Tuesday, June 9, 2020

Review: Archon Angel, "Fallen"

When I first heard the title track to Archon Angel’s Fallen back in December, this immediately became one of my most anticipated albums of the year.

“Fallen” could have fit perfectly on Savatage’s Edge of Thorns album, giving me hope for something that I’ve been wanting for years: New music from one of my favorite bands, or about as close as we’re going to get anyway. I’ve long since given up hope that we’ll ever get a reunion or another record from Savatage. Founder/vocalist Jon Oliva has had health issues in recent years and hasn’t released any new music since his 2013 solo project, Raise the Curtain. I also think producer Paul O’Neill’s death a few years ago probably put those possibilities to rest.

Still, Fallen proves that at least one former member wants to keep the sound alive: Zak Stevens, who took over vocal duties for the band when Oliva moved into the background in the early 1990s, has put together a group of talented musicians here and delivered something that, while not quite a Savatage record, is certainly an homage to his former band.

A key piece of that is Archon Angel guitarist Aldo Lonobile, who met Stevens while working on the Return to Eden album from Avalon, the all-star project of former Stratovarius singer/guitarist Timo Tolkki. Lonobile is clearly a disciple of late Savatage guitarist Criss Oliva. Many of his riffs have the same biting style, and his leads show some of the same sensibilities and characteristics. That’s readily apparent on songs like “Twilight,” one of the album’s highlights, where the riff that kicks in at around the 45 second mark could have been pulled from one of Savatage’s earliest records.

Interestingly, Archon Angel often seems to me to owe more musically to the initial incarnations of Savatage rather than the latter albums that Stevens was involved in, but there’s plenty of that later, more symphonic style to create a nice melding of the two, along with some of this new band’s own flavor. “Twilight” is a perfect example of what’s on offer on this album – heavy, dramatic, melodic and powerful.

Fallen follows a very loose concept as its central character, the Archon, protects the people of Earth in modern times. Though the storyline is not as direct as Savatage concept albums like Streets or Dead Winter Dead, it’s another nod to Zak Stevens’ former band.

The title track starts things off, setting the mood with a nice piano intro, punctuated with big power hits from the rest of Archon Angel. It’s the first of many of the Savatage trademarks that are scattered throughout Fallen. Lonobile accents the verses with some tasty lead work, completing our journey back to 1993’s Edge of Thorns.

Almost immediately, though, we get a taste of the more aggressive sound of Archon Angel on the second and third tracks, “The Serpent” and “Rise.” “The Serpent” opens with a very symphonic melody, but then breaks down with a hammering heavy riff from Lonobile and drummer Marco Lazzarini. Stevens’ dramatic vocal melodies are on point. It’s one of the stronger pieces on a very strong album. “Rise,” on the other hand, is more of an all-out rock ‘n’ roller, fairly straightforward with little symphonic flair, but with a gigantic chorus hook that sticks with you. That heavy sound finds its way back a little later in the album on “Hit the Wall” with a big riff that ignores Archon Angel’s more dramatic elements in favor of pure metal power.

Of all the hallmarks of the late Paul O’Neill, though, the one that I most looked forward to on latter-day Savatage or his Trans-Siberian Orchestra albums was his use of counterpoint vocals. Since they first appeared on “Chance” from 1994’s Handful of Rain, you could always count on one or two songs to deliver them, and I ate them up every time. Zak Stevens and Co. continue that tradition on Fallen on a couple of songs.

The first run is about two-thirds through “Under the Spell.” They’re not as intricate or lengthy as the counterpoint parts that O’Neill composed, but they’re still just as effective and hearing them again with Stevens’ voice gave me just a little chill. The second use comes on the album-closing “Return of the Storm,” which couldn’t be a better way to end this set. A haunting piano sets up the counterpoint to start the song, and this one definitely gave me those old chills. It’s about the most Savatage thing that I’ve heard in many years.

From there, the song moves into a heavier riff that retains the very atmospheric symphonics in the background. “Return of the Storm” then breaks down into a classical piano piece before the verse, and a bit later throws another curve with a very progressive key-driven moment right before Lonobile’s solo. And so the song goes, thrashing to and fro like a ship caught in the storm that it describes, taking us along through soft contemplative moments, loud contemplative moments, aggressive gale-like passages and quiet dramatic reflections. It’s a seven and a half minute journey that leaves the listener drained, yet wanting more.

Fallen does have a few momentary weaknesses. The AOR-influenced “Faces of Innocence” just really isn’t to my taste, and “Brought to the Edge” can’t really match the force of an Oliva/O’Neill-penned power ballad. That’s a tough standard to live up to, though, and neither song is bad, rather a bit of a lull in an emotionally charged experience.

You might be thinking that I’ve spent as much time talking about Savatage as Archon Angel, but it’s hard not to. Zak Stevens’ former band is an undeniable influence, and it’s difficult to not hear them oozing from most of the songs on Fallen. Quite frankly, that’s a very good thing as far as I’m concerned.

As a fan, this is a sound that I’ve been longing for, and while projects from former members of the band have come close – outside of Jon Oliva’s Pain, of course – I don’t think one has captured the spirit in the way that Archon Angel does. Fallen stands as a very pleasant surprise and one of the strongest offerings in a pretty solid musical year so far.

If I can’t have a Savatage reunion, here’s hoping that Archon Angel keeps the magic alive.

No comments:

Post a Comment