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The Black Halo

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  • Elvis Presley had five singles in the top 20 of 1956. What does Elvis in 1956 have to do with Kamelot? I’ll tell you. I remember hearing those five songs on the radio when they were released. I have listened to music nearly every day of the half century that has passed since then. In other words, I have heard a whole bunch of singers come and go. Khan, the lead vocalist of Kamelot, is the best I’ve heard.

    All 11 tracks (I’m ignoring the three short interludes) provide excellent listening enjoyment. The first track may be the best – with some fine growling by the devil, impressive power drumming and the best pinch harmonics going – and rates as a close second to my favorite song, Metropolis Part I by Dream Theater. On the third track, a song which is connected to their previous album Epica and begins with the words of the title, Khan has some help from Simone Simons of the group Epica, their voices combining beautifully.

    No fluff resides in the lyrics of this album. The songs concern life, death, love, the possibility of a hereafter and even the Crucifixion. The subjects are treated seriously with pure poetry. Some examples are: “Rules without exception last eternally/Every move you make creates your destiny” (track 2); “And we strive for the flame as if death was our aim” (Soul Society); “Once my ignorance was bliss/Nightfall came/Like a serpent’s kiss” (Abandoned). These guys can write!

    Add this all together and the result has to be in my top five as listed on my profile. As stated there, I don’t know how to decide which of the five is my absolute favorite, but if forced to make a selection, I think this might be the one. (Please see my profile for a brief discussion of my rating philosophy.)

    Posted on November 29, 2009 - Permalink - Buy Now
  • 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.

    Posted on November 29, 2009 - Permalink - Buy Now
  • ……since Kamelot’s last release, _Epica_. And so that indisputably makes it the best power metal album to date. For Kamelot to elevate and perfect a genre that is usually so poorly represented might seem a lesser feat than to do so where one’s peers are strong. Yet the absorbing nature of _The Black Halo_ and its predecessor _Epica_ should be never be considered a mean accomplishments. These are some of the best, most consumingly listenable albums out there, along with output of such bands as Pineforest Crunch, Thinking Plague, the Beatles, Spock’s, and Meshuggah.

    In terms of music, everything that was said about _Epica_ can be said about _The Black Halo_. This is fitting as they are two halves of the _Faust_-inspired Epica_ concept. The only really important differences are that the music is heavier (guitars are more up in the mix, lots of tasty crunch) and even _more_ melodic (much to my surprise, they outdid themselves again). Kamelot’s art of orchestrating tension-filled verses into huge, sweeping choruses and azz-kicking riffs and little symphonic bitties has apparently tapped into an endless well of inspiration.

    All of the songs are completely great. Kamelot changes gears and opens the album not with a high-speed, but a rather dark, mid-tempo “March of Mephisto”, twistingly melodic riffs and Shaggrath from Dimmu Borgir as Mephisto, backing Khan on the chorus. Then they dish out “When the Lights Are Down” with blazing double-bass pedals and driving, crunchy riffs. It pretty much switches between mid- and fast-tempi throughout (and soft interludes in most songs), split in the middle with “Abandoned”, a piano-based ballad with Khan’s pure singing (awe-inspiring, really), and Mari singing as Helena as the music begins to swell on crests of strings and heavy drums. There are interludes, through though fewer than the previous disc, including some interesting moments which add nice touches of variety, like an atmospheric cabaret and a brief vocal solo from Khan. The album builds all builds to a ridiculously high level and then goes right over the top with “Momento Mori”, Kamelot hugest, best song to date. Perhaps the best part of Kamelot’s _Epica_ story is that each album’s finale song (“Three Ways to Epica” and “Momento Mori”) are the best, most intense finale songs with the best choruses ever in power metal. Why do other power metal bands even exist? Kamelot wipes the floor with all of them. Sad but true. The story ends and “Serenade” provides an epilogue much like “The Center of the Universe” is a prologue. “Serenade”’s glistening riff and yet another soaring (but somber) chorus ends the album perfectly. The story of _The Black Halo_ begins with Ariel still mourning Helena and under Mephisto’s power. As it goes on he learns that Mephisto is merely a part of himself, and that the choice between paths of righteousness and of evil is his alone. In the end he comes to peace with himself, then he dies. By the way, i’m probably just a fanboy. You might be better served by someone more objective.

    a note about editions: this review is one the amazon page for the normal johnny edition. A boring, ghetto-plastic jewel case and no bonus tracks. there is another domestic special edition (probably out of print now), packaged in a bright, sleek digipak with two bonus tracks (radio edits of “March of Mephisto” and “The Haunting”). I think it might have a music video on it too. The BEST EDITION TO GET would be the Japanese one, because it has a bonus track that is _not_ a radio edit, “Epilogue”). It’s an awesome song and a big crazy Kamelot fan with only be satisfied if they have the edition it is on.

    Posted on November 29, 2009 - Permalink - Buy Now
  • Power-metal is metal’s version of punk rock. Countless bands spawn every year, most from Germany but all with the same sound: fast double-bass drums, razor sharp harmonized guitars, a powerful vocalist and numerous references to fantasy. In fact, it is almost impossible to find a power-metal band that does not take a medieval or fantastic setting as the physical space for their music, a decision that has attracted ridicule since the genre’s beginnings. Among the throngs of Sonata Artica’s, Edguy’s and Hammerfall’s, it is difficult to find a genuinely innovative band.

    Lucky for us, there’s Kamelot.

    On their seventh album, “The Black Halo”, the American power-metal ensemble further develops the regal and majestic sound they perfected with their last release, 2003’s “Epica”, which took Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust as its inspiration. Although the typical power-metal staples are still there, the sounds are much more diverse this time around. Fast, energetic and melodically predictable pieces such as “When the Lights Are Down” and “Soul Society” keep the band anchored to the comfortable sounds of what we’ve come to expect. The Rodenberg Symphony Orchestra continues the Kamelot tradition of layering songs with a sophisticated sound ranging from strings, violins and even horns. Softer ballads like “The Haunting (Somewhere in Time)” and “Abandoned” grace the album with pianos, string quartets and female choirs, providing a striking contrast. But this is nothing new. Earlier songs like “A Sailorman’s Hymn” and “Don’t You Cry” flaunted the band’s softer side in earlier albums.

    Then there’s the unexpected.

    Black-metal superstar Shagrath from Sweden’s Dimmu Borgir makes a special appearance with his blasphemous, guttural pipes on “March of Mephisto”, which holds the coveted spot as the album’s first track. Normally reserved for the faster numbers – in this case, “When the Lights Are Down” – the opening track is slower and more intense, much like a sinister parade. It is a song unlike any other in the Kamelot catalog, whose inner workings echo “Master of Puppets”-era Metallica and earlier Dream Theater. Singer Roy Khan doesn’t hold back on this track or the album, unafraid to show off his impressive vocal range. Guitarist Thomas Youngblood (whose name caters perfectly to the genre) is slightly restrained and subtle in his delivery, soloing only when needed and keeping the fast riffage to a minimum. The song even has a cameo from power-metal veteran Jens Johansson, from Finland’s Stratovarius.

    The album’s centerpiece is the 9-minute “Memento Mori”, a song that visits several genres and explores a number of movements, started by a melody that may remind listeners of Savatage. The piece explores Middle-Eastern influenced melodies and medieval landscapes and still has time to bring Shagrath back for another resonating, sinister growl. After the third and last interlude, we are given another gem, the catchy and delightful “Serenade”, which is a perfect example of Kamelot taking the tired power-metal formula and using it to their advantage with a gifted ear.

    The theatrical elements are greater than they were on their past works. The album’s three short “interludes” are well-crafted with numerous sound effects – walking on snow, a person lighting a match, a distant church choir, people at a tavern – that unite the individual songs with a subtle narrative. Even more impressive is the handful of references to “Epica”, namely in the form of a familiar melody or the incorporation of a subtly changed lyric.

    For all its epic thematic and musical scope, the album is not without its flaws. The power-metal genre has little creative elbow-room, and even Kamelot eventually falls into the trap of becoming forgettable. Songs such as the plain “This Pain” and the unchanging “Nothing Ever Dies” lull for far too long without becoming a standout track. Even the title-track lacks an outstanding melody or chorus to drive it. Sadly, in their particular genre, this tendency is almost inevitable.

    But of course, these flaws are only applicable if you’re a power-metal connoisseur. Otherwise, “The Black Halo” is an amazing creation. The few lackluster tracks make it a slight step down from “Epica”, but not by much. The tremendous diversity with which the album flows, along with the grand orchestral sounds that accompany the rich guitar-work, make the album soar. It is a must-have for any enthusiast of the genre, and a necessary introduction for those unfamiliar.

    See also: Kamelot – “Epica”, Kamelot – “The Fourth Legacy”

    Posted on November 28, 2009 - Permalink - Buy Now
  • To begin, I just have to say that I have been a Kamelot fan since their beginnings, but have always considered Conception the superior of Khan’s projects and while I have been somewhat impressed with a few of Kamelot’s releases, I have never put them on the same level of melodic greatness as Conception until I heard this album. “The Black Halo” absolutely blew me away from the very first listen and I feel that almost every song represented here blows away anything Khan ever recorded with Conception. Believe me, this is saying a hell of a lot coming from me! Having been more impressed with their previous release “Epica” than any of Kamelot’s earlier albums, I was a bit more anxious than usual about hearing this album than I’ve been with any of their previous releases, especially when I started catching early reviews that were calling it their best album to date.

    I honestly had chills listening to the opening track, “March of Mephisto.” It’s that powerfully charged and melodic! With the perfect merge of symphonic melody, blistering guitar hooks and some of the most melodic vocals you’ll hear anywhere on the power metal scene, Kamelot have taken epic power metal to a whole new level with this song along with the equally stellar “Memento Mori,” their longest song to date, clocking in at just shy of 9 minutes. These two songs alone are worth the price of the album and easily rank in my book as two of the best power metal epics ever recorded and that’s certainly not to say that the rest of the album is filler because there is not a dud in the mix on this one. It’s almost as if the band went back and analyzed their entire career to discover the formula for every great song they’ve ever written and infused it into every song they wrote for this album, then one-upped them with an epic tone and some the catchiest power hooks they could muster. Add to this some special guest musicians that include Jens Johansson of Stratovarius on keys, Shagrath from Dimmu Borgir, who adds a touch of evil to the epic sound of both “March of Mephisto” and “Memento Mori” and Simone Simmons of the band Epica adding her hauntingly (no pun intended) beautiful vocals to “The Haunting (Somewhere in Time),” easily the most radio-friendly song on the album.

    This album will undoubtedly easily stand the test of time as Kamelot’s magnum opus and I’d rank it as, far and away, the best power metal epic that’s been released so far this decade! If you are among the group that has always equated this band with “dungeons and dragons metal,” this is the album that will most likely change your mind about them and win you over. Khan, who sounds quite a bit like Geoff Tate, has never sounded better than he does on this album, especially on the middle-eastern flared power epic that is the opening track. Kamelot have had this distinctive flare to their sound throughout their career, but there is just something that clicks here and brings it to a new level of perfection in epic proportion. They’ve also added a bit more of a progressive element to some of the songs here than we’ve heard on previous albums. This is especially evident on “Memento Mori.”

    Other album highlights include the incredibly melodic “When The Lights Are Down” and the powerful title track, but it’s difficult to pick favorites as this is one of the few Kamelot albums that I found extremely listenable from start to finish. They also include some interesting short interludes between songs, one of which even has Khan singing in Italian. The only song that tones down the epic power riffs that dominate the album is the atmospherically charged “Abandoned,” which heavily incorporates symphonic elements that perfectly complement Khan’s amazingly heart-wrenching vocals on this track. Lyrically, this album continues on the conceptual storyline started off on “Epica” of the battle between good and evil, but don’t let that scare you away. They pull it off with a melody and epic style (of near operatic proportions) that I have yet to hear any other band accomplish without starting to sound like a Disney movie soundtrack (take note, Symphony X). I have to agree with a previous review that there is unlikely to be a better album released in 2005 (although based on some samples I’ve heard of the new Pagan’s Mind, due in April, they may have just give Kamelot a run for their money). This is easily the most amazing album Kamelot have released to date and they will be hard-pressed to ever top it. “The Black Halo” is THE absolute must-have masterpiece of 2005 that will appeal to fans of epic power metal and progressive metal fans alike.

    Posted on November 28, 2009 - Permalink - Buy Now