Avantasia has always existed in a world larger than life. Recruiting scores of heavy hitters to fill the ranks of grandiose concept albums, Avantasia has been the playground for Tobias Sammet's grandest experiments. The two part "Metal Opera" is widely regarded as a modern day classic, even if I seemingly disagree with the whole world on which half is the most vital. While "The Scarecrow" trilogy took the same route as Edguy, leaving traditional power metal in the past in exchange for a more hard rock oriented sound, Tobi continued to fill the albums with the kind of huge, sing-along choruses so few metal bands seem able or willing to write anymore. Even the bloated "Angel Of Babylon"/"Wicked Symphony" double release contained well over an album's worth of killer heavy metal.
So what happens when a project that was always big becomes even bigger? It's an interesting question to think about, but the answer isn't as easy to distinguish as I would like it to be. "The Mystery Of Time" is the biggest Avantasia album yet, both in terms of the music it contains, and the stature it carries. Backed by a real orchestra, this is the kind of overblown music that makes true believers salivate, and outsiders laugh at the absurdity.
Once again, Tobi has managed to write some truly exceptional songs that feature the kind of choruses that you'll have to work at to get out of your head. It's this very quality that makes Tobi perhaps the most important songwriter working in heavy metal today. When he's on, he's as good as any of the classic bands we still pledge allegiance to. With tracks like "Black Orchid", "Spectres", and the epic closer "The Great Mystery", he's serving up some of his best melodies ever. "Black Orchid" is a massively heavy, orchestrated, overblown, pompous, ridiculous song that nevertheless is as good as heavy metal gets. Tobi and Saxon's Biff Byford trade vocals atop the dramatic strings, with one of those huge choruses to die for. It's a little bit of musical magic.
Unfortunately, Tobi makes a few missteps with this album. The more traditional power metal songs don't mesh with the direction he's trying to take with the album, leaving them to stand apart from the core of the record. They also lack a bit of the same spark, since Tobi has been churning out those sorts of songs for nearly twenty years. There's nothing wrong with "Dweller In A Dream" or "The Watchmaker's Dream", but they feel commonplace, and Avantasia asks for so much more.
Worse, the cast of this album doesn't live up to the reputation Avantasia has set for itself. The aforementioned Byford, along with Joe Lynn Turner and Ronnie Atkins are all good singers, but all bring the same style and sound to the record, at times hard to identify from one another, defeating the whole purpose of employing multiple singers in the first place. The exception is Mr Big's Eric Martin, who brings a sincerity to the stunning ballad "What's Left Of Me"that none of the other singers could bring. But his role aside, the others are interchangeable throughout the record, something that couldn't have been said of previous Avantasia efforts.
"The Mystery Of Time" needs to be judged on two levels. As an album, it's a very good effort with some stunning songs to offer. Half the record is as good as anything you're liable to hear this year, while the rest is still well above average. However, as an Avantasia album, it doesn't seem to live up to the standards I have in mind. The music is good enough, but in the effort to be larger than life, some of the little details were missed. A tweak here and there, and "The Mystery Of Time" could have been another Avantasia classic. As it is, I like the album very much, but it won't compete for album of the year, which is what every other Avantasia album has done.