The story of AVANTASIA begins much like any other fairy tale, with a young protagonist not unlike you, average reader. Picture a young boy from a small German town going far and beyond to fulfill his dreams of fronting a huge heavy metal band. That boy’s name is Tobias Sammet, and he eventually did rise to acclaim with his teammates from their childhood band Edguy. Starting out as 14-year olds, the Edguys were heavily influenced by their much more recognized countrymen, Helloween, as well as classic acts such as AC/DC, Iron Maiden, Magnum, and Kiss. With help from power metal legends Timo Tolkki and Hansi Kursch, Edguy eventually received international acclaim with their sophomore release “Vain Glory Opera” and even more so with its follow-up “Theater of Salvation”. But that was not the apogee of Sammet’s ambitions. Little did he know that what he was planning would change the landscape of heavy metal music in the coming decades.
“I remember” Sammet recalls, “it was early 1999. I was pretty bored on the tour bus when we were on tour with my main band and I’d always had this dream of doing a great project with some friends. So I started to write and compose everything. You get an idea of how much work and trouble I had to go through, though, as the first part of ‘The Metal Opera’ wasn’t released until nearly 20 months later.”
He is, of course, referring to the project that would become well known as Avantasia, the name derived from the words “Avalon” and “Fantasia”. With a green light from his publisher at the time, AFM Records, Tobias started working on his most ambitious project so far: a metal opera that would feature guest performances by some of Sammet’s favorite musicians, most prominent of all probably being Sammet’s idol and former frontman of Germany’s power metal pioneers Helloween – Michael Kiske.
Of course, back in those days, Kiske wanted nothing to do with the heavy metal scene. Replaced in Helloween by Andi Deris due to creative differences with the rest of the band and disillusioned with the evil imagery heavy metal was increasingly adopting, Kiske was only swayed to say “yes” to Sammet’s proposal with the young singer’s constant nagging.
“I think the hardest to get was Michael Kiske actually. Nowadays it’s easy since we’ve known each other for years, but then It was quite different. I had to convince him before he’d even speak to me. But it was not such a big deal in the end.”
Sammet had managed to persuade the legendary frontman to join his ambitious project, but only on the condition that he is referred to by a pseudonym: Ernie. The fans were not fooled by this and from the first notes of his trademark falsetto in the opening “Reach out for the Light” fans knew that the highly revered singer was back to singing what he sings best – bombastic, melodic heavy metal anthems.
Kiske recalls being contacted by the young singer at the time in an interview with Metal Blast: “When Tobi called me up I was in a very “anti-everything” phase and wasn’t really willing to do anything like that, but I liked him. It was his attitude, he kept calling me on the phone, and I just liked that. Now I’m very happy that I actually said yes, because I’m really enjoying it, but in those days I was very fed up with everything, so I said ‘OK, do it, but call me Ernie’.”
But Kiske was far from being the only prominent guest on the debut. Sammet had recruited some of the most well-known names in the power metal scene of those days. The core band was made up of Henjo Richter (Gamma Ray) on guitars, Markus Grosskopf (Helloween) on bass and Alex Holzwart (Rhapsody) on the drums. The ever-shifting staff of guest singers then included David DeFeis (Virgin Steel), Oliver Hartmann (At Vance), Bob Rock (Axel Rudi Pell), Bob Catley (Magnum), Andre Matos (Angra), Kai Hansen (Gamma Ray) and Sharon Den Adel (Within Temptation).
Avantasia have issued two albums at this time, the quintessential power metal masterpieces titled “The Metal Opera”, parts 1 and 2. The albums were conceptual and followed the protagonist Gabriel Laymann, a novice of the Dominican Order. Set in the 17th century, the story revolves around the witch hunts of which young Gabriel was a part until his stepsister Anna Held is accused of being a witch. Despite the warnings by his mentor Jakob (played by David DeFeis), he reads a forbidden book. He is incarcerated and introduced to a druid named Lugaid Vandroy (played by Michael Kiske) who introduces Gabriel to a magical world of Avantasia, inhabited by elves, dwarves, and other mythical creatures. The book Gabriel had read is the seventh part of a seal which a group of clerics is bent on delivering to a tower in the center of Avantasia, as they are promised the ultimate wisdom in return. In a series of events Gabriel thwarts their plans and manages to free thousands of trapped souls and his stepsister Anna with the help of druid Vandroy, who sacrifices his life to free her.
Although the albums are not an opera by standard definition, each of the songs on the album refers to a certain point in the storyline. While the first part is a typical power metal album heavy on the symphonic side, the second one shows clear signs of evolution, as Sammet explores various influences such as symphonic rock of the 70’s and 80’s, and is most prominently inspired by the works of Jim Steinman and Meat Loaf. The centerpiece of both albums is the 14-minute long epic “The Seven Angels”, found on the second part of the album, with complex arrangements and lyrics crucial to the story. Sammet explains: “‘Seven Angels’ is a track that combines many different styles of metal and rock music. I like the Meat-Loafish part towards the end, I like the classic 70’s rock verses, and the chorus is anthemic.” The song was supposed to feature the legendary Ronnie James Dio, but due to the singer refusing to take part in the production, the role was given to Oliver Hartmann (At Vance) instead.
Although the albums were met with great critical acclaim and started an avalanche of similar though less successful projects, Sammet allegedly shut the door to Avantasia. Going back to work with his native band Edguy, who were in turn propelled by the massive success of the lead singers side project and the heavily acclaimed album “Mandrake”. As Sammet explained in our interview, “Avantasia has somehow overshadowed Edguy from ‘The Metal Opera’ on. ‘The Metal Opera’ was super big and without that album, Edguy’s ‘Mandrake’ wouldn’t have become as big.” Singing a new record deal with Nuclear Blast, Edguy toured all corners of the world and released immensely popular albums “Hellfire Club” and “Rocket Ride”. In the meantime, Avantasia was nowhere in sight.
However, Sammet clandestinely worked with Edguy’s new producer, Sascha Paeth on something that had no name until late 2006 when Sammet announced the return of Avantasia with an album scheduled for 2008. As a taste of the new Avantasia sound, Sammet and his crew released two EPs: “Lost in Space”, parts 1 and 2. Taking over the bass guitar duties for the first time since Edguy’s 1998 album “Vain Glory Opera”, Sammet teamed up with Paeth who took on the guitar duties and Eric Singer of KISS fame on the drums. Singer was no stranger to Avantasia, as he performed on the final track of the second part of “The Metal Opera” titled “Into the Unknown”. The band shot a video for “Lost in Space” in Belgrade, and the single launched itself straight into the German and Swedish Top 10 singles charts in late 2007.
Joining Sammet and his band were once again Bob Catley and Michael Kiske, but the EPs introduced a new player into the fold, Norwegian powerhouse singer Jorn Lande, who would become a steady player in this team later on. The supergroup’s third studio album “The Scarecrow” was released on January 25th 2008, and featured an impressive guest list including Roy Khan of Kamelot, Kai Hansen and Henjo Richter of Gamma Ray in lead guitar roles, Amanda Somerville and Jorn Lande. The biggest surprise, however, was a guest appearance by the shock-rock icon Alice Cooper, who lent his talents to the eerie track titled “The Toy Master”. Naturally, having Eric Singer who previously played in Alice Cooper’s band undoubtedly helped. Last but not least, Sammet’s countryman from the legendary Scorpions, Rudolf Schenker recorded lead guitar parts for the track “I Don’t Believe In Your Love”, also featuring the returning member Oliver Hartmann on lead vocals.
As Sammet wanted to create a story that is more open to interpretation compared to his work on the debut, the plot of “The Scarecrow” stars an unnamed protagonist, who comes off as anti-social but extremely musically-gifted and able to sense the vibrations of the music. Plagued by unrequited love, the protagonist is swayed by a Mephistopheles-like figure (played by Lande) to use his gift to rise to acclaim. Tempting him with fame and riches with the help of the Toy Master (portrayed by Alice Cooper), the protagonist is launched into stardom only to question his decision towards the end of the album and is left wondering.
How could I know, how could I know
That I’d Get Lost in Space to Roam Forever…
“The Scarecrow” was among 20 best-selling albums in Europe upon its release and was awarded the Best Rock Production 2008 award by the Association of German Sound Engineers (VDT). All the success the project achieved with their latest album did not go unnoticed, and the organizers of the prestigious Wacken Open Air festival asked Sammet to take the project to the stage for the first time and headline the festival. Initially reluctant, Sammet was swayed by Sascha Paeth to gather a team of musicians and embark on a 13-show tour in the span of a little over a month. Playing prestigious festivals in the Czech Republic, Sweden, Hungary, and Germany, Avantasia performed in front of over 450.000 fans in only a few weeks. Sammet recalls: “All-star albums are being recorded quite often, but I don’t think people have seen a giant all-star project like that traveling around the world to hit the stages on three different continents within only a few days.”
Joining Sammet on the stages were Sascha Paeth and Oliver Hartman as guitarists, his Edguy teammate Felix Bohnke on drums, producer and composer Michael Miro Rodenberg on the keys, Robert Hunecke on bass, as well as Amanda Somerville and Cloudy Yang on backing vocals. The impressive vocal star roster included Jorn Lande, Bob Catley and Andre Matos of Angra, as well as Kai Hansen filling Alice Cooper’s shoes for several festival performances.
Even though Sammet alleged this would be the first and the last tour, Avantasia went on to publish four more albums and several big world tours. The tour following the release of “The Scarecrow’s” sequel albums, “The Wicked Symphony” and “Angel of Babylon” saw the band performing solo shows across the globe and featured Michael Kiske’s return to the stage and touring, as well as a reunion with former bandmate Kai Hansen, which led to Hansen joining Kiske’s band Unisonic. The tour dubbed “The Metal Opera Comes to Town” spanned 12 shows lasting nearly two hours. But that’s a story for another time.
“The Scarecrow” signified a brand new chapter in the life of this project. As with anything of this magnitude, every album or tour could be the last, and if “Metal Opera” was where it ended we would have missed on years of quality music and incredible shows. As Sammet himself puts it: “With Avantasia, the exciting thing is that you never know if things will happen again. Whatever happened in the past always happened at the premise that it will be unique and may be the last time it happens. Nothing is taken for granted, that’s sad but it’s the way it is, and sadly, that’s what makes Avantasia preciously fragile and beautiful.”