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With a fantasy-based cover sleeve and an album title that conjures up a sense of adventure, I fully expected this effort to be an impressively lush and progressive outing for the band, while hopefully retaining the powerful sound Magica harnessed so well for their prior release Dark Diary. The song titles and lyrics refer to such themes as the fiction works of William R. Bradshaw, especially "The Goddess of Atvatabar", which aided in my anticipation and presumptions of epic soundscapes housing intelligent themes. The packaging, concept and the band's recent history of quality material all led me to believe that Center Of The Great Unknown would wind up as one of my favorites of the year, and now when I look at that wondrous jacket sleeve I can only feel that the artwork would have been better represented elsewhere. As a straight up traditional "meat and potatoes" heavy metal album, it's not terrible music; it's just not what I wanted.
My initial listen to this record and the subsequent response reminded me of the time I witnessed a community theatre production of Hair, in which around 85% of the women in the cast were alarmingly overweight. During the big "everyone get naked" moment, I realized that the two slender and attractive chicks I was eyeing throughout the first act were at the far end of the stage opposite from where I sat. I stretched and strained to get a nice gander at them, clearly annoying the shit out of the lady sitting next to me, but I just could not settle for gazing at the parade of triceratops standing on their hind legs directly in front of my vision. I understand completely that that scene was not meant as something to ogle at, but as an expression of freedom, liberty and shit, but the intention isn't going to work if I can't see it without feeling nauseated. Magica had an aim and a vision that deserves a certain amount of respect for eschewing a more obvious pathway towards commercial viability, but in this case I was looking for some bombastic epics with wild arrangements. This album wasn't about that sort of style and I should just appreciate it as if I've never heard the band and what they were capable of before. But I can't, and not merely for thrown expectations, but the fact that Magica just did not deliver on the songwriting front this time. A couple of lookers, but mostly chunky unpleasantness.
Of course, like watching Hair, there's a whole lot of other crap to deal with besides the big money shot, and there's a whole lot of other issues to deal with regarding Magica's latest besides the stripped-down style. The difference in production between this album and Dark Diary is so pronounced that I have to believe that the band were specifically going for a basic organic hard rockin' approach. With a second guitarist on board and no keyboards or orchestral arrangements embellishing these tunes, it's an intriguing shift for the band, but their desire to leave behind the pomp and flowery aspects entirely, while noble enough, didn't exactly pan out too well mainly because most of these tracks lack in memorability and punch. The artists just didn't seem quite ready to travel into the great unknown, clinging to certain qualities of their earlier material that hinder their advancement concerning their new chosen field of metal music.
Probably the most glaring weakness involving this material would be the vocal delivery of Ana. On a technical level, she's fine, doing what she's been doing well enough since the band's inception. This time around, though, her voice just does not suit the material whatsoever. Concerning her previous showcase with her band, I remarked that there was somewhat too much treble to the mixing job concerning her pipes, but in retrospect it was actually necessary to amplify her voice and get it out there. For this album, her voice feels less treated and is mixed a bit lower, resulting in a woman who can sing, but can barely be heard. Despite her obvious skills, her quasi-operatic one-dimensional delivery of the lyrics is at odds with the music to the point where they cancel out each other's energy.
The music itself, though riff-centric and busy with some fine melodic leads, is dulled by a bland production that muffles the guitars to an extent that it almost sounds like a complete morass during what should be vibrant interplay, leaving these songs with little potency and forgettable choruses. Sadly enough, the only standout track is the bonus cut, which is merely a reworked version of a tune from their earlier symphonic power metal days.
I'm not sure what the band had in mind here, but channeling a warm yet dull and flavorless production into straightforward heavy metal that bounces between mid-paced and upbeat rhythms which rely on guitar heroics to flesh out their designs was not an appropriate move. Add to that discrepancy soft vocals that feel inappropriate to the muffled stomp of this album, and what we have here is an unprepared and unsuccessful excursion into the unknown that Magica hopefully learns from and hones their sound to a stronger level with a better template of song structures. They don't need to become progressive or bring back the keyboards; that was my own arbitrary initial complaint thanks to expectations from their prior work. What they do need though if they wish to keep on this path is a vocal presence that demands attention, a sharper overall tone and more enthusiasm in the songwriting department.
Romanian power metal act, Magica, return to the fold for their sixth album, entitled “Center of the Great Unknown”. This band has a history of being hit or miss, as they've had some exceptionally catchy and enjoyable songs since their formation in 2002, but they've had more than their share of flops by producing a lot of mediocre and bland power metal songs. “Center of the Great Unknown” continues this tradition of subpar, mediocrity combined with some of the catchiest sections I've ever beheld.
Magica sticks with their tried and true formula of quite poppy and melodic power metal with female vocals. The instrumentation is professional, the production is crystal clear and the mix is superb, so what's the issue? The issue is, although Magica play their instruments well, they cannot pull themselves away from mediocre song writing (not to mention the vocals, but we'll get there). Every track on “Center of the Great Unknown” has catchy moments and interesting lead guitar work, but there is something lacking, be it enthusiasm, drive, power or whatever you want to call it.
The standard verse and chorus guitar lines, while well executed, are rather bland and dry. The rhythm lines plod along with little enthusiasm: some palm muting, some open chords ringing, slight chugging; you know, standard power metal stuff. The solos are of the neoclassical variety. Some of the solos are well played, yet still mediocre, while other solos, notably the Malmsteen inspired shred fest at the end of “Mark of Cain”, are engaging and breathe some life into an otherwise stale performance. The lead extrapolations played over top of the rhythm work adds some variety and spice, but the truth is so many other bands play this style, and play it very well, that Magica gets lost in the crowded mass.
The drums and bass, like the guitar lines, are rather standard and only stand out for short bursts before fading back into bland mediocrity. The drums keep a steady rock beat for most of the album, with some fast rolls and fills mixed in. Occasional sections see the drummer picking up the pace with a speedy double kick or the standard double bass power metal runs (which occur rarely). The band actually sounds strongest when the drums pick up speed, so it's odd that they do it so infrequently. The bass lines follow the guitar lines like a good puppy dog, not really standing out while not staying buried in the mix.
Female fronted power metal bands are not in short supply, so for a band to stand out the vocals have to be outstanding, especially when the band plays rather uninspired and bland music. Ana Mlodinovici's vocals fit right in with the band: a good performance, but really nothing special. The vocals are a higher register, semi-operatic style, similar to the vocals of early Visions of Atlantis or even a higher pitched Tarja. The pitches and keys seem to be on, but the performance lacks energy and enthusiasm. It's almost like Ana is singing because the band needed vocals, not because she enjoys it. The vocals sound great when coupled with the male backing vocals, sounding similar to Lacuna Coil’s male vocals, but they don’t happen very often. There are parts where the vocal lines are extraordinary, and this is usually when there are multiple vocal layers going at once. The majority of the vocal lines are uninspired and just sort of there.
Maica does have selective spurts of genius like the exceptional syncopated guitar work that builds into an awesome neoclassical solo on “Open”. Unfortunately, these spurts are few and far between. Yes, the music is catchy at times, but it feels very unfulfilling as a whole. A few catchy moments can't save Maica from an otherwise bland and uninspired performance. If you're into female fronted power metal, you may want to check this out, but there’s not much for anyone else here.