Album Review: A Paranormal Evening with the Moonflower Society

Tobias Sammet’s Avantasia. A Paranormal Evening with the Moonflower Society. (CD and MP3) 2022.

Short version – a fun, odd album from a number of major names in metal, including Floor Jansen.

As readers know, Avantasia is one of my favorite symphonic metal groups. Tobias Sammet writes melodic songs, often linked by a shared story of some kind, and invites other musicians to join in the fun. Ronnie Adkins, Hansi Kusch, Candice Knight, Herbie Langhans and others have all appeared on earlier albums. Avantasia’s sound varies from power metal and speed metal to slower ballads. The new release, although not as complex as earlier collections, is a solid continuation of the 2019 symphonic metal album Moonglow. A Paranormal Evening with the Moonflower Society continues the story of the creature that began with Moonglow.

This is a smaller album, both in terms of instrumentation and length. There are no 11 minute ballads like “Let the Storm Descend Upon You” or “Raven Child.” “Arabesque,” the album close, is 10 minutes but it doesn’t feel as complex as the previous songs. This is in part because Sammet has gone back to the basic guitars, percussion, keyboards, and vocals. He’s upfront about it, and the accompaniments and harmonies are still complicated and “thick” sounding, which is what I expect from Avantasia. This is more of standard metal album, while continuing the Avantasia sound. “The Moonflower Society” and “Wicked Rule the Night” are pure metal. “Paper Plane” is a slower, melodic ballad-type song.

The lyrics on this album can feel a bit odd. I think part of it is that (for me at least) it is a continuation of the story from Moonglow, so you need to remember that the creature is exploring, trying to find something or some place familiar and home. In part, Sammet seems to have hit a bit of difficulty with some of the poetry in the lyrics, maybe because there are some usages that are non-standard. It’s not bad, just a bit odd in places, but that appeared in earlier works as well. Writing poetry (and poetic song lyrics) in a second language is hard, and Sammet does a very good job.

I really like the sound overall. It’s not as lush as the earlier albums, but still very good. Floor Jansen and the other guests do an excellent job, as always. I’d love to hear another duet with Herbie Langhans in his non-rock singing voice (or Floor shifting to head tone instead of the rock register), but that’s just me. My favorite songs are probably “The Moonflower Society,” “Scars,” and
Arabesque,” but every number is all solid.

The album art looks as if Tim Burton summoned Edward Gorey’s ghost and they doodled while knocking back espresso and absinthe. Which fits with the look of Moonglow, just dialed up to 10 from 8.

I’d recommend this to Avantasia fans, fans of melodic metal, and those who like a little vocal variety in their albums. The two previous albums are still my favorites, but this one’s growing on me.

(Side note. I was listening to older Nightwish music for the Boss Fight in a novella, and realized that there are bits of Moonflower that seem to nod to Nightwish. Is it because of Floor singing on this album, because Nightwish has gone into hiatus, or because the two composers share melodic tendencies?)

FTC Notice: I purchased this for my own use, and received no compensation for this review.

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New Music All Over

So, not only did Avantasia release a new album – with cover art that looks as if Tim Burton summoned Edward Gorey’s ghost and they traded notes over coffee and absinthe – but Blind Guardian, Nox Arcana, Dark Sarah,Walk in Darkness, and a few other groups have also released albums, or will before the end of the year. Plus some classical recordings, folk music, and so on. Apparently a lot of pent up creativity has been unleashed in the studios just as soon as it was possible to do so. My ears love it. My budget is whimpering. And I want more.

One thing I noticed recently, as I was going through the next book and trying to exorcise most of the “teh” and “fond” instead of “find” and so on, was how little music is in the book compared to others. Jude doesn’t listen to the radio. He’s not into a music/cultural scene of any kind. He doesn’t go to concerts in Riverton, for obvious reasons. His Familiar finally has to explain why Master Saldovado looks like “a dark peacock.” He does have a very good singing voice when he uses it, something the new priest in his parish hopes to persuade him to do more. But music isn’t a part of his life the way it is for André and Lelia, or Master Saldovado, or Nikolai.

So I was listening to the new album and thinking about a world without lots and lots of music. I’ve been there once or twice, and it was uncomfortable. I need music, either singing or playing it myself, or listening to it. It’s something that’s immersed me since I was born, and is part of my world, even when I grouse about rehearsals, and if [composer] ever talked to the singers when he wrote the line for us. (Or as someone in the group grumbled apropos the 9th Symphony, “I think Beethoven went deaf to the human voice before he stopped hearing the instruments. That’s why we have to sing loud all the time.”)

We live in a very fortunate world, to have so much music available in it. If you like medieval or early Renaissance stuff, you can find it pretty easily. Modern folk from Scandinavia? No problem. Anime soundtracks? They might be a little more expensive, but you can find them within a few minutes of searching. Amazing recordings of fantastic (and now deceased) opera singers, or Lieder specialists, or all of the Brandenburg concerti in one recording, or the complete works of Bach, or music played on this particular pipe organ, or . . . . Now, granted, I have found a few dead-on-this-side-of-the-Atlantic ends vis-a-vis some English “cathedral organists,” because no one recorded their music in ways that are available at the moment. But that’s a tiny drop in the ocean of spoken word and music from all times and places that we can find today. And in some cases, hear live. My region produces amazing choirs and orchestras, because we have a tradition of entertaining ourselves. And after a while, it becomes a badge of honor to have an institution that has survived war, Depression, and so on, AND 2020-2021.

Likewise books in various languages, works of art, and other cultural things. It’s a great time to be alive and interested!

Brain-Tired from Music?

No, I’m not trying to do a music theory analysis of free-form academic jazz. That falls under “These are trained professionals, do NOT try this at home.” No, I’m talking about why it felt like I was thinking through a fog after back-to-back intense rehearsals.

The group I sing with is at the point that we are moving away from “repeat phrases and sections until we can’t get them wrong” drill-n-kill practice to “what is the composer trying to accomplish?” In this case, it is a very unusual marriage of liturgical text with technically difficult music. In some ways, it’s easier to do Christian religious music from the Medieval to the Baroque because the Catholic Church had official and customary ways of setting certain texts in order to emphasize certain meanings. That started to go out the window in the mid-1700s, if the composer was good enough and if his patrons were willing.

So now, in addition to remembering the notes, the text and its meaning, and the special technique needed to do this music properly, the chorus is having to try and understand exactly what the composer wanted the listeners to feel. No, I’m not naming names, because this isn’t unique to this person. However, we, the chorus, generally don’t tackle this kind of work. We’re better known for purely vocal things like Renaissance madrigals and modern a capella pieces. Piano or organ and a few strings or woodwinds are the usual accompaniment, if there is any. The current cantata is a big mental shift from our usual.

I’ve had this feeling before, when doing some organ music as an undergrad. The organ requires both keyboard technique and an understanding of what sounds are required. A piano varies in volume, and in duration of notes, but an organ has a lot more sound possibilities. However, you can’t change the volume by pushing harder on the key. You either use the swell pedal (which changes the sound color as well as volume), or add and remove stops. When was the piece written? What sound did organs of that time and place have? How would this music be used? All those shape your interpretation as you adapt a modern instrument to older music. A Spanish early Baroque “Tiento de Batalla” is going to be hard to register on, oh, a church organ that is based on French Romantic sounds. Likewise a composition by Gabriel Faure isn’t going to work on a Bach (German baroque) instrument. It can be done, but the sound is not French Romantic, exactly.

Humans can’t change our stops, unless you count the male falsetto register. So we have to use a lot of other tips and tricks and techniques, all of which require both physical and mental effort. So I end rehearsal in a brain fog from trying to remember everything the music, text, and conductor demand. It’s a much an intellectual exercise as translating German into English, or reading an academic work in an unfamiliar field (say, geochemistry or paleo-mammal taxonomy). I’m a much better vocalist for all this work, but my brain is mush.

That Explains the Cold Temps . . .

Monday, Herr. Dr. Director said, “Sopranos, I need more of you. Sing louder, those of you who can.”

Sopranos: Looking at each other with growing elation and anticipation*. Boss Sop: “Can we get that in writing, for posterity?” Much choral laughter ensued.

Wednesday, Senior Conductor said, “Basses! Where are you? The tenors are drowning you out, and they’re not even trying.”

Tenors: Much hand-slapping, and “At last!” and “We did it!”** Much choral laughter ensued.

Based on this, I think it is safe to say that a certain perpetually warm location is starting to suffer the effects of the energy crunch, and has lowered the thermostat.

*Sopranos are never, ever ordered to sing louder. Usually we get the polite version of “down boy! Heel!”

** The basses outnumber the tenors two to one, and there are two true operatic (professionally trained, sang operas in the US and Europe) basses in the herd.

Warm and Cool Voices

One of the intriguing things about the human voice is the sense of “color” that voices can convey. Vocalists, and some instrumentalists as well, talk about warm and cool sounds, or dark and bright sounds. It has to do with the depth and shading of the tones involved. A warm or dark tone sounds richer, with more harmonic shading while still holding a single note. A cool or bright tone tends to be clearer, with fewer overtones or less vibrato shading the pitch. Older singers often have richer, darker voices, but this is not always true [waves paw]. Certain instruments have darker “voices,” and organs can be registered for a bright or dark tone, depending on the stops chosen.*

I was thinking about this as I listened to a recording of a Spiritual that one of my choirs is considering doing. Here’s the recording:

Both the women’s section in general, and the soloist in particular, have a very dark, warm tone, especially for such a young choir. Many Spirituals and Gospel songs require a darker vocal tone, a mature voice that fits the emotions and depths of the song. (This carries over to R&B as well, where older women vocalists are preferred to younger ones. It’s probably the only place in pop music where this is true.)

Renaissance and madrigals, and some Baroque and classical music, demands a purer tone, either to keep the slight pitch variations of vibrato from interfering with the actual notes, or because of the tight harmonics. Or because they were written for boy sopranos or castratos, and so just don’t work with a darker voice. It is hard for someone with a fully developed voice to keep all vibrato and color out of his or her voice, although men in falsetto come close. The easiest way is to tense the vocal cords, which strains the voice and interferes with tone quality. Try doing that for an hour – or better, don’t do that in the first place. Mozart’s choral works, Handel, Hayden, Bach, Scarlatti, Vittoria, they all need clearer voices that blend well, especially in the quieter passages. Solos often do better with a darker voice, but not always.

Some of us have naturally lighter vocal colors. My voice is somewhat warm, but very clear, because I damaged my vocal cords when I was a teenager. (Sopranos should not try to sing tenor at full volume. Bad things happen to the vocal instrument.) My voice remained a “boy choir” voice until I was in my mid-thirties, and even today I have no vibrato to speak of. I can blend with pretty much any other voice. This makes me in high demand for Renaissance music, and as a choral-support singer. I can’t do the great soprano solos, even when they are in my range, because I sound “funny” compared to a woman with a truly developed, darker voice.

MomRed’s voice is like warm cinnamon bread with raisins, or was when she was in her prime. She’d be ideal for the solo in “In the Cool of the Day.” It was a dark, rich voice perfect for lullabys, Spirituals, and other roles. I wanted a voice like that. I’m smaller than Mom (strike one), built more like Dad (a tenor. Strike two), and then had the vocal damage (strike three). So I sing boy-choir solos and Renaissance and folk music.

*Within the constraints of the instrument. A Bach organ, or French Romantic, or Spanish Baroque, will sound very different, and some pieces won’t work as well on each one. Older instruments tend to be brighter and “buzzier,” in pert because of technologies at the time, in part because of sound preferences from different places and cultures.

Classical Creep

I was listening to a song by Blue Oyster Cult and recognized part of “Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini.” Granted, that was a very popular composition among rock guitarists at the time, but I had to grin. They also slipped in a bit of “Hall of the Mountain King” in a different piece. Classical music appears a lot more than people would think, once you really listen carefully. Bach, of course, and Sabaton uses Bach at least once per album, or so it feels. Orff’s Carmina Burana and the tune of the “Dies Irae” are also found in many places.

It’s intriguing how rock borrows from classical and liturgical sources. Soundtracks are (in)famous for it, and Basil Poledouris got into legal trouble for the original Conan score. Why John Williams didn’t get in similar trouble I’m not sure (both borrowed from Holst). The invention of the leitmotif by Wagner was a boon for later generations of composers. But to pull entire patterns and chunks of a composition . . . You don’t have to dig very deep into many rock-song writers’ backgrounds to find at least a basic education in the western musical canon. They have that tool in their toolboxes, and know what is available to fit the sound they want.

Soundtrack Review: The Rocketeer

Horner, James The Rocketeer 2020 remaster and 1991 original.

Way back when, Disney released a film that was pure 1930s pulp, with a fun soundtrack that included period pieces and period-sounding pieces. That movie was The Rocketeer. It was based on a comic-book series that was an homage to the pulps and adventure films of the 1920s-30s. The film is a romp, and the comics are very impressive (a full hardbound set is coming out this fall.) I’d sort of forgotten about the soundtrack until Sib-in-Law pinged me about it. It was released in 1991, re-released in 2016, and expanded and re-released last year.

James Horner (of Titanic fame, among other things), did the soundtrack. Like the film, it is great fun, and you will probably recognize the main theme, because it has been used here and there since the movie was released. The re-master includes the classic “Begin the Beguine,” well done by Melora Hardin (for the original instrumental version, see below).

The music is NOT, in general, 1930s sounding (as compared to soundtracks from actual movies of the era). It is very symphonic Hollywood, lots of soaring melodic lines and fast chase scenes, which fits the film. There are Big Band numbers as well, as befits the time and setting of a stunt pilot/barnstormer trying to romance a Hollywood starlet. (Howard Hughes appears as a character in the film, as does one of his actual aircraft designs. Those in the know laughed at that scene, or at least the pilots I know found it very entertaining.) The remastered soundtrack sounds good as either a CD or MP3.

The 2021 release includes both the later remastered version with additional songs and the two vocal numbers, and the original 1991 “theatrical soundtrack” which is shorter. The price for the MP3 file is reasonable. The prices for the CDs on Amazon started at $100.

I’d recommend this soundtrack recording for fans of the film, fans of pulp movies in general, adventure music buffs, and people looking for a fast, solid melodic recording for writing or work-outs.

FTC Notice: I purchased this soundtrack for my own use and received no remuneration from the composer or the studio.

I had to laugh . . .

So there, I was, driving Down State to visit friends last week. I could see the smoke of a grass or range fire a long time before I got close. I also had a CD in the stereo(Ghostlights by Avantasia).

Just as I got into the smoke, close enough to smell that it was mostly grass with a little brush, the chorus of “Babylon Vampyres” began.

Babylon is burning, shining from afar
Babylon is burning
From sunset to sunrise
Babylon is burning
and you‘re glowing like a fiery star
And no one can tell if we’ve been for real
Yeah

(Tobias Sammet “Babylon Vampyres”)

I laughed. The timing was just too perfect. Yes, the Universe has quite a sense of humor!

Filk Infliction

Sorry. Busy writing. Fresh Content Tomorrow.

Hi, my name is Alma and I like filk-music. I play it and sing it.

What’s filk-music? I’m glad you asked (although you might not be.) At best, it is folk music for worlds that never existed, fantasy realms, space battle stations, car-racing elves, marching songs for armies a thousand years in the future. At worst it makes Irish drinking songs sung ten minutes before closing time on pay-day-weekend sound like grand opera or great hymns. I grew up with folk music, both of the Childe Ballad type and the “modern folk” (Weavers, Limelighters, Ian and Sylvia, Kingston Trio, Odetta.) So of course it’s a short leap from “Over the Hills and Far Away” to “Stand to Your Glasses Steady” to “Falling Down on New Jersey,” and, well . . . Continue reading