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Like sailing on a small lake - 55%

Liquid_Braino, November 26th, 2012

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.