I'm going to start this story with an apology to Tobias Sammet and all those involved with the AVANTASIA machine.
In my initial overview of the new album The Mystery Of Time (found here), I did a fair job of smack-talking Sammet's previous Avantasia effort, The Wicked Symphony / Angel Of Babylon double album. In my world it was just too damn long, with only three songs of a possible 22 having left a mark on my brain since the 2010 release ('Scales Of Justice', 'Stargazers' and 'Death Is Just A Feeling' in case anyone cares). In stark contrast The Mystery Of Time boasts only 10 songs, and after only one time through during the listening session at the Nuclear Blast offices in Donzdorf, Germany there were melodies and riffs still resonating in my head days later. I blame my harsh view of The Wicked Symphony / Angel Of Babylon on being smacked with too much information at one time, while The Mystery Of Time is an exciting "buckle up" ride if you're a fan of the genre. It seems my enthusiasm may have gotten the better of me. I still say Avantasia's previous outing pales in comparison to the new album, but by no means had I intended to dumb down Sammet's vision or the work that went into making it a reality.
That said, during the listening session for The Mystery Of Time, I did mention to Sammet that I thought The Wicked Symphony / Angel Of Babylon was too big for its own good.
"Definitely, I agree," says Sammet. "Not that I would throw away any of the material because I like all the songs, but some of the songs suffered from being just one out of 22 songs that came out at the same time. The songs that would have been really appreciated on an album of 10 tracks were called 'weak' or 'fillers' because there was so much competition. That was something that I wasn't able to predict. I thought, 'I wrote the material, I like each song because I had months to become acquainted with them.' I knew every detail of every song, so they were very important to me."
The Mystery Of Time offers so much more to sink one's teeth into because of its compact nature. Short-ish, sweet, wonderfully diverse, and straight to the point.
"I'm really with you on that," Sammet agrees. "This album is an entity all its own, and compact is the best way to describe it."
In expected Avantasia form, The Mystery Of Time is another rock opera loaded with guest vocalists and musicians. Along with some noteworthy guest appearances - SAXON singer Biff Byford, ex-RAINBOW frontman Joe Lynn Turner, and AYREON mastermind Arjen Lucassen being the big surprises - Sammet opted to use a real orchestra on some of the tracks rather than faking it with fancy software.
"That wasn't really planned from the beginning," says Sammet. "When I wrote 'Black Orchid' (featuring Byford) - I think it was the third or fourth song to be done - and the songwriting was actually finished, I decided that it needed a real orchestra. I know it's hard to tell the difference between a real orchestra and a programmed orchestra these days, especially if Miro (Michael Rodenberg) does the keyboards, but it was really important to me. All of a sudden the album sounded completely different to me when the orchestra was added. I think it gave an added dimension to the sound. Sascha (Paeth/guitarist, producer) said that we didn't have to use one because nobody would be able to tell the difference, but after it was recorded he agreed that the orchestra gave the album a really different sound. What they play is exactly what Miro had programmed. It's just that, truly, only the sound picture changed. The attack is different compared to the programmed orchestra, the resonance of the instruments is very different. You can't program that sort of thing and get the same results."
As a rock opera, The Mystery Of Time earns its stripes right out of the gate with 'Spectres' (featuring Joe Lynn Turner). It's very easy to imagine the song as a theatre piece, essentially welcoming people to the show and setting the stage for everything that follows.
"I would love to say that I was thinking that way, in terms of theatre, but to be honest, no, it didn't enter my mind. I wrote 'Spectres' and I just knew it should be the opening track; I never said 'Now I'm going to write the opening track.' I just thought 'This is the way an album should start.'"
And if we follow this theatre thread, 'The Great Mystery' (featuring Byford, Turner and MAGNUM's Bob Catley) is the right amount of over-the-top MEAT LOAF-flavoured bombast to close the album...
"That's definitely on purpose," says Sammet. "It's a funny thing because Amanda (Somerville/vocals) and everybody were doing the choirs and we sing 'End of chapter one..! One!' at the end of the song. It was so Monty Python that we laughed ourselves to death."
The Mystery Of Time sees the return of ex-HELLOWEEN singer Michael Kiske ('Where Clock Hands Freeze', 'Dweller In A Dream'), who has been a part of the Avantasia roster since The Metal Opera release in 2001. Sammet can take equal credit with GAMMA RAY frontman Kai Hansen for continually bringing Kiske back to the realms of metal even though he was quite vocal upon leaving Helloween in 1993 about just how much he disliked the personalities and associated baggage within the metal scene.
"The fan in me was thanking the manager in me for bringing Kiske in," Sammet laughs. "When I was on stage singing with him on the last Avantasia tour, I was just a witness to just how great a singer he truly is. He's a cool guy, we're good friends, and I'm happy that he's so happy right now. He's found peace with the scene, I think, and he understands that not everything about metal is satanic and bad. Michael still dislikes the satanic aspects of the scene, but I think he was taken by how warm the welcome was when he came out on tour."
Ultimately, it's the fanboy in Sammet that fuels Avantasia. Take 'Invoke The Machine' as one of several examples, perhaps the greatest PRETTY MAIDS song the Danish legends never wrote. Done up as a tip of the hat to the band's biggest hit 'Future World' - by accident or design, who knows? - the song features Pretty Maids singer Ronnie Atkins trading vocals with Sammet.
"I brought Ronnie in because I wanted to have him 13 years ago (laughs). I wanted to have him on the first Avantasia album and he didn't want to do it. Back then it was much more difficult for me because I didn't know as many people as I know now, but I worked really hard to get his phone number and I called him. He was 'Well, no, I don't think so...' and of course that was his reaction because I was just some guy calling out of the blue asking to have him sing on an album for a band he'd never heard of. When I met him in 2012 on the 70000 Tons Of Metal cruise, we talked for two hours and he was so nice. I called his management after that and asked about Ronnie doing the song, and he was totally into it."
Perhaps less of a wishlist item and more of a middle finger to those that stirred the pot with talk of a mean-spirited rivalry, Sammet also invited fellow rock opera mastermind, Ayreon creator Arjen Lucassen, to perform on 'The Watchmaker's Dream'... but not as the guest vocalist so many fans are expecting to hear. Nope, Lucassen breaks out his guitar to trade licks with veteran keyboardist Ferdy Doernberg (ROUGH SILK). This is the second collaboration between Sammet and Lucassen, albeit done long distance rather than in the studio.
"This time it wasn't even a phone call; it was just emails back and forth," Sammet reveals. "We've spoken on the phone a couple times and Arjen's a really great guy. This rivalry thing wasn't actually a true rivalry at the beginning, but when we released our albums at around the same time we were asked about each other all the time in every interview. It was getting annoying because I wanted to promote my own album and they were asking me about my worst competitor (laughs). I was so happy with his guitar solo. I got back to him and said I thought it was amazing, and then I started wondering if he thought I was taking the piss because I was overdoing it, but I was truly amazed by what he'd done."
Sammet also brought in former KISS guitarist Bruce Kulick play leads on the anthem 'Black Orchid' and the albums two 10+ minute epics, 'Savior In The Clockwork' and 'The Great Mystery'.
"Those licks are totally Bruce, and then we had this Meat Loaf-ish song ('The Great Mystery'), and I had the chance to tap the lead guitar player on the Bat Out Of Hell tour. We've known each other for some time, so I was able to say 'Can you do this?' or 'Can you try that?' or he would tell me he's going to put some harmonies in one place or screaming guitars somewhere else. It's a friendship, so I knew what to expect and after he listened to the material we could discuss it easily."
"That's basically the case with every musician that you work with," Sammet adds. "You have to have confidence that there is a theoretical chance you'll like what you get back because otherwise it wouldn't make sense to ask them (laughs). If there's a bigger chance that you'll like it rather than hate it, you're on the right path."
The Mystery Of Time tracklist is as follows:
'The Watchmakers' Dream'
'Where Clock Hands Freeze'
'Savior In The Clockwork'
'Invoke The Machine'
'What's Left Of Me'
'Dweller In A Dream'
'The Great Mystery'