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Some have defined insanity as being the act of performing the same behaviors over and over again while expecting different results every time. But when different results are actually realized, which perspective is truly insane? 2008's "Global Warning" was a decent album with some good tracks, but I kinda thought that it was slightly brought down by its more experimental nature. As a result, I was rather nervous to check this release out when I heard Jon Oliva himself mention in an interview that it would be even more of the same. Now imagine my surprise when "more of the same" turns out to be one of the best albums of the year!
As previously established, this is easily the most experimental JOP album to date and quite possibly in Oliva's entire career. I know the move to more symphonic material back in the day was pretty risky, but I don't think he's ever had another move this drastic! You've got many layers of different instruments at work, some odd tunings, and a sound that has little to no resemblance to that of the old Savatage style. In fact, the only place you can even hear it is on "Living On The Edge" and I'm pretty sure that's only due to it being another outtake from the 80s! Hell I think I hear more influence from the Beatles and Porcupine Tree than I do his old band, especially on songs such as "Looking For Nothing" and "Now." Personally, I think that was the best move that he could've possibly made and properly keeps the band from crossing over into completely sterile territory...
I think the album's songwriting is the biggest factor that keeps the progressive elements from getting too out of hand. While "Global Warning" had some several tracks that either felt like they had been thrown together or just weren't fully developed, this effort features a whole slew of songs that feel simultaneously unified and unique. You've got your faster tracks ("Lies," "Living On The Edge Of Time"), more mid-tempo songs ("Festival," "The Evil Within," "I Fear You"), theatrical numbers ("Death Rides A Black Horse," "Afterglow," "Winter Haven"), and the previously mentioned ballads ("Looking For Nothing," "Now").
While I enjoy the heavier tracks for your standard reasons and admire the ballads for being a little more subtle than usual, I think "Afterglow" is a track that truly steals the show. While it starts as a ballad with particularly dramatic verse/chorus contrasts, it eventually goes into mindfuck territory as a heavier segment comes in with a jazzy/ragtime solo section close behind. Definitely one of those things that sounds strange on a metal album but is heartily welcome regardless!
The band's chemistry also adds on to the album's enjoyment with the group sounding more like a unit than they had on previous installments. Strangely enough, Oliva himself seems to be the odd one out on his more aggressive moments but still manages to shine with his croons on the more melodic material. The riffs may also not be as defined as previous releases, but the melodies that the guitars and keyboards present do more than enough to compensate for this. The solo sections are also quite strong with the most memorable appearing on "The Evil Within," "I Fear You," and the previously mentioned "Afterglow."
The lyrics also appear to gone through some improvement over the last few years. While they don't stand out as much as the two albums before this, I'm just glad that they aren't as repetitive as they were on the last release. Of course, the music itself might just be doing a good job of distracting me from looking further into the matter...
Like "Ironbound" before it, this is another of those albums that properly blew me away and exceeded my expectations more so than I could ever imagine. Hell, I think this stands just below "The Dungeons Are Calling" and "Hall Of The Mountain King" as one of the best albums that Oliva has ever been attached to. And seeing as how this has already blown away most of the albums that I've heard in the last decade, it'll take an act of the gods (Metal or otherwise) to make an album to top this one in 2010!
My Current Favorites:
"Lies," "Death Rides A Black Horse," "Afterglow," "Living On The Edge," and "Winter Haven"