Review by Tom Mead
What started as a bit of fun for Tobias Sammet and friends with the Metal Opera albums 15 years ago has arguably now become more popular than his “day job” with German Power Metallers Edguy. Avantasia has become a project that doesn’t just appeal to Lord of the Rings-obsessed Power Metal fans; the blend of Hard Rock, symphonic elements and musical theatre has reached a large, worldwide audience. Ghostlights, their seventh album, is one of Avantasia’s strongest, with a diverse range of well-executed songs that should see their audience expand even further.
Things kick off in typically bombastic fashion with lead single Mystery of a Blood Red Rose. This is an upbeat piano-led rocker that Meat Loaf mastermind Jim Steinman would be proud of. At the time of writing, this song is in contention to represent Germany at Eurovision, and it neatly captures the fun and spirit of such an occasion, with little of the cheese.
Ghostlights is a sequel to previous album The Mystery of Time, continuing the story of Victorian scientist Aaron Blackwell, played by Sammet, but it is far superior to its predecessor. The Mystery of Time, while full of good songs, lacked bite, with many fans dismayed at the absence of regular guest vocalist Jorn Lande, of Masterplan fame. Never fear though, the iron-lunged Norwegian is back and he immediately makes his presence felt on second track Let the Storm Descend Upon You. 12 minutes long, this naturally serves as a centrepiece of the album and manages to maintain momentum throughout, with an effective vocal battle between Sammet, Lande, Pretty Maids’ Ronnie Atkins and newcomer Robert Mason of Warrant.
The album as a whole has a much darker atmosphere than previous Avantasia albums. The Haunting is a gothic lullaby, not too dissimilar from previous songs The Toy Master and Death Is Just a Feeling, where Twisted Sister’s Dee Snider plays the creepy clown persona to perfection. We also have something a little different with Draconian Love, a driving track with a distinct Type O Negative feel; Sinbreed’s Herbie Langhans does his best Andrew Eldritch impression and the light/shade contrast between his and Sammet’s vocals works brilliantly. The heaviest, darkest song on the album though is Seduction of Decay, featuring former Queensrÿche singer Geoff Tate. While it has a great, mystical feel to it, it is admittedly a slight misfire; it’s overly long, and the fact of the matter is that Tate has not sounded his best for 25 years, so this could have been much better.
There are no worries about being past one’s prime with Michael Kiske though. The ex-Helloween singer and frequent Avantasia contributor’s balls-in-a-vice-grip falsetto is as glorious as it ever was on the album’s title track, which is one of the few overtly power metal songs here. There’s more traditional fare elsewhere too. Master of the Pendulum has a savage, Thrashy edge to it and suits Marco Hietala’s voice nicely as it has a similar tone to many recent Nightwish songs. Babylon Vampires is the most Edguy-like track here. Sammet is understandably in his element on this stomping glam number, with Robert Mason adding a healthy dose of L.A. sleaze and there’s excellent triple-guitar work from ex-KISS axeman Bruce Kulick and regular Avantasia guitarists Oliver Hartmann and Sascha Paeth. It’s not all perfect though, with Unchain the Light being slightly flat. It’s perfectly performed, with Sammet, Atkins and Kiske all on fine form, but it’s the only occasion where the power metal clichés are a bit too prominent for comfort.
Ultimately, the lighter moments on Ghostlights are the real highlights, as this is where Tobias Sammet’s talents as a composer and arranger are most clearly evident. Power/Symphonic Metal ballads have a tendency to be unbearably cheesy and boring, but Avantasia’s have long been the envy of other bands. Isle of Evermore sees a welcome return for Within Temptation’s Sharon Den Adel, making her first Avantasia appearance since the Metal Opera albums. This ethereal ballad has gothic and post-punk elements reminiscent of Kate Bush at her best, so suits Den Adel perfectly. Lucifer is primarily just Jorn Lande accompanied by nothing but a piano and some strings, but he could sing the dictionary and it’d be more captivating than the output of 90% of European Power Metal bands, such is the power of his leonine roar. The song bursts into life halfway through with a blistering solo from Bruce Kulick leading to a triumphant crescendo. And last but not least we have closing track A Restless Heart and Obsidian Skies. It wouldn’t be an Avantasia album without an appearance from Magnum frontman Bob Catley, and he brings a touch of class to proceedings to end the album on an emotional, celebratory note.
Ghostlights is an album that will satisfy all fans of melodic, symphonic or progressive hard rock. Tobias Sammet has made one of the best albums of his career, and this is probably the strongest set of musicians to play together under the Avantasia banner. For all its excesses, this is actually fairly unpretentious music; this album is, more than anything else, a consummate demonstration of what can be achieved when you have good, honest songs and talented musicians who thoroughly enjoy performing them.