This is, I swear, a review of the new album from Avantasia. It just… well, sometimes it takes a minute to get to where you end up wanting to go.
Bands like Avantasia seem to exist less as groups of actual humans playing music and more as case studies in demarcating the in-group/out-group borders of heavy metal itself. What some might call exuberance, others hear as absurdity. Neither party is wrong, of course, when it comes to the type of overstuffed symphonic rock and power metal that Avantasia revels in, but both miss the mark. What Tobias Sammet and his fellow travelers seem to be aiming for is a musical form so universal and all-encompassing that it winds up producing an absolutely sealed, hermetic world unto itself.
How can you not admire that?
Throughout Ghostlights, the German troupe’s magnificent new album, the listener finds a world where guitars sometimes want to act as electric cellos; where synthesizer keys are insufficient and are thus supplemented by grand piano and several types of organ; where Tobias Sammet and a bevy of guest vocalists (including, but not limited to, Geoff Tate, Dee Snider, Sharon den Adel, Michael Kiske, and Jorn Lande) trade lines with a zeal equally fit for the stages of Broadway and Wacken; and where a song is only as good as the unstoppable chorus it drives into one’s head like a wayward railroad spike. In short, everyone involved in this gargantuan, pulpy, charismatic, inescapable album plays and sings as if their goddamn life depended on it.
How can you not admire THAT?
The thing that really irks me when trying to write about music like this is that I make myself feel constantly on the defensive. Plenty of that is a result of my own brain-sadnesses, but there’s external cause as well. One shouldn’t have to dissect a power metal album as bloodlessly as a defense attorney attempting to anticipate and thus rebut in advance the potential claims against her client. And yet, that’s the climate, isn’t it? Certainly Avantasia has clear precursors and reference points in heavy metal both ancient and modern, but the overweening sympathy I hear in Ghostlights is for anything that bleeds with joyful excess, and that means Blind Guardian and Nightwish and Rhapsody and Sonata Arctica, sure, but it also means Queen, Meat Loaf, Janis Joplin, Elton John, David Bowie, ABBA, and anyone else who ever made rock and roll that didn’t give two pints of angel piss if some nerd in flannel a couple mealy-eyed decades down the road might shower it with self-conscious, insecure scorn.
Because that’s really what it comes down to, right? No matter how you dress up the objections to this sort of music, the common denominator seems to be: this kind of effusion of feeling and unfettered expressiveness is embarrassing, even unbecoming. You’d be hard-pressed to come up with a cogent definition of heavy metal these days, but just like pornography, plenty of fans and critics think they know it when they see it, and don’t see it in this style of music. But it goes beyond simple definitional quibbling, because how can you not read at least some of that exclusion as gendered? How is it not clearly part of the defense mechanism of an insecure, overcompensating masculinity reinforcing its boundaries by subtly deflecting those things seen as overly feminine? Of course there are ample reasons to dislike power metal (or simply THIS specific power metal) that don’t boil down to latent homophobia or misogyny, but ask yourself this: What does it mean when you call something “frilly”? “Wimpy”? “Limp-wristed”? “Weak”? If something lacks balls? What are you really saying? Even if we don’t always (or consciously) mean it, that sort of language not only polices the boundaries of metal as a musical style, but it also polices the boundaries of what sort of gender identities and expressions are seen as legitimate.
Think about it this way: in the same time that I’ve been working on this Avantasia review, I’ve been reacquainting myself with Czech black metal weirdos Root. And here’s the thing: throughout Root’s career, there’s far more in common with a band like Avantasia than one might think. Not only because Root diverges sharply from typical black or heavy metal tones and styles, but in fact, given Big Boss’s melodramatic delivery, the band’s propensity to write in suites or album-length themes, and the complex but infectious melodicism and seemingly infinitely multitracked vocal harmonies, Root at times is just as much like a metal opera as Avantasia’s albums of the same name. But they’re different because… why? I guess mostly because they sing about Satan and don’t have feathered bangs?
All I’m really trying to get at is this: it’s fine if you don’t like power metal, symphonic metal, or whatever else you’d like to call Avantasia ca. 2016. Really, it is. But if you shudder at the sound of this music, ask yourself why. Give yourself a hard look and speak truthfully. If you find this music embarrassing or fey or overdramatic or cheesy or saccharine or threatening or any other such thing, please complete the logical thought: why is it a bad thing for music to be that way? What divisions and exclusions and prejudices are you subconsciously reinforcing by embracing the music you embrace and spurning the music you spurn?
Honestly, this wasn’t supposed to go this way. I really am here to talk about the music, which, on Ghostlights, is fantastic. The lead track “Mystery of a Blood Red Rose” is only three minutes long and there’s a full-blown “do a huge step-up key change on the last repetition of the already major-keyed chorus” move. The very first track! In three minutes! And it’s followed not by a smooth comedown or calculated change of pace, but by the soaring, rampaging, twelve-minute convocation of “Let the Storm Descend Upon You,” which is punctuated not just by a dark, glittering chorus and chiming piano, but by a bold groove breakdown and, well, an almost sorta power metal rap section? Sounds a bit terrible, right? It’s not!
“Seduction of Decay” (with Geoff Tate’s guest vocals) is a too-plodding misstep, and although Dee Snider’s vocals are always welcome, “The Haunting” might still be a bit much to stomach, with its odd vibe of Blind Guardian’s “Tommyknockers” backed by what sounds like a children’s choir, but thankfully the title track and particularly “Draconian Love” make an invigorating rebound. “Draconian Love” is a cheeseball symphonic goth singalong of the absolute highest order. It’s the kind of song that sounds like the entire class of European death metal’s weird-goth mid/late-90s albums (Sentenced, Paradise Lost, Tiamat et al) collaborating to build a sentient synthesizer that loves musicals, but it also seems an uncanny coincidence that you can sing the chorus line “Where are you now? / Where are you now?” to the exact cadence of “Bat out of Hell! / Bat out of Hell!” It’s the kind of song where, by the time the chorus rolls around, the entire world will be divided into those singing along joyfully and those cutting off their ears and feeding them to a flock of choleric geese. There is no middle ground.
Whatever flaws Ghostlights is marked by are somehow a bit more excusable because they emanate from the same, foundational nucleus: the irrepressible desire to fit e.v.e.r.y.t.h.i.n.g. humanly possible into these songs. “Master of the Pendulum” drives ahead with a powerful metallic crunch, but truly comes alive with one of the album’s most infectious, show tune-style choruses. (In fact, throughout Ghostlights, the unavoidable impression is that the career trajectories of Avantasia and Nightwish have converged ever closer, although Ghostlights handily trounces Endless Forms Most Beautiful.) “Isle of Evermore,” on the other hand, is a beautiful duet between Sammet and Within Temptation’s Sharon den Adel, with electronic drums and vaguely “Eleanor Rigby”-ish string accompaniment (seen, of course, through the lens of an extremely heavy-handed nod to Led Zeppelin’s Sandy Denny feature, “The Battle of Evermore”).
Ghostlights is much too long. Ghostlights may grate on those of you who dislike passionate singing that lingers over and relishes every vibrato, every melisma, every bit of breathy emoting. Ghostlights is, in as neutral a sense of the word as possible, more than a little ridiculous. But consider this from two perspectives. On the one hand, shouldn’t heavy metal aim to traffic in the absurd, the wild, the ridiculous, the extreme? On the other hand, given these two choices below, what do you suppose most people would label as absurd?
1. A group of musicians pushing the limits of instrumental skill and production wizardry while singing their aching guts out to songs that aim to excite, inspire, and get stuck in your head for days?
2. Or a group of musicians making intentionally mangled noise while gurgling about zombies or frozen tundras or the eleventeenth realm of the benighted qlipothic Roomba or whatever?
To put it bluntly: if you believe that power metal is self-evidently more ridiculous than black metal or death metal or doom or drone or thrash or anything else, I invite you to put down the internet. Step away from your computer and go for a walk. Get some fresh air. Read a book. Talk to a person. Make a nice sandwich.
To put it even more bluntly: every last bit of ALL of this is theater, so quit pretending that your ticket to the show is the only type that matters.
I doubt very much that all of this makes for a particularly rousing defense of Ghostlights, Avantasia, or power metal on the whole. But again, that’s part of my point, right? Are other genres – even (and especially) rote genre exercises – held to the same standard? When you read (or write) about black metal, do you start from a stance of defensiveness? When you trot out the most turd-burnished cliches about how “brutal” or “crushing” the latest death metal retread is, do you assume that legions of listeners will recoil at the very thought of that music’s existence? I shouldn’t have to defend Ghostlights, not because it’s a perfect album (it isn’t) or because everyone must love power metal (they mustn’t), but because the default mode of experiencing this or any other piece of art should be: Say, let’s see what this has to say.
Ghostlights‘s penultimate song “Unchain the Light” features some twinkling synths that double the arpeggios of the main guitar theme, but more importantly, that sound like the personification of an afterschool special about a small galaxy being bullied by larger galaxies. Sammet’s duet with Jorn Lande on “Lucifer” begins both tenderly and robustly, but just as it pulls out a set of chugging chords as if to signal the start of every power ballad you’ve ever heard, it twists the script with a sped-up solo section that bursts brilliantly into Lande embodying Milton’s Lucifer with a fist-pumping zeal. Can you not admire that? Why not come and sit, and see if this has anything to say to you?
Friends, I will close as bluntly as possible: life is too short for sludge metal.