Label: Napalm Records
Symphonic metal is a fundamentally tricky proposition because it must always compromise. A symphony orchestra collectively covers the entire frequency spectrum, with interest occurring in every register, and the overdriven guitar sound central to metal does much the same. It is impossible to give both the guitars and the symphonic elements the space that they would have in the contexts of their usual environments; something must always be pulled back. Try to have huge riffs and huge symphonics at the same time, and the result is an unlistenable wall of mud (as the most recent Fleshgod Apocalypse album demonstrates, although that’s just the beginning of the problems with that album’s production).
In general, this is not an intractable problem. Kamelot, who have incorporated symphonic elements at least as far back as The Fourth Legacy, have always navigated it well. The most recent Nightwish album strikes the balance perfectly and the resulting sound is gorgeous, and purely in terms of production, Haven is not far off. But both here and on their prior album Silverthorn, the riffs that powered Kamelot’s sound on their strongest albums (The Fourth Legacy, Karma, Epica, and The Black Halo) are sharing more of the work with a rich orchestral padding, and that changes the equation as far as what makes the music work.
However well Kamelot is executing the more symphonic approach, it’s something of a barrier to me fully appreciating the music. I rank the four albums listed above as some of the best progressive power metal on record. The Black Halo is among my favorite albums, across all genres, and the guitar-centric songwriting approach is a substantial factor in that. On the prior three albums, the songwriting hasn’t quite been able to get me over the hump, but on this one they’re starting to sell me on the new Kamelot. As they’ve gotten better at navigating the balance between symphony and guitar, they get progressively closer to matching their prior accomplishments. And while Silverthorn featured some the strongest songwriting of Kamelot’s career amidst songs that largely failed to interest me, Haven is much more even. Yes, there are songs that stand out, and those songs are the equal of their best work, but the deep cuts still have their strengths and are worth listening to.
Tommy Karevik, one of the most technically skilled singers in metal, is in fine form here. While less characteristic and iconic than Khan, his work in Seventh Wonder demonstrates unparalleled vocal chops. His approach to Kamelot is slightly less acrobatic, and that’s a choice that makes sense. While both Kamelot and Seventh Wonder are progressive, Seventh Wonder places more emphasis on the technical side of progressive music, whereas in Kamelot, Khan established a legacy of something more intimate and expressive, though certainly plenty adept. Karevik is clearly aiming to follow Khan’s lead, and in his hands, songs such as the ballad “Under Grey Skies” that would otherwise disappear under the shadow of the album’s strongest cuts have a marked emotional potency.
Haven seems to lean more towards the guitar than its predecessor, but even as it grows on me with repeated listens, I still find myself yearning for the meaty, straight-ahead power metal riffs of The Black Halo. And whereas with that album I was excited for each subsequent track, this album has me mostly anticipating a few favorite cuts. Nevertheless, Haven has me more excited about Kamelot than I’ve been in a decade.
– Bloodshot Grub