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Winter fables and chilly power metal. - 80%

Empyreal, December 4th, 2015

It's hard to remember a time when Tobias Sammet's music wasn't a part of my usual musical regimen, and Avantasia's comeback in 2008 has consistently provided us with larger than life, bombastic fun. The Scarecrow trilogy was just huge - they were albums that worked through how big they sounded and how they leapt from your speakers and grabbed you by the throat. Even though in retrospect some of it is very formulaic, the stylistic variation is fun and every style they try is done well. The conviction, style and flare on display was just unparalleled, and every other band that tried this kind of AOR power metal usually just fell flat. I have to say The Mystery of Time isn't quite as good as the three preceding Avantasia albums, but there's plenty to like here, too.

First, the good - this is a more cleverly written album than some of the previous ones, with the vocal parts from the various singers interwoven in the most professional way. Biff Byford, Ronnie Atkins and Michael Kiske all sound really good, and there's a bit more variation than Avantasia's usual technique of just trading off vocals for different verses. You can tell he was trying to do something different. The songwriting here is a bit less grandiose, instead focusing on texture and detail. The extended mellow bridge of album epic "Savior in the Clockwork" is very effective and creates a contrast with the heavier, more bombastic moments, and the towering, marching pace of "Black Orchid" isn't nearly as accessible as Tobi's stuff usually is, droning on for seven minutes of rather opaque, dramatic metal.

And the orchestral parts sound amazing and create a lot of good, frosty atmospheric moments, especially when blended with the power metal double-kicked moments. Check out "Where Clock Hands Freeze" - shit, that sounds good, transporting the listener right to the snow-covered ancient English cities Tobi wanted it to. "Spectres," as well, is a kick ass opener, blistering symphonic metal with a cool theatrical build up and the album's greatest chorus. It's very, very well produced, and the sense of professionalism is undeniable. The album flows very well too, never feeling like it's over an hour long. Even pop single "Sleepwalking" is really good, a genuinely beautiful little song that serves as a segue between the power metal all around it.

But really, a lot of this album is just kind of phoned in. The songwriting on the really good songs is great, but some of the other tracks just go through the motions. The album falters right out of the gates with "The Watchmaker's Dream" as track two - a very pedestrian hard rock/power metal track with a boring chorus, just the song title repeated a few times. "Invoke the Machine" kicks up some dust and has a lot of energy, but it still tends to feel like we've heard it before. If not for the stunning vocals of Eric Martin on "What's Left of Me," it would probably be the most generic Sammet ballad yet, and "Dwellers in a Dream" isn't Tobi at his A-game. The final epic "The Great Mystery" has a lot of good parts, but overall I guess I'm not much a fan of Tobi's more pensive epics, as many of them just never get going the way I'd like.

If it sounds like I'm being too unfair to this given the score I awarded it, well, none of the songs are bad per se - it's just that the really good songs are SO good that you want the rest of the album to stack up. But a lot of the time, the more generic songs here just listen like placeholders before you get to the real meat, like "Black Orchid" or "Savior in the Clockwork," which are up there with Avantasia's best work. It is an uneven album overall, with a lot that tends to feel like filler. At Tobi's best, he can make entire albums feel vibrant and energized, but here it's kind of half and half. But I still listen to this fairly often when in the mood, so I can't exactly say it's a failure or anything. I just hope the next album is better.