Company: Nuclear Blast
Pleasant surprise from a bunch of veterans and a very talented newcomer
Every once in a while within the sheer volume of metal releases, a new release comes along that makes me feel truly privileged to hear it. Avatarium's eponymous debut is just such a release. The brainchild of bassist/songwriter Leif Edling of Swedish doom metal legends Candlemass, Avatarium also features former C-Mass keyboardist Carl Westholm, guitarist Marcus Jidell (Royal Hunt, Evergrey and briefly, C-Mass), drummer Lars Sköld (Tiamat) and an impressive new vocal talent by the name of Jennie-Ann Smith.
The album kicks off in solid but not quite top-notch form, with a long, lumbering folk-metal epic of a tune called "Moonhorse," which at first sounds much like Candlemass with it's dark, thunderous riffing. But then the barrage stops, replaced by a gently strummed acoustic guitar and elegant, gentle vocals from Smith, telling the story of an ill child experiencing strange dreams and wishing to be with the creatures in those dreams. It alternates repeatedly between heavy and mellow, boorish and beautiful, with Jidell providing plenty of tasty lead in the form of both a conventional guitar solo and a slide solo, both with a tasty, glassy, Ritchie Blackmore-esque tone. At 8:41 in length, the song is a large pill to swallow for an opening track, but with enough going on to make it rewarding. And for this reason, it's somewhat indicative of the album as a whole.
"Pandora's Egg" covers similar ground, establishing a solid and interesting sort of doom/folk hybrid that recalls Blue Oyster Cult-style myth-inspired rock and the darkest folk tunes you've ever heard as much as it does Candlemass. Quality-wise, however, things really get rolling with third track (much like Sabbath's "13" album), all 8:11 of the title tune crammed with haunting vocals, slow-burning doom riffage, bittersweet melody, and yes, more tasty slide guitar. To be honest, the heaviest, doomiest portions of this record get a little ponderous (much like Candlemass, as great as I think that band is), but every time this is about to become a problem, a stunning vocal or guitar part breaks things up and saves the day.
"Boneflower," fairly sprightly and varied, and a mere 5:26 in length, would be an excellent choice for a single, showcasing much of what makes this band great without overwhelming the listener. (Never mind that lyrics about creepy wooded areas where lovers go to commit suicide when denied the opportunity to remain together usually isn't the stuff of a feel-good hit) Leif has compared this track the the Mamas and Papas, and with the haunting female vocals, simple but catchy chord progression and "California Dreaming"-like tempo, I'd say that is an apt comparison.
"Bird of Prey" (no, not the Uriah Heep tune, but not too far removed from that band's style) is a particularly riveting and haunting tune, telling the story of a Jack the Ripper-type character in Berlin. Though it features more heavy, vaguely Candlemass-like riffing, this track starts and finishes with some of the record's most compelling mellow moments, with Jidell offering guitar work that reminds me of the Scorpions' classic 1975 album "In Trance" (one of my favorite records ever) on the intro, and Smith gently crooning what sounds like the thoughts of a dying murder victim over slow, gentle, deliberate piano work to close the song. Eerie, elegant stuff!
At this point, I might as well name them all. "Tides of Telepathy" combines the band's melodic, slightly progressive doom tendencies with a well-conceived arrangement (although the drum intro to the song's final section is suspiciously similar to that of "The Sound of Dying Demons," from Candlemass' last album, "Psalms For the Dead"). Album closer "Lady in the Lamp" isn't one of the strongest tracks on the album, but serves the purpose album wind-down effectively, given that it is the lone track not to feature any substantial amount of heavy riffing.
In short, "Avatarium" is a pleasant surprise from a bunch of veterans and a very talented newcomer, a group with some unique ideas about what to do with a genre that could use some new twists. With lots to keep one's interest and little filler to speak of, Avatarium are off to a very strong start, and appear likely to hatch more future classics if they maintain their current creative trajectory. Doom album of the year? Quite possibly.