AvantasiaThere’s always a party atmosphere with the approach of each Avantasia album. For fans of the group the list of contributors alone is enough to get the power-metal pulses racing and there’s no doubt the creative sum is normally turns out to be greater than the parts. The latest album The Mystery of Time includes the addition of a live orchestra that propels those silky smooth tunes to more exhilarating levels than usual. Now, let’s be honest, you either get this music or you don’t. The speed anthems may leave you as nauseated as death metal leaves most people confused and irritated. I heard someone say recently ‘the music’s ok but I can’t stand those high voices’. Like I said, you get it, or you don’t. I generally buy into the whole Avantasia concept and for me the song-writing stands above the debate on how ‘rock’ it’s all become or those asking why he can’t continue from where he left off after Metal Opera Part II.

It’s not a debate I want to get heavily drawn into. Frankly, that was more than 10 years ago now and, if you don’t like the direction a band has taken, that is time enough to get over it and move on. But, just to be clear, this is a continuation of the last couple of albums. You only have to look at the list of contributors to see there are clear sign posts as to what music style is on offer here. Yes, there are the obligatory Michael Kiske tracks (Where Clock Hands Freeze and Dweller in a Dream, proving he’s not lost an inch) and I’m almost certain that is Roy Khan I can hear in there somewhere. But the others include Bob Catley (from 1980s Brit rock legends Magnum), Joe Lynn Turner (formely with Rainbow, Deep Purple and Yngwie Malmsteen’s Rising Force), Bill Byford (Saxon), Ronnie Atkins (Pretty Maids) and Eric Martin (Mr Big). All fine singers to be sure but also a clear sign post to the direction of The Mystery of Time. If anything, it’s even more rock-orientated than we’ve seen before and its very comfortable being so.

All this aside, The Mystery of Time is still over-the-top power metal backed by The German Film Orchestra (me neither), an all-star cast and the kind of song writing that you’d have thought might have started to flag given Sammet’s broad output. Epic probably doesn’t quite cover it. In fact, this is probably the best effort since the Metal Opera opus. Sammet achieves something that others have tried but almost always failed either trying to pack too much in, running out of ideas halfway through or simply by getting carried away into self-indulgence. Bringing together so many styles, ideas and musicians and remaining focused on the stage ‘Opera’ aspect of it without any sense of throwing in tracks as filler (ok, I wasn’t sure about Invoke The Machine, but I suggest it was a hiccup). Far from being self-indulgent as he has sometimes been criticised, this as much as any of the past albums, really lets Tobias Sammet’s (and co-collaborator Sasha Paeth’s) talent and vision shine through. Each track is memorable and the only time he really crosses the line is

Sleepwalking – a mock-melancholy pop-rock sing-along that would leave the average metal fan gagging on his Newky Brown. Even after that, proceedings are soon rescued by the 11-minute epic Saviour in the Clockwork and the second-half of the album is probably stronger than the first. After the heavy-for-the-sake-of-it Invoke the Machine (the only other track I wasn’t that keen on and most notable for the appearance of the suspected Khan at around 2.12 mins) things get going again with the heartfelt and infectious rock balladry of What’s Left Of Me (which took me right back to LA in 1988 – the height of the glam metal era – no, I wasn’t there in person). Then the Sammet-Kiske dream team are back one more time in Dweller in a Dream before the rock-orchestral finale The Great Mystery leaves us with a real show stopping tune and a rousing encore or two just to smear sugary sweet icing all over the cake.

The fact that Avantasia as a concept comes off at all is impressive. The fact that it comes off so well is pretty astounding. The bottom line is that The Mystery of Time will probably divide old fans even more than the past three releases since Metal Opera II. It is very rock and it’s tempting to mark it down as ‘not metal enough’. What’s more, it takes a lot for me to recommend a power metal album these days. But it turns out there is someone out there willing to challenge my power metal fatigue and at the same time convince me that ‘rock’ isn’t a dirty word. Who said this man isn’t a genius?

(8/10 Reverend Darkstanley)