Avantasia – Moonglow Review

Heavy metal is not, nor has it ever particularly been, a single thing. Those in search of some mythical heavy metal purity, some Ur-text that forms a blueprint from which all deviations are heretical, are thus attempting to reconstruct an imaginary history. Heavy metal lives and breathes in fits and starts; it contains multitudes.

However, even if that drive for purity, for parsimony, for the essential, unadorned core is a fiction, it can be a useful fiction. When a genre rockets off down a glittery hallway with more concern for style than substance, and when riffs are recycled, insipid, or forgotten entirely, the petulant, nagging, scolding curmudgeons can prompt an important re-evaluation of priorities. (Counterpoint again, though: this is the sort of lazy, wet-blanket theorizing that lands on the convenient but fatuous thesis that punk emerged solely as a necessary correction against disco and/or prog.)

But, come on, listen to this. Can you hear the defensiveness already? I don’t like what the world has done to me. Or, maybe a different way to look at it is that I don’t like what irony has done to music. Or, maybe yet another way to look at it is that I don’t like what the general state of writing about bands like Avantasia has done to listening to bands like Avantasia. Avantasia’s glorious, emotive, intricate, dramatic music exists on a pure plane of existence where love is the only truth, and should be allowed to stay there.

The real point of all this nonsense: Heavy metal needs maximalists, and whatever other claims one might level at him, one could hardly accuse Avantasia’s mastermind Tobias Sammet of an excess of subtlety. The Edguy singer has now released nearly as many albums with Avantasia as with his supposed “main” concern, and each with the same animating principle: why do just one thing, when you could instead do all the things? Power metal by its nature harbors the boisterous, the dramatic, and the fanciful, but Sammet’s preoccupation in Avantasia seems to be injecting all the pomp and extravagance he can muster into every last second of sound.

Here’s an even simpler way to put it: Avantasia makes big music and wants to make you feel big things.

Release date: February 15, 2019. Label: Nuclear Blast.
Avantasia’s catalog thus far can be divided loosely into three parts. Although still stuffed with guest vocalists, the two-part Metal Opera presented the most straightforward power metal material. The middle albums of The Scarecrow, Angel of Babylon, and The Wicked Symphony introduced a much more pronounced hard rock slant to Avantasia (which, when coupled with slightly slackened songwriting, resulted in a reasonably large dip in quality). Then, on The Mystery of Time and (especially) Ghostlights, those hard rock elements yielded to a greater balance with an increasingly symphonic and occasionally progressive power metal. Moonglow, album number eight, continues almost flawlessly in the mighty footprints of Ghostlights. The symphonic elements are still pushed to the fore, but while the entire picture is hugely extravagant, Avantasia’s current incarnation is both less cinematic and more explicitly metallic than similar material from a theoretically sympathetic band like Nightwish.

Avantasia’s music is still grounded in riff-built power metal, but there’s an inescapable debt owed to some of rock music’s most grandiose and melodramatic artists, from Queen and Meatloaf to Elton John and ELO. The gusto with which Sammet writes concept albums with guest vocalists performing different roles also makes it impossible to doubt that he grew up on a rich diet of musical theater with roots in rock and dark bombast, from The Who’s Tommy to Jesus Christ Superstar and Phantom of the Opera. Avantasia remains steeped in the metal tradition, however, in no small part due to the consistently stellar guitarwork of Sascha Paeth, who merges his judicious leads, backing arpeggios and textures, and driving rhythms seamlessly with all the extra pieces required by Sammet’s vision (strings, Steinman-esque piano, choral backing vocals, and nearly anything else you can imagine). Paeth’s lead/solo that kicks in around 6:30 of the opening track “Ghost in the Moon” is a model of this patient symbiosis.

In truth, unless the whole conceit of the band offends your delicate sensibility, there is very little to dislike about Moonglow, and any quibbles are exceedingly minor. In fact, I can really count only about three: “Ghost in the Moon” opens the album so abruptly that it almost sounds like a mistake; Felix Bohnke’s drums sound a little too synthetic; and the overall arc of the album is a bit too similar to that of Ghostlights. Apart from that, the only real mark against the album is that it is awfully front-loaded, with the first four tracks forming an outrageously great sequence. Starting on such an extended high note means that the middle of the album suffers primarily only by comparison. The piano balladry of “Invisible” (with lead vocals from Geoff Tate) is as understated has been in years (and forms a nice companion to Ghostlights’s “Isle of Evermore”), and while “Alchemy” has a nicely sassy (and heavy) main riff, other than its excellent chorus, the song is a bit of a low point which would have worked much better as a four-minute piece.

Blind Guardian’s Hansi Kursch sounds absolutely brilliant on Moonglow. Kursch lends a searing edge to “Book of Shallows,” which is only intensified by a throttling (and fantastically unexpected) guest turn from Kreator’s Mille Petrozza. The other real star of the guest vocalist roster is Jørn Lande, whose nearly pitch-perfect Dio-isms are a marvelous complement to Sammet’s staunchly intricate songwriting, which sometimes moves in a similar orbit to the more epic-minded moments of Dio’s solo catalog (e.g., “The Last in Line,” “All the Fools Sailed Away,” etc.). Candice Night provides a fine duet counterpart to Sammet on the twinkling, chiming title track.

But of course, leave it to a band like Avantasia to not only release an 11-minute track as the album’s lead single, but also for that song to be one of the album’s very finest. (Again, this hearkens to Ghostlights’s “Let the Storm Descend Upon You.”) The song’s delicate introduction sounds a somewhat Celtic note with the harp and patiently building strings, but the huge full band and orchestra cadence that pounds into life at 1:45 is such an absurdly satisfying, fist-pumping, truly life-giving theme that it makes it hard to imagine any open-hearted listener not simply melting when it hits. (When the upright chimes toll? And when Paeth’s whammied doubling kicks in? Magic.) Later in the song, Kursch gives a little bit of steel to lead into the chorus, but then, GODS ALIVE, the song’s chorus is like a beacon of all things right and good. I have no idea what they’re singing about (“A fire in the dark, for the fool’s gonna find his way / Gonna run and never get away”… what?), but at the same time it sounds like the truest thing that has ever been sung.

A song like this bespeaks a confidence so overweening that it almost by definition radiates the skill to back it up. Jørn’s gravel-flecked tenor completely owns the middle of the song between choruses one and two, and Paeth’s solo at the halfway mark (which trades off with a solo from Oliver Hartmann) is a beauty. In its last act, the song first breaks into a brass-augmented march and chant that splits wide open for a Sammet chorus before Jørn returns with all the fire and sheer joy a single voice can convey. The double-speed shuffletime at the end is a simply perfect kiss-off that seems to say, “See how high we can fly?”

Late in the album, “Lavender” is sweet, yearning, light on its feet, but open in vulnerability. The simple guitar lead traces the key far more tentatively than the primary bouncing meter, as if underscoring both the certainty and fragility of the key lyric: “Wish I didn’t fail to say those words / Before you’d have to leave.” Elsewhere, the spacy keyboard effects on “Piper at the Gates of Dawn” (neither a Van Morrison cover nor having anything to do with Pink Floyd) are exuberant and irrepressible. The heavenly, rollicking guitar lead that opens up the proper album closer “Requiem for a Dream” is one of the clearest callbacks to Avantasia’s earliest rumblings in the Metal Opera saga. The chorus singing is one of those moves that pops up frequently in Avantasia’s music: sure, we can dissect it musically, but at its core, a beaming, welcoming, guileless thing like this is not primarily designed to be music, but community. This is a song that posits an entire world gathered at the same song, voicing the same vast sadnesses and same regenerative joys. The ever golden-lunged Michael Kiske reprises that opening guitar lead while belting out the album’s apotheosis in truly climactic fashion:

“There’s someone by your side / Four steps behind.
Makes sure you keep the pace / and love the grind.”

Now, technically speaking, those words are almost meaningless. But in this context, with this passion, shaped by these hands, it becomes one of the most moving, inspirational, and unreservedly empowering musical moments I can recall in recent years.

Let’s look at it from another angle. I really love Bach, and over the years, I have come to recognize that the reason I love Bach is that his music just… makes sense to my ears. His compositions are intrinsically logical, even mathematical. Now, I’m sure a legion of ornery musicologists could tell me exactly why Bach feels that way, with the inexorable drive of point and counterpoint to both rhythmic and melodic resolution, but a part of me enjoys that mystery.

In particular, I like this ambiguity: does Bach’s music feel logical to my brain because so much of the music that has followed in the intervening centuries has built on the raw materials of Bach and his Baroque contemporaries? Or, does Bach’s music feel logical because Bach himself tapped into some latent area of biologically driven sensation and perception? That same ambiguity underlies the question of whether minor key tonality sounds “sad” because we’ve learned that it denotes sadness, or whether there is something innate about how our ears and brains process major and minor keys.

I don’t know the answers to those questions, but I do know that on some very interior, primitive level, Avantasia just… makes sense to me. That’s not intended to equate Avantasia’s music with Bach in any real musicological sense, but music’s impact ought to always be experiential, not theoretical. I could probably write you 1,000 words on why Michael Jackson’s “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’” moves me, but I’d rather sit you down in front of a good set of speakers and see if it moves you, too. I could tell you a story about why Mahalia Jackson singing “If I Can Help Somebody” consistently brings me to tears, but I’d rather hear your story.

It’s the same with Avantasia. I don’t know how else to say it: I love this album with my whole heart.

Posted by Dan Obstkrieg

Happily committed to the foolish pursuit of words about sounds. Not actually a dinosaur.

  1. I am getting a fair dose of symphonic metal epicness lately between this and the new Ancient Bards.

    And you’re right, Hansi Kursch sounds great on this. It’s a little weird at first to hear him in 2019 without the layering. Refreshing, even. Good stuff.

    Reply

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