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There is a dark place buried deep within the imagination of every die hard metal fan, a series of structures steeped in mist and an ominous purple glow. Castles, temples, and shrines to undead spirits and witches fill this realm. It is in this place where we encounter a rather astounding and mystical genius in that of Axel Rudi Pell, the keeper of the magical tavern where many a brilliant homage to traditional metal outfits such as Rainbow, Sabbath, and Dio are paid.
ARP has never failed to amaze me with their ability to combine the various elements that made these forefathers of the metal genre who they were in new and inviting ways. The guitar riffs are heavy, the solos are both melodically expressive and technically astounding, the keyboard ambiences are dense, the bass brings all the needed constancy to the instrumentation, and the drums are blazing with power. There are no slouches in this outfit, everybody puts forth a tireless effort to aid Axel in building the 10 castles of sound that make up the dark city of Mystica.
Johnny Gioeli’s vocals deserve special mention because they have become synonymous with the ARP sound. His voice has an rough and sleazy tinge to it, but also has a somber quality to it, particularly during the ballads. He soars into the higher male range with relative ease, but for a tenor, he has a very powerful lower range as well. Although he is going on overdrive pretty much throughout this entire album, he really blew me away with his vocal work on the longer tracks on here, particularly “Valley of Sin”, the title track, and “Curse of the Damned”.
We kick this album off with the obligatory instrumental prelude “The Mysterious Return”, which has a similar slide guitar line to the one found on the first track of the “Shadow Zone” release, but has much more dense keyboard sounds in the background. We are then introduced to a classic up-tempo rocker ARP style in “Fly to the Moon”, spearheaded by one of the heaviest main riffs Axel’s ever put out. The drum work on here is powerful, as Mike Terrana’s snare sound has not lost it’s punch after more than a decade behind the kit either with Yngwie or ARP.
“Rock the Nation” is a straight-forward rocker that actually reminds me quite a bit of “Cold Heaven” on the last album and maybe a tiny bit of “Carousel” off of Oceans of Time. “Valley of Sin” is sort of a hybrid of a ARP ballad and a more mid-tempo rocker, very powerful chorus on this one. “Living a Lie” is another heavy ended rocker with some amazing lead work. “No Chance to Live” is another ballad from the vault of sad and lonely songs, complete with dreary keyboards, quiet and melodic leads, and some somber yet nostalgic lyrics.
From here on in the album gets so amazingly brilliant that each track requires special mention. “Haunted Castle Serenade” is an amazing guitar driven instrumental that rivals the “Moonlight Serenade” off of Oceans of Time”. “Losing the Game” is the strongest up-tempo rocker on here, with more great heavy riffs and a passionate vocal delivery. The title track is a track that pretty much stands on it’s own amongst the others, loaded with mystical lyrics, hard edged guitar riffs, and a driving line that reminds of older ARP classic title tracks such as “Magic” and “The Masquerade Ball”. The chorus on this one is unforgettable, I can’t stop humming the tune, and often find myself picking up my guitar and performing my own rendition of it. This song actually reminds me a lot of my favorite anthem off of the Oceans of Time album “Gates of the Seven Seals”, and gives it a run for it’s money in terms of musicality.
However, despite all of the amazing tracks on here, we have yet to hear the highlight of the entire album. When I arrived at the last track on this album, I was introduced to a gloomy, yet charming piano line wandering alone amongst a sea of synthesized string sounds. I was expecting to get a full fledged ballad similar to “Eyes of the Lost” off the Magic album. But I was given a jolt when I beheld a high speed section that featured one of Mike Terrana’s double bass drum lines, accompanying an epic solo battle between Axel’s flashy leads and Ferdy Doernberg’s equally riveting Jon Lord style organ solos. There was only one song on Oceans of Time that I thought was more musically intricate than “Gates of the Seven Seals”, and that was the long-winded power ballad “Ashes of the Oath”, which had a similarly riveting solo battle between Axel and Ferdy.
In conclusion, ARP really outdid themselves on this one, bringing a new energy to the metal scene with their uncompromising loyalty to the sound of the traditional metal wing. This album has crossover appeal to all fans of melodic heavy metal, young and old. Although both Rhapsody and Blind Guardian had amazing releases this year, this album has my vote for best release of 2006. It’s fresh, it’s consistent, and it’s waiting for you at the local CD store.