Friday, September 21, 2012
Seventh Avenue - Terium (2008)
Some bands are like wine, cheese, leather products, etc. They get better with age. Some bands come bursting out of the chute with a killer debut and it is forever hailed as the best thing they ever did, with each subsequent album failing to meet fan expectations for one reason or another. Metallica has certainly felt this, as most fans think anything they've done outside their 1st 4 albums isn't worthy to bear the name Metallica, and that the band should have hung it up years ago. Other bands don't fare quite so poorly, and maintain a good fanbase, but everyone wonders when they're going to top the debut. Germany's Seventh Avenue, however, is not one of those bands. This group just got better and better as the years went on. Starting in 1989, every release by this collective showed improvement in musicianship, vocal prowess and control, songwriting, and overall talent. Sadly, this 2008 opus will prove to be the last under the Seventh Avenue moniker, as just a few days prior to composing this review, Seventh Avenue as a band has reportedly broken up. Thankfully, most of the line-up will continue under a different moniker.
As for "Terium", however, this is the way to end a band. Going out with a bang like this leaves a great lasting impression, and this album certainly accomplishes that. Aside from the obligatory intro track and with the possible exception of the second ballad toward the end, this album is non-stop power metal majesty, expertly written, executed and delivered. Where the predecessor "Eternals" was a barrage of super-catchy power metal anthems loosely strung together to form a really good overall album, this opus goes the extra mile by weaving a concept and storyline together along with the overt catchiness and anthemic feel fans have come to expect from this metal collective. Some may be put off by the album's length (70 minutes is a lot of music for a power metal album), those brave enough to join the band on this journey will be richly rewarded.
The whole idea behind "Terium" is that the titular substance is a mineral (or a drug) found on the planet Kranos. It gives the user eternal life, but as the adage goes, "Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely." People become hopelessly addicted to Terium, and society falls into chaos with moral foundations breaking down, relationships crumbling, procreation slowing because of the newfound eternal life, and the dependence on Terium ruling people's lives. Though it has more of a 'moral' slant to it, it is reflective of Frank Herbert's Dune series of novels, with the spice drug 'melange' existing only on the planet Arrakis (aka Dune) and giving long-lasting life and mind-altering/expanding effects. However, rather than a story of a mere mortal becoming a 'supreme being' like Herbert's 'Kwisatz Haderach' character, "Terium" takes a more biblically aligned path of having 'Ratis', son of the creator, coming down to the planet to save the populace from the addiction to the Terium mineral. So while this concept isn't wholly original, Seventh Avenue can be forgiven that transgression because very few bands borrow from Herbert (Iron Maiden is the only other obvious example I know of), while J.R.R. Tolkein and C.S. Lewis are endlessly plagiarized by power metal musicians worldwide on a daily basis. At least their choice of a more science fiction-based storyline is more original than many of their metal brethren. There's just a hint of Heinlein's Stranger In a Strange Land as well. In any event, lyrically this is a strong album that weaves the story well and uses the 'power' of power metal to tell the tale in a catchy, upbeat manner that really sells the story. Kudos to Herbie Langhans for what he accomplished here, as it successfully uses that Dune influence while injecting enough change in the story to be a unique work.
Musically, this album is a tour de force, and an album that fans of power metal will likely enjoy thoroughly. While I didn't gel with this upon its release, as I purchased a lot of albums at the same time as this one, I found myself spinning this for several weeks in preparation for this review. I am still listening to the album as I write this, and am not remotely tired of it yet. Guitar work is excellent, combining highly melodic playing and speedy riffing with slower passages for atmosphere and to pull a bit of a 'bait and switch' effect, especially in the intro for "Priests and Servants". Solo work is also excellent, with just the right balance between musicianship and showmanship. There aren't so many solos here that you feel like you're listening to Dragonforce, but enough to satisfy fans of the style, and they're well executed. Drumming is excellent, and is varied enough to stand out because of the seemingly effortless switch between groovy mid-paced drumming with tasteful fills and the propulsive double-bass driven rhythms that carry the music at high speed. Bass guitar is actually audible at times here, and is a nice addition to the musical landscape, even dominant at moments where it makes sense, like in the bridge section of "Way To the Stars". I also like the variety of material, from the more speedy, upbeat numbers to slightly darker, mid-paced stuff, though a great deal of the album relies on a heavy speed emphasis. The songs are also a bit more technically focused this time around, with "Future's Dawn" being a shining example, and in my opinion, the centerpiece of the album. Never before has Seventh Avenue sounded this focused, yet still injecting variety and freshness throughout the album to keep it from becoming stale through its 70 minutes. The only potential misstep on the album is the ballad "Innocence" toward the end, as it strays into Stryper "Honestly" territory a bit, but doggone it if the melody and heartfelt delivery don't draw you in and force you to like the song anyway. If you don't mind ballads, you may enjoy it, and even if you do, it's still pretty listenable.
I've long said that vocalist Herbie Langhans was a bit of a loose cannon, vocally, on early Seventh Avenue material. Some metal vocalists can get away with that because they have enough attitude or uniqueness in their delivery or approach to make it work, and make up for their shortcomings. I never felt that way about Herbie, and the band's music suffered for it. It wasn't until "Southgate" that I felt like he was beginning to come into his own, though that album had several cringe-worthy moments where I felt like a little more practice in the booth would have done the album good. Starting with the next album, "Between the Worlds", however, Herbie has been on-point, and his talent developed even further with 2004's "Eternals". This time around, Herbie is in top form, belting out vocal lines with as much precision as emotion, and giving quite possibly the performance of a lifetime. He no longer sounds like a young, eager metal vocalist who needs to reign in the enthusiasm enough to gain control of his voice - he HAS control of his voice, perhaps now more than some of his contemporaries. He has been compared to Hansi Kursch of Blind Guardian, and while there is a resemblance, I think his sound is more a reflection of many of the heavy hitters of the genre (Ralf Scheepers is another he is rightfully compared with). Herbie can now rightfully be placed among the top tier vocalists in the genre, something his years of vocal development and hard work can be attributed to.
If you find the story captivating, the music exciting, and the overall presentation to your liking, you won't have much trouble sitting through 70+ minutes of music on this ride. If power metal isn't your thing, this will not be the album to convert you unless you're a Herbert devotee looking for a nice segue into the genre. However, metal fans who enjoy the grandiosity of Rhapsody but wish for less pomp and circumstance and more overt metal will find a lot to love about this release and rightfully so. The band has turned in a near-masterpiece level work that rivals some of the better power metal concept records out there, even some of Rhapsody's work in the field. For that, these Germans should be extremely proud, and their legacy should be firmly cemented into the collective consciousness of the power metal genre as a whole. This album is so good, it borders on being essential to power metal fans, so I'm just going to say that if you are at all a fan of the style, this album is one you want in your collection, without question. Buy or die.