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Let’s just get one thing out of the way right now. “Sleepwalking” is an embarrassment. It’s just awful. It’s another abject ‘soft verse/booming chorus’ pop ballad that stands out a mile from the rest of the CD around it. It’s no more or less than an empty, lifeless, cynical attempt to sell Avantasia to a wider market than their usual demographic; I know it, you know it and, moreover, Toby knows it.
With that hideousness out of the way, Avantasia’s 6th full-length CD is another patchy affair that wobbles between the sublime and the not-so-sublime with regularity. Very much in the mould of the 3 previous Sascha Paeth-produced CDs, it doesn’t offer too many surprises but, the aforementioned defilement aside, is a bit more consistent and restrained than the sprawling ‘The wicked symphony’/’Angel of Babylon’ double offering.
Thankfully the Jim Steinman-inspired pomp rock that swamped much of ‘Angel of Babylon’ has been reigned in a bit, and at least 4 of the 9 credible songs on here should have those pining for a the power metal Avantasia of old feeling all nostalgic. The rest of the songs tend more towards a more bombastic symphonic approach that in some cases succeeds and in others is found somewhat lacking.
As this would suggest, ‘The mystery of time’ proves to be very much a CD of contrasts – for all the more reduced roster of guest musicians, it also features a full orchestra on some songs, and while the power metal quotient is probably slightly higher than it has been in a while, 3 of the 6 male guest vocalist fall into the “brash and ballsy” category.
Michael Kiske and Bob Catley of course make their customary appearances, but Joe Lynn Turner is the most prominent guest presence on the CD, with Saxon’s Biff Byford also cropping up from time to time and Ronnie Atkins of Pretty Maids making an excellent single contribution on the rollicking “Invoke the machine”. This is one of the more power metal-oriented songs, and while it is maybe a little cluttered, it’s also plenty energetic and features some cracking lead guitar from Oliver Hartmann.
“Where clock hands freeze” is another of the pounding double-bass numbers and features Kiske’s most prominent performance, with Sammet even managing to coax a bit of the old high-register stuff out of him, which is simply a joy to behold. For all the frustrations Sammet has inflicted over the last few Edguy and Avantasia CDs, I suppose he will always be due a debt of gratitude for gradually easing Kiske back where he belongs.
Getting back to those bass pedals, possibly the most pleasantly surprising announcement in the run-up to ‘The mystery of time’ being released was the news that Uriah Heep’s Russell Gilbrook had been snagged as the drummer. He’s a stunningly energetic performer who has helped breathe new life into his parent band, and while Sammet and Paeth maybe don’t quite get the best out of him, he still puts in a sprightly and varied set of performance on the faster stuff.
It can be no coincidence that the 2nd track, and the first to feature Gilbrook prominently is “The watchmaker’s dream” which is shrouded in some delightfully old-fashioned organ noodling from Miro Rodenberg which is reminiscent of the Heep at their most exhuberant.
The longer, orchestral songs don’t quite have the same impactas the nippier tracks, and are often left feeling quite bitty. By their very nature less comact, they each feature some inspired sections typically being undercut by more tiresome fits of chugging guitars, most notably on the lacklustre opener “Spectres” and the over-long “Black orchid”.
Sandwiched in amongst this battle for dominance between the 2 main styles is the tender, and yes, rather cheesy ballad “What’s left of me”. A little predictable to be sure, it nonetheless is a stand-out on the CD, thanks in no small part to the soulful vocals of Eric Martin in his single appearance. While some of the longer songs tend to flounder around a few different approaches without really making a connection, this song manages to hit an emotional bullseye despite – or perhaps, because of – its more restrained arrangement.
The difference between the emotions that followed the announcement of ‘The scarecrow’ being released with that of ‘The mystery of time’ couldn’t really be more marked, with the former triggering a wave of elation and the latter a quick “oh that’s cool, I guess”. It’s pretty safe to say that the mystique of the project has been diminished somewhat with each passing release, and while the shivering feeling of revulsion that followed that first listen to “Lost in space” back in 2007 has never really gone away, if you’re prepared to swallow the tasteless business-minded single and focus on the rest of the CD, ‘The mystery of time’ will prove to be generally quite satisfying.
(Originally written for http://www.metalcdratings.com/)