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Let it sink in. - 88%

PriestofSadWings, June 22nd, 2008

Ghost Opera is not an album that grabs you immediately. Save for a few songs, the symphonic goth turn Kamelot takes here makes the album less accessible than before. The elements that made the band successful – Roy Khan’s brilliant voice, a talented rhythm section willing to keep itself in check for the greater good of the song, and the soaring, emotional, sing-along choruses – these elements are still there. Nothing in the album is really missing, and yet it comes off a little lackluster at first listen.

One of the album’s Achilles’ heels is that Youngblood’s guitar is either downtuned or seven-stringed. I couldn’t tell you which one – I’m a bassist, not a guitarist – but the fact remains that his guitar is much more of a percussion instrument than a melody instrument on this album. There are some exceptions, most notably on “Rule the World” and “Silence of the Darkness”. The point remains that much of the melody that was delivered through the guitar on albums like The Fourth Legacy or Karma is taken care of by keyboard player Oliver Palotai, whilst Youngblood is content to chug away in the background, drowning out Glenn Barry’s bass and adding a pinch harmonic here and there. There is a reason that the distorted electric guitar is the instrument metal is built around. It sounds like nothing else, and it energizes the listener like nothing else. An amazing keyboard player, such as Keith Emerson, could conceivably take the place of a guitarist in a rock band, but Palotai is not quite at Emerson’s level and Kamelot is a metal band.

Fortunately, Youngblood’s solos haven’t changed much. They’re still very much a unique blend of soulful playing in the style of Brian May and neo-classical shredding. He knows where to play fast and where to make his guitar sing, and he makes it sound seamless. The solos aren’t a dominant element of the album, but when they come around, they’re fairly good.

Speaking of Palotai, he does an excellent job. His keyboards are everywhere, and they give Kamelot a sweeping symphonic element like they never had before… okay, I lied. Kamelot was certainly symphonic before, but they were never this symphonic. This might sound like a compliment, but it’s actually a problem. Palotai is an excellent musician rooted in classical music and jazz, and it bugs me that his keyboard parts, which don’t really reflect his talent, are so much a feature of the album. If Kamelot wanted to have the usual string section playing one note in the background of a song that every symphonic metal band of every kind and their mother uses (and trust me, Mustis’ mom is ugly), they could have stuck with session man Miro. Instead, they brought in Palotai, who is a wonderfully talented, classically trained, professional keyboardist, made him a full band member, and had him play the usual string section groundswells. That isn’t to say he didn’t improve said material, but his keyboard feels like a background instrument.

Normally, you can fit power metal singers into neat compartments. This one sounds like Halford, this one sounds like Kiske, that one sounds like Dio. You can’t categorize Roy Khan. Roy S. Khan is Kamelot’s classically trained Norwegian singer and biggest strength. Being a singer myself (a bad one, but still), I can tell you that Roy Khan doesn’t possess the most amazing range. He doesn’t unleash any Halford-like bloodcurdling screams. He just sings, and he sings with the most soul I’ve ever heard from a metal singer. Hallelujah, praise Dio, a metal singer with soul and a unique voice! On some of the lines he sings, you can imagine him extending his arms, Christ-like, closing his eyes, and shouting the lyrics at the sky. And in the sonic space that he used to share with Youngblood’s now downtuned guitar, he flourishes. His dramatic style of singing is definitely one of the album’s selling points.

You could say the lyrics are a step down from The Black Halo, but that wouldn’t really reflect how good they are, because TBH’s lyrics were incredible. Rather, I should say that some of the lyrics aren’t up to Kamelot’s standards. The lyrics that annoy me most are the ever-so-clichéd lyrics to “Love You to Death”. Seriously, whose idea was, “Hey guys, let’s write a song about a guy who falls in love with a girl who’s dying of an incurable terminal illness”? “Yeah, let’s make it really goth-y, too!” “EdenEcho” is the better of the album’s two love songs. It seems, as a blues singer might say, that Khan’s woman done left him, and his simple plea, “Won’t you light up my life?” resonates with the listener in a way that the “Love You to Death” doesn’t. The rest of the lyrics are good, even the gospel drama of “Up Through the Ashes”, in which Khan plays Pontius Pilate asking Jesus to forgive him. Now that sounds like a Christian lyric, and it is, but it’s not preachy at all. It’s certainly not “Soldiers Under Command” by Stryper. It’s a personal plea for salvation, and nothing more.

If the album’s weaknesses is the individual performance of Youngblood (save for his solos), its strength is its choruses. Kamelot have been brilliant at writing choruses ever since The Fourth Legacy, and Ghost Opera is no exception. “Mourning Star”, which is a weak song in general, doesn’t really have a great chorus, but it’s only one out of ten, and the other nine are all wonderful, hypnotic, soaring pieces of melody, full of Khan’s best vocal work.

Every Kamelot album has a ballad or two, and Ghost Opera’s lullaby is “Anthem”, a track that cuts the drummer, bassist, and guitarist out of the equation. What I mean is that “Anthem” is a piano ballad, with a string section no less, that somehow manages to avoid being schmaltzy. First of all, kudos go to Kamelot for having the courage to silence the rhythm section. Let’s face it, unless you’re a progressive band, nothing exciting ever happens on the bass or drums during a ballad anyway. Instead of a trashy Elton John-sounding tune (November Rain, anyone?) or a power ballad, we get a soothing serenade that embraces the Jewish toast “L’chaim” – to life –, a song that you could play to a baby to quiet it down when it wakes you up at 2:30 AM and won’t stop crying. It’s a really beautiful, touching song that I would recommend to anyone, even someone who doesn’t like metal.

Whether Kamelot’s music is going downhill or not remains to be seen. Ghost Opera might look like a slight stumble, but that’s only because Kamelot’s last four albums were genre-transcending masterpieces. All in all, it’s worth getting, but only if you get those shining examples of “power metal done right” first.