AVANTASIA - Go Big Or Go Home Ghost Stories

January 28, 2016, 8 years ago

By Carl Begai

feature heavy metal avantasia

AVANTASIA - Go Big Or Go Home Ghost Stories

"I'm always enthusiastic when we put out an album, and this time I think I'm even more enthusiastic."

Par for the course when dealing with Avantasia mastermind Tobias Sammet on any given day. Perhaps even a bit frightening. The man has been living and breathing music for over 20 years, having officially come into his own when Edguy released their debut album, Kingdom Of Madness, in 1997. It was when Sammet pulled a  fast one by daring to release a metal opera under the Avantasia name in 2001 - appropriately titled The Metal Opera - that people started taking him seriously, or at least treating him as someone who should be watched carefully for repeated bursts of questionable behaviour. Legend has it that The Metal Opera was meant to be a one-off, but 15 years and a loyal international fanbase later Avantasia have unleashed their seventh official studio album, Ghostlights. To say Sammet is excited is an understatement, and he has every right to be when riding the high of an album that's as Meatloaf / Savatage theatrical as it is trademark Tobias Sammet metal.

"Yes, absolutely, but it wasn't meant to be like that," Sammet insists. "There was no masterplan. A lot of journalists have asked if I intended to make this such a big-sounding theatrical record, and the answer is no, I didn't intend anything. I didn't even know where this would bring us, I didn't even push the music in a certain direction. The music was dragging us in a certain direction and that's probably the most innnocent and best approach you can have when writing music. Just do it, enjoy it, feel great while doing it, and see what comes out in the end."

"I've defended the analog sound we did in the past, that old school let-it-sound-like-Ronnie-James-Dio-in-1983 kind of production, and I still think I was right to do so, but Sascha (Paeth/guitars, producer) decided we should do whatever the music needed. 'Let it just happen,' he said and this is what came out. The song 'Let The Storm Descend Upon You' is probably one of the most epic tracks I've done in the Avantasia context; it's a big sounding arrangement with a lot of things that do not make sense according to the book of rules on how to compose a song. It's not very reasonable to start a song with a one minute intro, and then do a second overture, and have the first chorus after three-and-a-half minutes, but I don't think you perceive it as something that doesn't make sense. The whole song just developed. It was one of the last tracks I wrote for the record."

Sammet seemingly searched far and wide to bring some new voices into the Avantasia rogue's gallery, a long standing tradition in the project's history. Robert Mason (Warrant), Sharon den Adel (Within Temptation), Marco Hietala (Nightwish), Twisted Sister frontman Dee Snider and former Queensrÿche vocalist Geoff Tate - now fronting Operation: Mindcrime - are the new voices on the roster this time out, with Snider and Tate being the big surprises. Then again, Sammet managed to conscript Alice Cooper and Jon Oliva for previous Avantasia outings, so Snider's and Tate's involvement is simply another example of Sammet's "go big or go home" philosophy.

"I never thought 'I want to work with Dee Snider and make a track nobody will expect.' There was no intention to do something out of the ordinary. The song 'The Haunting' was completely finished - the music, the arrangement, and a recording with the demo vocals - before I even considered Dee to be part of that song. I was looking for somebody theatrical to play a character that was mean, flamboyant, sort of like The Child Catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. But also, I needed somebody who could carry the notes like in a Broadway chorus. I was going through my record collection and I thought 'Dee Snider...' but I have no idea why. It just came to my mind based on intuition. It wasn't reasonable, but to me in my little twisted mind and world it made sense. I contacted Dee and told him I had this really weird song, would he mind listening to it and maybe sing on it? He let me know via his management that he loved the track and wanted to do it."

Sammet had Snider and Tate step out of their respective comfort zones for Ghostlights to some degree, although Snider is no stranger to theatrical productions (Rock Of Ages, Dee Snider's Rock & Roll Christmas Tale) and Tate is still able to pull off classic era Queensrÿche-isms when he has a mind to do so.

"I'm really happy that with music you can actually achieve things like that," says Sammet. "You can't expect it because the artist has to like it, and they have the right to say no. And it's not that these artists are starving and I can bribe them. I'm just fortunate that Avantasia has a great reputation in several parts of the world - Europe, South America, Asia - and that definitely helps. Still, I was completely blown away that Dee agreed to do it. It's not something to be taken for granted."

"The same with Geoff. Everybody says 'That track ('Seduction Of Decay') was tailored for Geoff Tate.' No, it wasn't. When I started writing the song and I had a couple riffs and the chorus, it sounded like an epic heavy metal version of 'Black Dog'. It was a heavy metal blues song with an epic chorus. I felt it should be sung by singer in vein of a young Robert Plant. The young Robert Plant wasn't available (laughs). Jorn (Lande) could have sung the song perfectly but I needed another character in the storyline, and I thought it was too obvious to give the song what stood to reason. That wasn't what Avantasia was supposed to be. The mid-section of the song reminded me vaguely of Rage For Order-era Queensrÿche and I was thinking 'What would Geoff Tate do?' I suggested it to him and he loved the song. I got the track with his vocals back and it gave me goosebumps. One big goosebump (laughs)."

Ghostlights also features the return several vocalists who have made their mark on previous Avantasia records and on tour. Michael Kiske (Unisonic, ex-Helloween), Jorn Lande (ex-Masterplan), Ronnie Atkins (Pretty Maids) and Bob Catley (Magnum) have become as familiar on the Avantasia set as Sammet himself.

"Whatever I do is a mix of exploring new territory with saber and torch, going to places where I have no idea what's goingto happen. But also, I like to explore territory with a past even though some people who prefer the older Avantasia stuff say I've forgotten about the past of this band. Which is bullshit (laughs). I'm really fond of and proud of the past, and I embrace it. I'm a very traditional person and I don't want to dwell in the past, but I like looking back. People like Bob Catley, Michael Kiske, Jorn Lande and Ronnie Atkins, I just have so many positive memories. They're like a haven for me. They're associated with Avantasia and that's something I don't want to miss out on."

"I think I've listened to 'Eagle Fly Free' - and this is just an estimated figure - about 17,000 times (laughs). It's in my DNA, so when we did 'Reach Out For The Light' back in The Metal Opera days of Avantasia it was an attempt to compose music for Michael's voice, and to create a song that didn't exist before. I didn't want to rewrite 'Eagle Fly Free', but I wanted to write a song with Michael on it that I hadn't heard before. We have a great friendship, and it's really inspiring to compose music with those friends and voices where I immediately know which direction the song will take you. Songs like 'Ghostlights', 'Restless Heart' and 'Obsidian Skies', they are based on that security that I feel when thinking of my buddies around me that are a part of Avantasia."

Credit it where it's due, Sammet is a solid singer that has done his German happy metal heritage proud time and again with both Avantasia and Edguy. Ghostlights is no exception in this regard. Additionally, he displays a mighty showing of balls on Ghostlights by putting himself in the ring with the likes of Kiske, Tate, Lande, Snider and Hietala, all of whom are singers to be reckoned with on their own.

"You're giving me credit for having other singers on the album that outshine me? Who have much more talent than me?" Sammet laughs, mockingly threatening to end the interview prematurely due his ego being horribly damaged. "I understand what you're saying. One secret to being successful is to surround yourself with people that are better than you or at least on par, because there's a saying that if you're the smartest person in the room you're in the wrong room. The only way to get better is to surround yourself with talent. I've been blessed by being able to take vocal lessons by standing in front of 70,000 people at Wacken Open Air next to Michael Kiske. It should be embarrassing but it's not because I'm just thankful for that. I know I'm not the greatest singer in the world but I'm really happy with what I can do and knowing what I'm not capable of."   

As to the aforementioned questionable behaviour on Sammet's part, he raised the ire and eyebrows of many fans when it was announced a week before Ghostlights' release that Avantasia was one of 10 acts vying to represent Germany in the annual music world car crash known as Eurovision (if you've never seen it, believe it when we say it's not pretty). Surely he had to be joking, but it turns out there's a method to his madness as there always is.

He laughs, clearly pleased that nobody on the inside has gotten the joke yet. "Who am I to get in the way of a great promotional opportunity?"

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