It’s hard to know precisely how to describe Tobias Sammet’s Avantasia these days. While they’re indisputably from the classic lineage of German power metal, retaining an obvious kinship to Tobias’s main band Edguy, they’ve become both too lightweight in sound and too vast of aspiration to fit comfortably into the power metal pigeonhole. The best comparison is probably to Savatage’s majestic sister project Trans-Siberian Orchestra; like TSO, Avantasia is quite simply rock theatre on an orchestral scale. Every album is a concept piece that’s written with a massive stage show and a full supporting cast already in mind; combining the grandeur of Andrew Lloyd Webber at his finest, the rock’n’roll pomp and circumstance of Jim Steinman, a fairytale sense of magical mystery and an outrageously sentimental streak a mile wide. If you can’t swallow all of that, then this band probably aren’t for you.
But it seems a lot of people can, since The Mystery Of Time has already charted across the world and the massive three-hour live show that the band have put together to support it has been hugely popular. A concept album as usual, this time a philosophical one, The Mystery Of Time follows the adventures of a young scientist in the Victorian era as he wrestles with the great questions of God, science, time and reason. With feature contributions from the German Film Orchestra Babelsberg, who also helped out Edguy on their Hellfire Club album, the technical execution here is as flawless as you’d expect, the musicianship irreproachable throughout and the production shining with a retro eighties gloss that spotlights Tobias’s powerful vocal performance. Not to mention those of the talented guest vocalists who’ve joined him – Joe Lynn Turner, Michael Kiske, and Biff Byford are only some of the names you’ll find on here. And in terms of songwriting, The Mystery Of Time feels like Tobias has been listening to every pomp-rock act and rock opera out there and getting ideas from all of them; there’s shades of everything from the aforementioned Jim Steinman to Queensryche to Nightwish to Magnum (in fact, that is indeed Bob Catley you can hear guesting on epic closer “The Great Mystery”) and there’s even a hint of the original masters of the form, The Who. Balancing lightly on the fine line between derivative and quintessential, with several key riffs giving me that tip-of-the-tongue feeling of “I’ve heard this before” without being quite familiar enough to place exactly, The Mystery Of Time puts itself proudly forwards as a definitive symphonic soft-metal album with its heart worn unashamedly on its frilly Victorian sleeve.
That said, in places its sincerity veers perilously close to becoming saccharine, with power-ballad single “Sleepwalking” in particular being loaded with radio-friendly sentimentality. Fortunately, there are much stronger songs to counterbalance the touches of Disney-soundtrack schmaltz. “Black Orchid” packs some unexpectedly powerful distorted guitars in the middle that come as rather a surprise, and in contrast to “Sleepwalking” the other big ballad “What’s Left Of Me” is both a strong track in its own right and authentically heartrending. The orchestral elements of opener “Spectres” accord it a spine-tinglingly evocative quality, while “Savior In The Clockwork” and “Invoke The Machine” have enough power metal in them to satisfy fans of Avantasia’s older material. While I can’t quite rate The Mystery Of Time with Avantasia’s strongest work – it doesn’t rival the intensity or memorable songwriting of the magnificent Wicked Symphony/Angel of Babylon duo – I like it a great deal, and it still very much encapsulates all the qualities I love most about this unique band: emotion, spirit, beauty, storytelling, and big damn eighties guitars. So if that sounds like your thing, I’d simply say be aware that this isn’t quite as good as Avantasia’s best, but you’ll almost certainly like it anyway.