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Avantasia - The Wicked Symphony and Angel of Babylon 
Posted on April 13, 2010 at 08:16 PM.
I know we have some metal fans here at OS and I know more than one is a fan of Tobias Sammet's work under the Avantasia moniker.

A quick refresher for those uninformed and curious; Tobi Sammet and others formed Edguy in the early to mid 90's. Based in Germany, Edguy is best described as a European Power Metal band but in later years has embraced more of a hard rock sound. Around 2000, looking to fill-out their album obligation to Century Media before bolting for the much bigger Nuclear Blast label, Edguy decided to re-record their first demo "The Savage Poetry." Since this required no new song writing, just recording, Tobi took it upon himself to work on his dream project, a metal opera he eventually titled Avantasia. Tobi rounded up some of the better known vocalists and musicians to put his dream into motion and created two albums appropriately titled The Metal Opera Part 1 and 2. The albums were quite successful relative to expectations and developed a cult following. Since the cast was a collection of musicians with obligations to other bands, the Avantasia group could never tour or play any shows due to logistics. Most assumed the Avantasia project was done and finished and life carried on. Then in 2007 during a break from Edguy touring, Tobi began writing again and working with noted producer Sascha Paeth on a new solo album. Eventually it was decided this new album would bare the Avantasia label. "The Scarecrow" was released in early 2008. The familiar speed and power metal from "The Metal Opera" was found in parts but a more progressive rock sound was adopted for other songs. The cast was still big including Avantasia vets Michael Kiske (Helloween, solo) and Bob Catley (Magnum) but also brought in some other names including Alice Cooper, Jorn Lande (Masterplan) and Roy Khan (Kamelot). This time select dates were played during the summer including headlining massive festivals and the new sound was largely embraced.

Fast forward to last summer, and Tobi reveals he's working on parts 2 and 3 of what he calls his "Wicked Trilogy" that began with "The Scarecrow" and here we have the two new albums released simultaneously; "The Wicked Symphony" and "Angel of Babylon."

Neither album has been released stateside (but will be in May) but both are available as imports. Both follow a very similar path as "The Scarecrow." Both are concept albums in that there is a story, but its fairly abstract and Tobi leaves a lot of room for interpretation. This is unlike "The Metal Opera" in which each performer was playing a character who was speaking in song and the story was even spelled out in the 2008 released "Gold Edition." This time each singer represents an emotion or influence. Michael Kiske is hope, Russell Allen (Symphony X) is inspiration. There are a couple more defined characters as well. Jorn Lande is a Mephistopheles type character and Jon Oliva (Savatage) is the ghost of the Toy Master from "The Scarecrow" (who was played by Alice Cooper there).

Nevertheless, if you don't wish to concern yourself with the over-arching narrative you don't have to as the songs stand on their own. They are largely a collection of bombastic synth metal and rock with a ballad or two sprinkled in. The musicianship and production is top notch as there are several guest musicians playing on the record including Eric Singer (Kiss), Felix Bohnke (Edguy), Miro Rodenberg (Kamelot), and Rudolf Schenker (Scorpions) among others.

"The Wicked Symphony" opens with the title track, a nine and half minute epic featuring a big cast of singers. Russell Allen is featured prominently on the chorus and really shines. He's one of the new additions this time around and a welcomed one. Tobi Sammet actually appears in a much smaller role this time around than on any other Avantasia epic. He still gets in a few lines on every song but one, but he isn't featured as prominently as he was on past albums. That's neither a good or bad thing, as I enjoy his vocals, though it is cool hearing other singers get more face time. One such is Tim "Ripper" Owens of Judas Priest and Iced Earth fame who basically gets his own song, the kick you in the balls "Scales of Justice." He damn near blows out his vocal chords on that one doing the Rob Halford impression that made him famous, a stand-out track if you like your metal with some punch. Klaus Meine from the Scorpions is the biggest name addition (I'm not a big Scorpions fan, but holy crap, that guy's voice has held up well over the years) as the Scorpions are still considered gods over in Germany. He is featured on just one song, the single "Dying for an Angel," (*video clip at the bottom of this blog entry) but makes a big impression on that one. If it were still 1988 that song would get heavy play even on American radio stations. It's a catchy song that will stay with you.

"Runaway Train" is the other big number on the album and appears to be an early fan pleaser. In typical euro power metal fashion, it starts slow and builds from there. I don't think the song quite reaches its potential and it feels a little longer than it needs to be, as if its forcing the epic label, though its still an enjoyable song. Other standouts include the Jorn Lande heavy "Forever is a Long Time" and the Allen/Sammet duet of "States of Matter."

"Angel of Babylon" picks up right where TWS left off with another 9 minute plus track, "Stargazers." Avantasia vet Michael Kiske gets a lot of exposure hear and still sounds great after all these years. Lots of time changes and a big cast on this one, though I think the chorus is a little weak for such a big song. It flows rather seamlessly into the speed metal title track where Tobi gets to really belt out a few lines before taking center stage on "Your Love is Evil." I'll admit, that one is kind of a love it or hate it track as it's basically a rock song with a heavy 80's twist but one I love. The most interesting track on both sets follows, "Death is Just a Feeling," which is sung by Jon Oliva who plays the previously mentioned ghost of the Toy Master. This one starts off like how you would expect a ghost song to sound, lots of strings and atmosphere. It would not at all be out of place on the soundtrack to a Tim Burton stop-motion film such as "The Corpse Bride" or "The Nightmare Before Christmas." It breaks out into a heavy rock song and Oliva's vocals just ooze personality. It's definitely different and the type of song that could only exist on a concept album but I'm thankful for it.

The song "Symphony of Life" has the distinction of being the only song that does not feature any lead vocals by Tobi and is also the only song not written by Tobi. It was written by Sascha Paeth, producer and guitar player for both albums. Lead vocals are sung by Cloudy Yang who previously had only done some back-up vocals. Its a mid-tempo rock song played with low power chords, lots of atmosphere, and a nice performance by Yang who plays a female counterpart to Tobi's main character. Apparently this song is a bit divisive amongst fans but I find it to be a nice change of pace. "Alone I Remember" is the most unapologetic rock song on either album and features some really unique vocals from Jorn Lande. The album closes with another epic, a very good one, in "Journey to Arcadia" that serves as an excellent closer to the trilogy. I should also mention the song "Promised Land" was previously released on the Lost in Space Part 2 EP back in late 2007. The song is the same here, except the verse and chorus sung by Kiske has been replaced with one by Lande (apparently Kiske's "character" didn't fit the story, which wasn't taken into account initially when the song was out of context on an EP).

Gun to my head, "The Wicked Symphony" is probably the better album. It's a bit more straight-forward and there isn't a true dud anywhere. "Angel of Babylon" takes more chances, and while I think each one works, its the more power metal songs that fall a little flat at times (most notably the one-note "Rat Race"). It's a tough call but really an unnecessary one, if you like Avantasia and this style of music you're going to get both. The same warning applies though, if you only enjoy the over-the-top speed metal of "The Metal Opera" and not the approach "The Scarecrow" took then you won't find much to enjoy here. I consider "The Scarecrow" to be Tobi's best work, maybe even overshadowing his work with Edguy, so I love both of the new albums. I'm not sure if either is better than "The Scarecrow" but it doesn't matter, they're both essential. I should mention you can get either album as a stand-alone piece or if you have extra cash laying around you can get the special edition release. The special edition isn't cheap, I haven't seen it for less than 50 bucks as its a German only release, but is a nice piece. It's a sturdy box set that includes three hard-cover digibooks, one each for TWS and AoB and a third that contains liner notes, photos, and an interview with Tobi where he goes into greater detail explaining the story and so forth. It also contains a code to download two live tracks, "Twisted Mind" and "Lost in Space" as well as the video and radio edit for "Dying for an Angel." Though beware, if you go through ebay there is a Mexican release floating out there that is about half the price but of a poorer quality (carboard box and digipacks instead of the hardcover design).

So there, if you were curious about either release trust knowing both are great. If you're wondering if they're worth importing I'd say yes (if you get just the individual albums its not that expensive, especially if you go through ebay retailers) but if you have the patience you can wait till May. Know that you're in for an epic two hour experience. Here's hoping the footage from Wacked Open Air gets released later in the year as a dvd/album.

The Wicked Symphony
*All songs written by Tobias Sammet
1. The Wicked Symphony
2. Wastelands
3. Scales of Justice
4. Dying for an Angel
5. Blizzard on a Broken Mirror
6. Runaway Train
7. Crestfallen
8. Forever is a Long Time
9. Black Wings
10. States of Matter
11. The Edge

Angel of Babylon
*All songs written by Tobias Sammet except #8 by Sasha Paeth
1. Stargazers
2. Angel of Babylon
3. Your Love is Evil
4. Death is Just a Feeling
5. Rat Race
6. Down in the Dark
7. Blowing Out the Flame
8. Symphony of Life
9. Alone I Remember
10. Promised Land
11. Journey to Arcadia

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