for dead. The only way they can help Anna, Vandroiy declares, is if he sends Gabriel's spirit to Avantasia (a dangerous enough endeavour) and he'll stay behind and make sure nothing happens to Gabriel's body, which will be left in the forest glade.

And thus we enter into the most valiant song on the album - "Avantasia". Combining the master vocals of Kiske and Sammet once more. Yeh, I'm biased. I love Kiske. So what.

A short and haunting passage heralds Gabriel's journey into "A New Dimension".

Now that he's "Inside" we have elves. And dwarves. Regrin the dwarf finds Gabriel and takes him to visit with Elderane, prince of the elves and head of Avantasia. Matos has a beautiful clear voice, that rivals Kiske's for clarity and perfection.

Anyhow, something dark is brewing in the beautiful, once-peaceful kingdom of Aina** Avantasia - Ancient Evil forces have mobilised a large army and they are reaping Terror and Destruction. In "The Sign of the Cross", Gabriel is required to join the humans and take back the seal to prevent all the nice creatures from being forgotten and vanishing***. No word on rescuing Anna. I hope she's just been forgotten and isn't being tortured for witchery as we speak. No, wait, all the bad guys are already in Avantasia, so I guess she's safe for now. This is a song with FIVE vocalists - on one hand we have the three "good guys" - Regrin, Elderane and Gabriel, on the other side we have the bishop and the pope. It's a pretty epic song.

Meanwhile, back in the real world, Vandroiy is pondering the purpose of "The Tower". If all the seals are taken to the tower, then Avantasia will be forever locked. He also has a mental connection with Gabriel and pushes the young man to follow the path as the Avantasians suggest and not run off after Anna. Gabriel is a bit perplexed about how helping Avantasia can help Anna. So, I think the bad guys (the pope and the bishop) are trying to seal Avantasia forever and the others are fighting to keep it "open".

This is another complicated song, where a great deal is made about "the voice" in the Tower. Is it the voice of God? No, it's Timmo Tolkki but as the main guitarist of Stratvarius, maybe Sammet considers him a god. No wait, it appears the voice in the tower is "their father, they had broken with, because he had wanted to bring chaos to earth." So he's a devil?

Multiple vocalists, epic scale song, complicated structures and ever changing rhythms weave a damned fine symphonic power metal song.

Anyhow, it appears that Gabriel steals the seals off the Pope and runs away, dodging and weaving until he gets snatched up in an elven flying machine and thus Avantasia is saved.

Jakob bemoans:
"How could the stranger steal the seal away? Was it my fault? OR was it noone's fault?"****

...but Anna is still captive, so I guess we'll have to buy part two as well...
Actually, sod it, I'm not going to go straight on to B, I'm going to listen and review it now, because I want to know if they rescue Anna and I can't wait another 20 or so cds to do so. Plus I wanna do Aina next time round. Or Ayreon. Why are all the metal operas starting with "A"?

Then we have "Avantasia" again because it's so awesome that you shouldn't even need to flip tracks to hear it again. It's the edit version - so it's one minute shorter, not sure if there are any other differences. They should have got every vocalist to do a verse.

It is followed up by "The Final Sacrifice". This is an angry duet between Gabriel and Jakob. From the lyrics, it sounds like Gabriel has cast Jakob into Hell. I'm not overly fond of it.

Get ready for the Brimstone, getting blisters on the eyes.
The power of the spirit was their final sacrifice.

Anyhow - a damned fine album, very complex and masterfully composed and arranged by young Tobias. It's kind of funny to psycho-analyse this actually - he has portrayed Kiske and Defeis as sort of "father figures" to his young novice, and Kiske in particular is probably one of the most admired voices of metal - even if he wants to break the ties with metal and become a Rock God instead. So, one cannot help but think that perhaps this was why he created the character of Vandroiy. It was a grandiose project, and one that came to valiant fruition - and he has gone on to create further Avantasia metal operas - not just the sequel to this one but many others. They even toured! I would dearly, dearly love to see Avantasia live (with Kiske, please with Kiske).

I couldn't possibly give this epic masterpiece anything less than 10/10.

* For reasons of his own, Michael Kiske did not wish for his name to appear on this album. Possibly because he did not want to be considered to be getting back into metal. Not that his voice isn't instantly recognisable anywhere.

** Whoops, wrong metal opera, we'll do that one next time.

*** Directly quoted from the booklet. I wish someone could have done that on Earth so that we could still have some of our lost "nice creatures".

**** "...Stranger steal the seal..." wonder how many times he tripped over those words. And how come he didn't recognise his own novice?

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