Sunday, April 19, 2020

Concept Corner: Avantasia The Metal Opera

I've been playing coy long enough. I covered Operation: mindcrime and called it one of the greatest metal concept albums ever. I even covered one of Ayreon's albums, with just a mention of its long supposed rival metal project. That's right, today we cover the other biggest power metal collaboration project, Avantasia.

Concept Corner: Avantasia - The Metal Opera

Avantasia is a project created by Tobias Sammet, the lead singer and songwriter of Edguy, a German power metal band. Avantasia released its first album, The Metal Opera in 2001. This and the next album, The Metal Opera Part II share an explicit story, while subsequent releases either had a much more subtle story or none at all. Like Ayreon, this project collects singers and musicians from across the metal genre, though Avantasia has a few distinctions from Ayreon in that department. Lucassen's project, at least in the beginning, tended to feature less well-known musicians, which is commendable for finding more obscure talent. Avantasia took a different route, finding the all-stars of the metal community right out of the gate, even bringing Michael Kiske, legendary singer for the band Helloween, back into his first metal project since leaving Helloween. For a Helloween fan, this was the Holy Grail.

The story is communicated almost entirely through liner notes in the lyric book, and let me tell you, it's a doozy! There are a couple instrumentals with light speaking parts and there's plenty to gather from the music, but I wasn't aware of the whole story until I recently knuckled down and read all of it. You'll understand why in a bit.

The Story

Our story begins in the year 1602, in the city of Mainz, Germany. We join Gabriel Laymann, a Dominican monk deeply involved in the witch trials of that era. After sentencing one women, Else Vogler, to the flames, he is allowed for the first time to visit the witch tower where the monks imprison suspected witches awaiting trial. He's met with surprise when the first prisoner turns out to be his step-sister, Anna Held. [1. Prelude] He hasn't seen her since he was nine, but he's convinced she must not be a witch. Gabriel seeks consul from his mentor, Friar Jakob. Gabriel meets Jakob in the library, and when he makes his presence known, Gabriel sees Jakob hastily hide the book he had been reading. Offering little more than platitudes, Jakob does little to ease Gabriel's anxiety. Out of curiousity and desperation, Gabriel surreptitously visits the library that night to take a peek at the book. He finds little he can understand, save for a vague inscription about seven seals and a letter folded in the pages from someone named Lugaid Vandroiy to Else Vogler, bidding that she return the book on his imminent visit. Gabriel leaves the library with little to show for it.

The next day when he meets Jakob, now more willing to help Gabriel's cause, the monk sees black stains on Gabriel's hands, left from the heretic book. So Gabriel's locked up in jail, with a weird old guy. After hearing Gabriel's story, the old man reveals himself as Vandroiy, previous owner of the book, and one of the last Druids left in the world. [2. Reach Out For the Light] Learning more than his sheltered upbringing allowed, Gabriel begins to question his previous doctrine, and the recent death sentence he passed, while Jakob regrets betraying his student. [3. Serpents In Paradise] That night, Gabriel recounts the trial of Else Vogler, just beginning to see the barbarism he's committed. [4. Malleus Maleficarum]

Three days after Gabriel's imprisonment began, Vandroiy convinces him to bust outta the joint, since once free, they could work to save Anna. Gabriel wonders what will become of his life if he betrays everything he once held dear. [5. Breaking Away] Once free from prison, Vandroiy urges Gabriel to flee the city, to prevent their recapture. Gabriel rues the decision to leave Anna behind, and vows one day to return. [6. Farewell]

Meanwhile, we join Friar Jakob, taking a nice trip to Rome with his friends Falk von Kronberg, baliff of Mainz, who prosecuted Else Vogler, and the bishop Johann Adam von Bicken. They're going to deliver the evil book to the Pope Clemens VIII, or excuse me, IIIV, himself. As they enter Rome, they're enchanted by the majesty of the holy city. [7. Glory of Rome] Clemens takes them on a little trip through the Roman catacombs, speaking about a world of ultimate wisdom which requires the seven seals, the final of which is contained within the book. Deep underneath the city of Rome, the pope leads them to a door emblazoned with a seal identical to the one on Else Vogler's book. Pressing the book up against the seal opens the door into another realm. [8. In Nomine Patris]

As we reconvene with Gabriel, he wakes up to find the shit kicked out of him, and remembers what got him into this state. Right after leaving Mainz, Vandroiy and Gabriel were set upon by brigands, preventing them from following von Bicken's train to Rome. Vandroy had also helpfully explained about the seven seals, that they were used to gain passage to the spiritual world known as Avantasia. Once Vandroiy returns with some healing herbs, he lays out his new plan now that the book is out of their reach: at a nearby glade, Vandroiy can send Gabriel's spirit to Avantasia though his body will remain in the regular world. Gabriel goes along with it because he figures it'll probably connect to Anna at some point. [9. Avantasia]

Gabriel awakens in a strange place, wide open vistas of resplendent nature open up before him, and what's more, his spirit now resides in a different body. [10. A New Dimension] A dwarf, named Regrin, and an elf, named Elderane, introduce themselves and try to explain to Gabriel how Avantasia works. He's more just miffed that he's not freeing Anna at the moment. [11. Inside]

After taking Gabriel to the elf city Sesidhbana, Elderane gives him a mission: to stop the pope's group from taking the seven seals to the dark tower at the center of Avantasia. For some reason the inhabitants of Avantasia are forbidden from interfering with humans, so Gabriel is the only man for the job. If the procession is victorious in delivering the seals, it will mean the end of Avantasia, which will destroy... philosophy... I guess. Point is, it's bad news. So Gabriel is flown over to the travelers' path to act as their guide and steal away the seal before it's too late. [12. Sign of the Cross]

Gabriel successfully fools the group of clerics thanks to his altered appearance, and they all make their way to the tower. Both Gabriel and Vandroiy start to wonder what exactly is going on, such as what bringing the seven seals to the tower will do, or why Elderane won't explain anything to them. Vandroiy, at least, is actually invested in this whole Avantasia thing, while Gabriel is hoping it gets wrapped up so he can actually save his still-imprisoned stepsister. After trudging between two armies(?) the group arrives at the tower, where an ominous voice demands the seven seals. Before giving up the seals, the pope starts to have doubts of his own, giving Gabriel a chance to nick one of them and get out of there. Also the voice is probably the devil. [13. The Tower] Part one of our story ends with that cliffhanger.


Okay, so there's something you should know right out of the gate: I've tried to read the whole story through the liner notes before, but never have I completed it before writing this review. That's not to say the story as a whole is bad, it's got some interesting themes, the blinding effect of dogma, the way faith can lead one astray if not carefully considered, and all that jazz. The problem is that it's obviously written by somebody who learned English as a second language and never bothered to get an editor. Take a look at this one tiny passage:

A secret mission, as Clemens tells both not to talk to anyone about it, since it's a very special privilege for the guys from Mainz to join him. God usually doesn't want people to see, what they will probably see tonight and he doesn't want people to know about everything, wisdom should not illuminate the wrong ones' minds because on earth there are too many people who don't have the strength to face the whole truth.

That's the typical formatting of the entirety of the liner notes. There's a long section near the end that tries to explain how Avantasia was made and who exactly is in the tower but no matter how many times I reread it I can't make heads or tails of it. The parts in Mainz are pretty straightforward, however once Tobi gets into the metaphysics of the realm of imagination he's lost me.

As a simple fantasy story it's not all bad, just a bit opaque at times. It's got an elf and a dwarf, though whether or not they reside solely within human consciousness is something we'll have to come to terms with never knowing. It's pretty obvious providing a deep story wasn't the main focus of this project. It's nice enough to know, and if you never interact with the story it won't necessarily improve or impair your enjoyment. The lyrics alone are enough to get the gist across, and speaking of which:

The Music

Holy geez guys. This is power metal at its very finest. You would be hard-pressed to find a more well put together and well regarded album than this one here, save for perhaps the sequel. This is THE project that got Michael Kiske, legendary singer of Helloween, back into power metal (even though his non-metal albums were great too) where he continues to work today in his current band, Unisonic.

I hardly know where to start; "Reach Out For the Light" is a killer opening, a classic Power Metal track straight out of Helloween. Tobias Sammet displays his immaculate singing throughout this album, easily cementing him among the top metal vocalists, and when you're singing alongside Kiske, that's quite an accomplishment! The guitar solo, played by Henjo Richter of Gamma Ray fame, is one of my favorites on an album full of great solos. Not to mention the little bass interlude, played by Markus Grosskopf, another Helloween alumnus.

"Farewell" is the one ballad on the album, and unfortunately the only one on this album to feature Sharon den Adel (of Within Temptation) as Anna Held. Sammet himself said he hadn't yet chosen a female singer for the project when he wrote the song, so he regretted not giving her more to do. Luckily he rectified that in The Metal Opera Part II, but we won't be looking at that yet. Also of note is Kiske's part at the end, where according to Tobias Sammet, the ludicrously high notes were sent off to Kiske as a joke, but he performed them just as written to astonishing effect.

"Sign of the Cross" is a great bombastic track, with the kind of Catholic vanity you could expect from a song with that name. It features Oliver Hartmann (formerly of At Vance) as the Pope, Rob Rock (of Impellitteri) as Bishop Von Bicken, Kai Hansen (of Helloween, Gamma Ray, and currently Unisonic), and last but not least, the late, great Andre Matos (of Angra, Shaman, and Symfonia) as Elderane the Elf. It's got some of that special power metal magic you just can't find anywhere else, especially with lines like these:

Seven eyes to be blind forever in time:
Sign of the cross...
Hell arise! Castigation under the sign,
sign of the cross -
make us drown in alter wine

I didn't even know the word "castigation" before listening to this album! Sometimes I think this whole album came about when Tobi learned that word.

But my favorite track, hands down, has to be the very last on the album, "The Tower". At a little under 10 minutes, it's one of those longform masterpieces that draws me in no matter what I'm doing. With a melancholy piano melody in the beginning that slowly fades, only for the full orchestration to blast out of the gate and send you reeling for the rest of the song. Sammet works his usual splendor in the vocal department, along with Kiske and Mados. The percussion on this song is phenomenal, played throughout the album by Alex Holzwarth (Rhapsody of Fire, Luca Turilli) who has some of my favorite drum fills of all time. Not to mention the best lines Tobias Sammet has ever written:

Never been a fighter, never been a man
But I must help Vandroiy, he's my only friend.
Nowhere to go and I know that he knows
how we will get her out

Magic of transcendence
brought me to this place
Vandroiy in reality lead me on my race.
Told me to bring back the seal
but I still don't know where I shall go.

That's not even mentioning the evil Voice Of The Tower portion, where Timo Tolkki, guitarist, singer, and songwriter for Stratovarius and other bands, says one line and that's all he had to do with the project. It's great.

The Metal Opera is one of those touchstone albums, the kind where I'm not sure what the state of power metal would be in its absence. It was actually pretty difficult to write about because it's become so ubiquitous, like when you play the original Super Mario Bros and have trouble coming to terms with just how much it changed the game. Yeah, the story certainly isn't making any major strides, but that really goes to show just how good a musician Tobias Sammet is. Avantasia continues today, of course, and is certainly no slouch either. Of course, if I ever get to that one, it'll mean I have to read those liner notes...

Oh geez.

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