Posted on November 29, 2009 -
The Black Halo is the second part of a story based around German author Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s version of Faust, following main characters Ariel, Helena, and Mephisto. The first part was Kamelot’s previous album, Epica, and as such is basically mandatory listening for anybody who really wants to get the full experience out of The Black Halo. However, for the stubborn among us – Epica covers Ariel’s abandonment of everything he has known in order to begin pursuit of the answers to the great mysteries of life. Unfortunately, things don’t quite work out for him in the wide world, and he begins to long for the promising days of youth. This subsequently leads into his meeting with Mephisto, who – being the devil in disguise – arrives in the shape of a beautiful woman when Ariel is at his lowest and offers him all the pleasures a man could want. Ariel temporarily succumbs to Mephisto’s offers and abandons his search. He indulges in “the life”, as it were – food, drink, women, et al – and goes on to sign a contract with Mephisto that will turn out to be the proverbial deal with the devil. After all of this, he encounters his childhood love – Helena. They share a moment together, and Ariel learns that she is pregnant with his child, but Ariel ends up pushing her away in fear that the deal he had just made with Mephisto would bring her too much suffering… and as a result, Helena drowns herself in the river. Ariel becomes trapped between Mephisto’s malevolence and Helena’s goodness (who reappears as an angel), and Epica essentially ends there. The Black Halo, in turn, starts off with a depiction of the absolute peak of Mephisto’s power over Ariel. The album sees Ariel given another chance at love (which he also rejects), and consequently descends into a dark conflict that takes place entirely in his mind. Several enlightening realizations bring him to a final confrontation with Mephisto, a tragic reunion with Helena, and ultimately culminate in a scene that portrays his death and takes the listener back to the very beginning of the overall saga. There are many little details, nuances, twists, and turns to discover along the way, but I’ll leave that up to you. Suffice it to say, the concept is very well thought-out and quite moving.
The album features various guest musicians, including – guitarist Thomas Youngblood’s wife Mari as the voice of Helena, Dimmu Borgir’s Shagrath as the voice of Mephisto, Epica’s Simone Simons as the character Marguerite, a full blown professional choir (dubbed the Kamelot Choir), the Rodenberg Symphony Orchestra, Stratovarius’ Jens Johansson on keyboards, and more.
Impressive. Most impressive.
The music is rooted firmly in a power metal aesthetic. However, this is the most plausible form of power metal I have ever heard. I’m not even a fan of power metal – I could never get into the trite and boring high fantasy themes, extreme falsetto vocal nonsense, flat and predictable musicianship, and overall feeling of dreadful cheese. Kamelot, on the other hand, seem to take this inherently disastrous genre of metal and completely drop everything that makes it so laughable, substituting instead a sincere sense of sweeping power, genuine emotion, and soaring drama.
The band, from an instrumental perspective, manage to not completely fall into the trappings of their chosen genre. Save for a few essential performances from Jens Johansson (for example, his lead in the middle of “March of Mephisto” which is supposed to act as the devil’s instrument), there aren’t any obnoxious keyboard leads to be found here. The drums extend past incessant double bass marathons, offering moments of impactful glory (also best exemplified on “March of Mephisto”), and even some time signature changeups. The guitars range from high-speed tremolo riffing to mid-tempo work that can be quite heavy but never grates on the listener’s ears; the guitar leads are highly melodious and fitting to the atmosphere of a given song and its place within the progression of the story, never really descending into pointless wankery. However, the real gem here is vocalist Roy Khan. He has immense range, but chooses to hang around the mid vocal registers for much of his delivery, which makes those moments where he extends up high or drops down low that much more moving. Those allergic to power metal shouldn’t get discouraged by the “up high” comment… he doesn’t indulge in the kind of over the top vocal acrobatics many have come to expect from this genre; he simply changes things up occasionally to keep a dynamic flow and stay with the mood of the song. Furthermore, his voice is filled with a fiery passion that’s perfect for getting across the feelings and depicting the internal conflicts of the main character, Ariel… and he has several absolutely breathtaking performances throughout – namely, his duet with guest vocalist Simone Simons on “The Haunting (Somewhere In Time)”, and his bone-chilling delivery on “Abandoned” that’s multiplied ten-fold by the stellar backing of orchestra and choir.
There are three interludes during the course of The Black Halo that aren’t really songs, but serve as transitionary performances that bring to light critical aspects of the storyline. The second of these, “Interlude II – Un Assassinio Molto Silenzioso” (translates into “A Very Silent Murder”), features Italian singer Cinzia Rizzo who’s performance is of note. The third interlude, dubbed “Interlude III – Midnight, Twelve Tolls For A New Day”, is also quite significant in that it depicts Ariel’s final glimpse of Helena approaching him just before the moment of his death. His pained uttering of her name brings the album proper to a close. There is another song to be found afterwards, though. “Serenade” isn’t part of the album’s story, but is a joyous and upbeat song that is essentially a glorious celebration of life.
There are several other moments I’d like to briefly discuss.
The first is the opening track, “March of Mephisto”. This song is just so unbelievably powerful. It’s meant to represent the peak of Mephisto’s influence over Ariel, and it gets this feeling across admirably as the united, methodical pulsing of drums and guitars sounds like a massive mustering of Mephisto’s armies and their inevitable march to war with Mephisto himself snarling at their backs. As another reviewer said, it’s like a freaking revolution. I can only imagine what kind of reaction this song garners in a live setting.
The second is the track “Memento Mori”. Being the longest song that Kamelot have written to date (at around nine minutes), it sees Ariel, Helena, and Mephisto together one final time. The staple of this song is the line “I am the God in my own history”, where Ariel finally realizes that he has the power to control his own destiny and casts Mephisto from his mind. Powerful performances from Roy, Mari, and Shagrath.
…and that’s about it.
The Black Halo is like the “anti-power metal” power metal album, or maybe it’s the purest embodiment of what power metal was always meant to become. Either way, it’s a stunning, gorgeous, and intelligent album that I would recommend whether you’re a fan of metal or not.
Not to be missed.