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A new beginning indeed. - 80%

hells_unicorn, January 5th, 2015
Written based on this version: 2013, 12" vinyl, AFM Records

Masterplan, from its very origin, has been a band defined by instability and flux. This wasn't so much a reflection of their music, but more the circumstances surrounding it, from co-founding members' Uli Kusch and Roland Grapow's sudden ejection from Helloween after about 8 years of relative line up stability, to the continual entry and exodus of membership following their sophomore effort Aeronautics. One might even go so far as to label this band as an extension of Roland's solo career, though keyboardist Axel Mackenrott came into the fold fairly early in the game and has stuck it out 11 years. But whatever the state of affairs behind the scenes, 2013 brought in the fifth album of this ongoing break away from the Helloween family in Novum Initium (Latin for "New Beginning", employing the services of ex-Stratovarius bassist Jari Kainulainen, current Cradle Of Filth drummer Martin Skaroupka, and At Vance/Herman Franck vocalist Rick Altzi, an equally formidable fold in terms of name recognition to the ones they replaced.

Pretty much the greatest strength and fatal flaw of this album (depending on one's expectations) is that this is the ultimate Masterplan album. What is meant by that is that Novum Initium is a pure representation of what this band is about, distilled to the point of all but eliminating a the peripheral moving parts that gave the first two albums their uniquely progressive niche and also toning down a lot of the rocking elements paved the way for the more AOR oriented character of power metal that came into prominence in the mid 2000s, getting the jump on Edguy and several others by a year or two in the process. Likewise, the addition of gravely, power house singer Rick Altzi into the fold has accomplished on here what some might have previously considered impossible, namely making a more metallic album somehow sound even more like Whitesnake than was the case with Jorn Lande at the helm. One wouldn't be wrong in labeling this as a pure power metal album that manages to remain heavy and mid-tempo despite the usual associations of constant speed and campy melodic sweetness normally associated with the label, or in other words, one might call this the sophomore album that Ride The Sky never released.

Despite the heavily streamlined formula at play here, the songwriting has regained some of the luster that started to fade following the release of what some have come to view as Masterplan's seminal album MK II, and the massive production sound actually serves to augment the metallic edge at work rather than hinder it. Heavy hitters such as "Betrayal" and "No Escape" pummel with a set of groovy yet intricate down-tuned riffs as Altzi wails away with a measured display of grit and attitude, whereas things manage to wow in the speed and technique department on "The Game" and "Black Night Of Magic", reminding a bit of Stratovarius between the melodic hooks and prominent keyboards, though more along the lines of the heavier, crunchier character of the post-Timo Tolkki era. "Return From Avalon" manages to break some new territory for the band and introduces a shuffling gallop feel into the mix that rings a bit more closely to a triumphant victory theme than the various deep or mundane versions of human relations that tend to dominate their sound. Pretty much the closest things to balladry that come into play here are found in the 80s revival grooving romp "Through Your Eyes" and the more hard rocking and punchy yet keyboard oriented affair "Earth Is Going Down", though they spend little time in quiet territory.

It's perhaps understandable that this album received a lot of mediocre responses from critics given that in spite of being a lot of fun and loaded with riveting shred solos and lofty keyboard parts, from a big picture view, it's a very safe album stylistically. This is an album that begins thing anew largely by retracing the steps of this band back to their very inception in the early 2000s and places a greater emphasis on the more stylistically uniform aspects of their early works. It isn't hard to hear parallels between such memorable debut album anthems such as "Spirit Never Die", "Kind Hearted Light" and "Soulburn", but many of the left-turns into old school acoustic rock territory on "Into The Light" and "When Love Comes Close" are decidedly absent, along with some of the more intricate and nimble quirks heard on "Crystal Night" and "Crawling From Hell". The strength of this album lay not so much with breaking actual new ground, but more so in masterful execution within grounds already explored, and from my end of things that leaves very little to complain about.