It’s no secret to anyone who has read some of my reviews on Ave Noctum that I have a bit of a dislike of “Disney-style” ballads within the Symphonic/Melodic Metal genre…so why on earth did I volunteer to review an album of “Cinematic Symphonic Metal”? I mean, it doesn’t take a genius to guess what’s in store does it? But Dark Sarah have much more to offer. This project led by ex-Amberian Dawn vocalist Heidi Parviainen has already attracted plenty of big guest names onto Dark Sarah’s previous 2 releases – Manuela Kraller (ex Xandria), Inga Scharf (Van Canto), Tony Kakko (Sonata Arctica), Manuela Kraller (ex Xandria), Charlotte Wessels (Delain) and JP Leppäluoto (Charon, Northern Kings) – not bad eh? Well, this 3rd episode in the trilogy is no exception – JP reprises his roll (now as an official band member) along with Zuberoa Aznarez (Diabulus In Musica), Marco Hietala (Nightwish) and Netta Skog (ex. Ensiferum). These people don’t lend their abilities to any old dross, so it’s time for me to take off my cynical hat (slightly shabby and rather worn looking that it is…) and momentarily join Dark Sarah on her journey.

Sarah and Dark Sarah are two parts of the psyche of the story’s focal character (think Spock and Evil Spock but rather than a beard to distinguish between them, it’s heavier eye make-up) and this is the third part of her adventures which, quite preposterously, have had to be crowd-funded to enable recording. What unfurls before the listener is a treat if you like a well performed, expertly executed musical story with plenty of influences and facets. Using Trans Siberian Orchestra as a starting point, sprinkle in some latter-day Therion around a Hard Rock, Melodic Metal and Symphonic Metal concoction and you end up with something that is at times wonderful, sometimes a hint overly commercial, but mostly utterly enthralling and enjoyable.

Heidi is fabulous throughout and J.P. Sounds in his absolute element, free of the gothic vocal restraints of the fantastic Charon and able to display the parts of his voice that his Northern Kings colleagues would have snatched from him for themselves, it’s great to hear him as the perfect match for Heidi’s soaring vocal performance. There’s swooping melodies, lilting orchestration and powerful rhythm-work speckled throughout the album as and when required (as well as a few quirky moments like the jaunty opening to “I Once Had Wings” for instance, before it effortlessly evolves into pseudo-Savatage epic-ness). The guests fit perfectly into their roles as previous incumbents also did, with Zeberoa sparkling and the almost type-cast Marco as White Beard shining through on “The Gods Speak”.

It would be so easy to dismiss this thoughtful, professional album as mere whimsy in a cut-throat Metal world full of cynicism, angst, violence and bitterness, which is obviously what all the major record labels seem to have done (shame on them!). But when you really listen to it, let it in and be in an open-minded, responsive frame of mind when you do it is very rewarding. OK, sometimes the melodies and narration might open themselves to a little gentle derision and ridicule when it displays it’s more cinematic moments (“Wish” will probably be a step too far for many…including me…), but overall the intricate compositions and statuesque performances have a majesty and supreme charm that bring a smile to your face and a glow to your heart. And I absolutely refuse to spoil the ending of the trilogy for those who have been following it from the start!

(8/10 Andy Barker)