It's a foregone conclusion that regardless of the outcry from numerous older fans of butchering a once powerful sound, Tobias Sammet will continue to insist that he has remained consistent in his approach from day one regarding his work with EDGUY and AVANTASIA. Sure, there will be an admission of an evolution of sound guided by the spirit of the time in question, but at no point will a mea culpa regarding a drop in quality be acknowledged from the same guy that went from the brilliance of "Mandrake" to the over-the-top buffoonery of "Age Of The Joker". But while the jury is still out on whether EDGUY will put out another album that's worth the average Power Metal enthusiast's time, some positive reforms are going on regarding the sound of AVANTASIA of late, thought they seem to be of the painfully gradual variety, as Toby seems hellbent on clinging to a number of the same errors that took this projects post-2002 material into the toilet.
"The Mystery Of Time" recovers lost ground primarily in the songwriting department, as a rekindled interest in the olden fantasy subjects has been given its proper prominence again, and along with it a more metallic edge. It's particularly noticeable on the faster numbers such as "Where Clock Hands Freeze" and "Invoke The Machine", the former of which features a brilliant vocal display out of Michael Kiske that takes one back to the high flying majesty heard on his work with this project early on. Both of these songs definitely bring in a familiar element of catchy hooks, but largely manage to avoid the muddied mess of rock guitar noise heard on the last couple albums. Similarly, when things go longer there is a bit less meandering from one section to the next, though nothing on here reaches the same pinnacle accomplished on "Seven Angels". Perhaps the closest contender to holding a candle to the earlier days in the down tempo department is the album's opener "Spectres", which does remind a bit of the closing song off the first "Metal Opera" album in "The Tower", particularly in its usage of brief piano ballad sections to counterbalance an otherwise heavier anthem.
Naturally, a gradual move towards a better sound of this sort is mired by some past pitfalls, and a few really blatant stains on an obviously tainted recent history have yet to be washed off. The worst offender is the limp-wrist pop ballad "Sleepwalking", which is 100% unfathomable sonic rubbish that will offend any ear that is uncomfortable with MATCHBOX 20 meets COLDPLAY drivel being on a metal album. Things take a slight step up on the second fit of balladry "What's Left Of Me", which comes off more as a 3rd rate homage to MEAT LOAF (a common well for Tobias to draw from, and one that he has done far better with in the past). What is perhaps most annoying about these songs is that they are utterly generic and unmemorable, and apart from the superior vocal abilities of the likes of Billy Byford, Joe Lynn Turner and Bob Catley, is indistinguishable from the ever expanding pile of rubbish populating rock radio of late. But one thing that is almost as annoying is the garbled, mushy guitar tone that Sascha Paeth keeps using to punish the ears of those who want to hear an actual Power Metal album. In the early 2000s, Henjo Richter brought a punchy, clear, Speed Metal-like character to what would otherwise have been an extremely formulaic latter day HELLOWEEN homage, and his presence probably would have helped a number of these songs quite a bit.
There seems to be a growing consensus that "The Mystery Of Time" is a departure from the so-called "The Scarecrow" sound, which also hints at a return to the good old days. I agree with this sentiment in part, as Toby appears to be looking for something musically, but has stopped a bit short of actually finding it and taking ownership of it yet again. Older guard fans of this band back in the days when STRATOVARIUS, HELLOWEEN and GAMMA RAY were having a more direct influence on Sammet's sound are advised to approach this album with a degree of caution and with a bit less cash in hand. In fact, those going the digital route are encouraged to skip over purchasing the ballads on here and pretending that they don't exist. Better yet, while at it, one would do well to pretend that this project hadn't put out anything since 2002 and keep hoping that this project will, in time, do the same.
(Online April 3, 2013)