AVANTASIA – Where Clock Hands Melt
The brainchild of Edguy vocalist Tobias Sammet, German power metal outfit Avantasia was to initially disband following touring commitments for full-lengths The Wicked Symphony and Angels Of Babylon. Platters four and five respectively, both were simultaneously released in April 2010. The pair in question concluded The Wicked Trilogy, a trio of records inaugurated by January 2008 outing The Scarecrow. By 2011, Avantasia had been in existence for 12 years.
“I thought I had said everything, and I thought that it was time to focus on Edguy and just force the end of it upon myself,” Tobias reflects. “I was so happy that I had come to that point – where I had finished the second tour successfully without anybody getting killed, and without big damage. We headlined Wacken twice, we just had a number one DVD release in Germany (March 2011’s The Flying Opera), and the last studio album (The Wicked Symphony) had been at number two in Germany. I thought ‘This is as big as it gets, without causing damage to anybody or me (laughs).’ I was just happy that I made it out alive, and so I thought ‘Now it’s time to focus on Edguy again.’ That’s what I did, and I thought it was the right step at the time.
“I really wanted to make a statement with Edguy, which we did with Age Of The Joker (August 2011) I believe. It may sound clichéd, but you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone. I realised how much I needed to be creative, because Avantasia gives me the ultimate opportunity to be creatively free. There are no limits and boundaries; you create a world of its own, and you paint it the way you want it to be painted. You create characters for a story that you’ve written, and then you make these characters come alive by choosing vocalists out of your record collection to sing those characters and those songs. There are no limits and no boundaries. I needed that creative thing. Even though I didn’t want the stress part of it, I needed to be creative.”
The Mystery Of Time’s March 2013 issue subdues speculation regarding Avantasia’s future. “I didn’t want to do it again originally, but I just had the urge of being creative,” the mainman reiterates. “In between getting lost in the routine of the music business, every man needs a hobby. I was sneaking into the basement, but instead of painting tin soldiers or playing golf or tuning my car I was being creative, coming up with a little story, and putting little bits and pieces of songs together. All of a sudden, I realised that this is the quintessence of what Avantasia is all about.
“I think about half a year after I had done what was meant to be Avantasia’s last show (August 6th, 2011 at the Wacken Open Air festival in Germany), I discovered myself at the beginning of writing a new Avantasia chapter. It wasn’t meant to be a lie when I said I didn’t wanna do it again, but I just couldn’t resist. I didn’t even realise what I was doing when I was doing it. I just had the urge of being creative, and Avantasia for me is a great way to recharge my batteries. It may sound like a paradox – to be recovering from the stress of the music business by doing even more music (laughs) – but it’s the truth. It’s my hobby, and I had to do it again.”
The outing’s storyline concerns itself with the concept of time, of course. “It’s about the lack of time, and about how everybody seems to be busy,” Tobias supplements. “If you take a look around, everybody’s busy running like on a hamster wheel or a treadmill. Everybody’s running, but nobody knows exactly what for and where they’re running. It seems like an invisible force is sucking away our time, so we keep ourselves busy with unimportant stuff. We don’t find the time any more to focus on what’s really important, and what we are doing all this for, and why are we doing all this.
“The story takes place in the 19th century in a small English town, where there’s a young scientist (Aaron Blackwell) trying to explore. He realises the same thing, that people around him don’t have time any more. He’s got a feeling that an invisible force is trying to take people’s time away, that people don’t have time to become aware of their spiritual roots and of spirituality in general. He explores that lack of time, and then he eventually explores the coherencies of his professional convictions as a scientist as well as spirituality, and the impact that time has on the whole thing. It’s a really exciting story, even though it’s a little bit out there. It’s got a lot to do with spirituality, and the pace that is forced upon our society if you take a look around. To me, it seems like an invisible force is trying to force a pace upon our society that is too fast and too much for us to handle. That’s what the story is about. I tried to write something that is really scary, that I really think about a lot, and that I’ve really experienced myself. I tried to put that into a beautiful, fantastic fairytale.”
Lyrics as well as musical fragments were authored in co-ordination. “It really works hand in hand,” the singer observes. At the beginning I just had song fragments, and that was all. I just had song fragments, and a feeling of what it could be about. In the beginning, when I start to work it’s very much instinctively free-flowing and free-styling. I just work on a bit of a song here, and another part of a song there. You just do it, and then you have an idea of what the story could be about, and it starts to take shape.
“It’s funny. When I really wrote down the beginning of the story, and what the album would be about… When I started to phrase my feelings and put them in order, and started to write that ‘Once upon a time…’ type fairytale, that was when I was in England – I was on tour with Edguy in February or March of 2012. I enhanced my stay, because I happened to find England and Great Britain in general… It might sound offensive, but it’s meant to be a compliment. I think clocks are moving a bit slower there. In most places in the world, everybody is so busy trying to scratch off any kind of patina, and trying to refurbish everything. They’re trying to maximise and optimise, and make everything new and effective.
“I think in England, I have a feeling. To me, it’s very romantic. To me, people just embrace patina. People embrace character that is attached to an object, and people embrace history. It’s not as fast; people are not so busy, and renewing everything. It’s a renewal mania in Germany, and so I just enhanced my stay in England and went to some historical sites. I just sat in some pub, had a couple of pints, and just started to write this story. It was so inspiring – it was a great, great, relaxing atmosphere. It’s pretty much a story that was born in England (laughs).”
In certain instances, Tobias pens compositions with a specific vocalist in mind to occupy microphone duties. “For example, with ‘Where Clock Hands Freeze’ I had the first initial idea for the melody of the chorus in the back of my mind, and I knew right at that same moment that it would be Michael Kiske (Unisonic / ex-Helloween) singing it,” he recalls. “Michael Kiske’s voice was the voice of this little angel called inspiration that was singing the song in the back of my mind. When I write songs like that… For example, when I wrote a song like ‘The Great Mystery’ I had Bob’s voice in the back of my mind. A song like that needs a voice not like Bob Catley’s (Magnum), but the voice of Bob Catley.
“That’s how it came together, but with some other vocalists… For example, with ‘Black Orchid’ or ‘Invoke The Machine’ – with songs like that – the song was there, and then I thought ‘Who could be the right vocalist for that?’ You go through your record collection, and then you say all of a sudden ‘Yeah. That would be it. It’s got to be Biff Byford (Saxon),’ or ‘… It’s got to be Joe Lynn Turner (ex-Rainbow),’ or ‘… It’s got to be Ronnie Atkins (Pretty Maids),’ or ’… Eric Martin (Mr. Big).’ It’s a very intuitive thing. You write it, and then you know the kind of voice that should be singing it. You then have to go through your record collection, to find out which voice has which name (laughs).”
Certain guests who lend vocals to The Mystery Of Time’s numbers were acquaintances of the frontman, but not all. “For example, I’ve known Biff Byford for a very, very long time,” he divulges. “I was onstage with Saxon as a guest of theirs at Wacken Open Air in 2007. We’ve known each other for a very long time, and it was overdue to work with Biff. He’s a legend; he’s one of the finest voices in the history of heavy metal. He was there when heavy metal literally got invented, so it was overdue. Other people like Ronnie Atkins for example, I had already asked in the early days. I had asked Ronnie in ’99 for The Metal Opera (January 2001), but he didn’t wanna do it back then. I had to ask again 13 years later, and finally he agreed.
“With other musicians like Joe Lynn Turner or Eric Martin for example, it was just getting in touch with them, asking them, explaining the project to them, and waiting for their answer. Luckily, they accepted the invitations. It’s always a little bit tricky – or can be tricky at times – when you have to wait for answers and you have to make things work, especially with people who have never worked with you before. It went quite smoothly for this record, though.”
Not all potential guests were able to appear on the full-length. “To be honest, I was just thinking about somebody who I wanted to have, and who I had talked to last week,” Tobias explains. “There was one, though – Slash (guitarist, ex-Guns ’N Roses / Velvet Revolver). I wanted to have Slash. We were on tour with Slash, but he was so busy that he couldn’t squeeze it in. I didn’t even try to work with Bruce Dickinson this time, but one day I will work with Bruce Dickinson. It’s probably his schedule – Iron Maiden doing a lot of stuff, Bruce flying a lot of aeroplanes, doing books, movies, and what have you. He’s such an all-round, busy guy that it’s really difficult to even get in touch with him, but one day I will get him (laughs). It’s a dream, and it’s also great to have unfulfilled dreams so there’s something that you can keep on working at.”
Uriah Heep sticksman Russell Gilbrook stepped behind the drumkit for The Mystery Of Time. “I was looking for a drummer,” the vocalist remembers. “At first I planned to have Eric Singer on the album of course, because he had played on the last several Avantasia records. He was busy with Kiss, though. I wanted to have a real rock drummer who technically had the skills to drum heavy metal. I wanted to have people with a rock background – John Bonham (Led Zeppelin). A heavy metal version of John Bonham and Cozy Powell (ex-Rainbow / ex-Black Sabbath). I remembered that I had once played a show with Edguy, and Uriah Heep had played as well. I watched the Heep show.
“Usually I prepare for our own show, and so I don’t have the opportunity to watch the band that goes on prior to our show because I have to get ready for our own show. I remember that I stood at the side of the stage though, and that I couldn’t stop watching because he was demanding my attention because it was so great. He was beating that poor drumkit – I felt so sorry for the drumkit – and that was Russell Gilbrook. When Eric Singer said he couldn’t do it because he was busy working with Kiss on a new album, I got in touch with Russell. I contacted him via Facebook. Russell agreed, and then three weeks later he was in a cinema in Hamburg where we recorded the drums. It’s a studio, an old cinema. It was a great drum recording room.”
Erstwhile Kiss axeman Bruce Kulick and At Vance co-founder Oliver Hartmann supply the majority of the platter’s guitar parts, meanwhile. “There are four guitar players on this record, which is really insane, but it’s great,” Tobias enthuses. “It’s Sascha Paeth, of course – the producer. Then it’s Oliver Hartmann on additional lead guitars, and then there’s Bruce Kulick on additional lead guitars and Arjen Lucassen. Bruce was obvious, because he brings in an American aspect. It’s a very European record, but if you have the chance to have somebody bring in a different sort of paint – a different touch – then it’s always great. Bruce is an American, and comes from a bluesy, American background. That gives the whole thing an exciting, new appeal, and of course if you get the chance to work with a guy who played in Kiss for 12 years, and who played for Meat Loaf… Jim Steinman is one of my biggest songwriting influences, so if you get that chance then you’ve got to seize it. I’ve been friends with Bruce for a very long time now, and it was obvious that I would ask him again.
“With Arjen Lucassen, it’s funny. I sang for his project once – Ayreon. He found out about my project – the new Avantasia album – on the internet. He got in touch with me, and said ‘Hey, I heard you’re doing a new Avantasia album. I wanna pay my debts.’ He played on the record as well, which was great. Oliver Hartmann is the live guitar player as well. They’re members of the Avantasia family. Everybody is a member of the Avantasia family – all of the aforementioned – but Oliver Hartmann and Sascha Paeth have been Avantasia guitar players for a very long time, and also the live guitar players. I’m blessed to have worked with four great guitar players.”
The topics of Kiss sparks discussion as to the possibility of vocalist Paul Stanley appearing on a future Avantasia full-length. “I think I would have to sell my house then,” the lyricist chuckles. “Of course I’m a huge fan of Paul Stanley and I will try that one day, but I seriously don’t think there’s gonna be that much of a chance unless he really listens to it and thinks it’s something exciting. From an economic standpoint though, I think it would be really hard to make that work. He makes more money in one night with Kiss than I make in a whole year, so I think it would be a little bit difficult to arrange (laughs). You never know, though. Maybe he will listen to Avantasia one day, and will think it’s great and would be worthwhile doing. If he was interested in doing it for the right reasons then it would be a dream of mine, but I don’t necessarily expect that to happen. I’m realistic. Bruce Dickinson is my number one priority. Then I can go to Paul Stanley, and say ‘If it was good enough for Bruce, it should be good enough for you as well (laughs).’”
The German Film Orchestra Babelsburg provide orchestration to The Mystery Of Time. “I had worked with them before for the Hellfire Club album (April 2004) with Edguy, and I knew that it was a major event to be working with a real orchestra,” Tobias cites. “As you can imagine, nothing compares to working with a real orchestra. When you enter a room and 60 people with real, old, classic wooden instruments who’ve all studied music start to play songs that I have written in my little music room in our basement, that’s an amazing feeling. There’s so much energy, so much power, and so many vibrations in the room when you enter a room like that. It’s unbelievable. It’s almost a sacred moment. That was great, and I knew that that would be a great feeling.
“What you always have to be aware of is that in the end, you may be the only person who can tell the difference between an orchestra and a well programmed keyboard orchestra. I took that risk though, because I said, ‘Down the line I will know that it’s a real orchestra, and it’s me that I’m recording this album for.’ Of course I need to sell it so I will get the chance to be financed for another one – to get the budget to produce another album – but ultimately, it’s only me that I want to please. I know that there’s an orchestra on it, and so it was obvious for me that I would do it this time. It was a gut decision. After I had written the song ‘Black Orchid’, I just thought ‘This needs a real orchestra.’ It’s not too fast and it’s not too filled up with sound information, so you may hear the organic benefits of a true orchestra on that song. That was a gut decision, very subconscious.”
Crafting The Mystery Of Time was “just approached very innocently. I didn’t even have a goal, and I didn’t have a vision of what the end result should sound like. I just wanted to compose a new piece of music, be innocently creative, and just have a great time producing the album. The quest was the purpose, and so the journey was its reward. It was the rainbow itself, and not the pot of gold that was to be found maybe at the end of the rainbow. I enjoyed the production process, and didn’t have any ambitions of a certain direction. The whole thing comes across as a little more conceptual than the previous records.
“If you take a look at the previous records – especially if you read the stories and take a look at the booklets – you have the feeling that they’re albums by Tobias Sammet and friends. With the new album, you have the feeling that this is absolutely a mature, grown-up rock opera. It feels like a rock opera; it was created like a rock opera and it is a rock opera, and I think that’s a big difference, that everything goes much, much more hand in hand with each other on this album. It’s a more fitting, close, compact concept all the way through.”
Cover artwork duties were handled by Rodney Matthews. “I wanted to have a real artwork that was hand crafted, hand painted,” the mainman elaborates. “A piece of art for a hand crafted piece of music. I thought it may not be modern and it may not be trendy to have such an artwork – a fairytale’ish artwork – on an album like The Mystery Of Time, but I didn’t care. I’m a huge Rodney Matthews fan, and I really wanted to have that true piece of art. I thought this album – having consumed so much of my time and my love for detail, and so many true artists and musicians having been involved in the production – didn’t deserve anything but a true piece of art even on the cover, so I asked my favourite fantasy painter Rodney Matthews.”
A limited edition version of The Mystery Of Time includes bonus tracks. “One is ‘Death Is Just A Feeling’,” informs Tobias. “It’s a song that was on the Angel Of Babylon record, but this is the version with my guide vocals on that we sent to Jon Oliva (Jon Oliva’s Pain / Savatage / Trans-Siberian Orchestra) back then to have him sing the vocals on. The other song is ’The Cross And You’, and that’s a completely new song. It’s a little bit Queensrÿche’ish, but a great track I think. It’s just me on vocals, but it’s a great, anthemic song.”
A music video was filmed for the composition ’Sleepwalking’, with vocals on that specific track being lent by Cloudy Yang. “’Sleepwalking’ is the only song that is below the four-minute benchmark, and it’s the poppiest song on the album,” the singer critiques. “We needed to do a song like that because if you wanna have a chance to be played on television during the daytime, you have to pick a song that is either a ballad or a poppier song. We don’t have much pop on the album; the only poppy song on the album really is ’Sleepwalking’, and it’s below the four-minute benchmark. We could’ve also gone for ’The Great Mystery’, which I think is an epic piece of music. It’s a little opera within an opera, but it’s ten minutes long, and it doesn’t make sense to shoot a video for a ten-minute long song.
“When we shot the video for ’Sleepwalking’ in the forest, it was 6 degrees below zero; it was fucking cold, it was snowing, and it was windy. It took 14 hours to shoot in the forest, and it’s an enchanting video. It’s like it was taken right out of Sleepy Hollow (1999), or Brothers Grimm – a really amazing video.”
At the time of writing, a DVD chronicling a select live performance from The Mystery Of Time’s touring commitments hasn’t been planned. “I’ve read on the internet that some festival announced that we’re gonna do a DVD, but that’s not true,” Tobias cautions. “I never said that; nothing is planned in that regard. We’ll see. I haven’t thought about it yet.”
Edguy plan to author a tenth studio full-length album. “I talked to Jens recently,” the frontman discloses. “Right after the tour in September, we’re gonna throw ideas back and forth into a bucket on the table – everybody. We’ll then slowly but surely start working on a new Edguy record. I think it’s gonna be out sometime in 2014, but nothing is written yet.”
Additional Avantasia studio outings seem likely. “There’ll definitely be The Mystery Of Time Part II, but I don’t know,” Tobias muses. “I wanna focus on Edguy first after The Mystery Of Time. I don’t know when another Avantasia record will come out, but there will be The Mystery Of Time Part II. It has not been composed yet, so I expect this to come out maybe in 2015, 2016. There will have to be a continuation story-wise though, because the story continuation isn’t complete yet. There are some pieces of music, but I have had to put everything to rest since October or November 2012 I’d say. I have ideas for two or three more songs, but there isn’t 40% of the material written for an album or something – nothing like that. I have put it onto a shelf, and will forget about it until it’s time to work on a new Avantasia album.”
The Mystery Of Time was released in Japan on March 27th, 2013 via Avalon / Marquee. The album was subsequently issued on the 29th in Europe and on April 30th in North America, all via Nuclear Blast Records.
Interview published in April 2013.
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