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”