Archon Angel – II (Frontiers Records)Wednesday, 12th April 2023
While there has been some talk about Savatage reforming to provide new material after their 2015 Wacken Open Air performance, as of yet, this has not materialized (though it does still seem this is actively being worked on). Jon Oliva has also said that Savatage died with his brother Criss, and everything from Edge of Thorns forward was really more Trans-Siberian Orchestra. So, why all this Savatage talk? Well, when Zak Stevens and Aldo Lonobile met while working on Timo Tolkki’s Avalon’s third album Return To Eden, they must have known there was more Savatage-esque material to be had. Archon Angel’s Fallen was reminiscent of Edge of Thorns in many ways with regard to song structure, guitar tone, infectious riffs, killer drums and Zak’s signature vocal technique. Having personally seen their first performance on 70,000 Tons of Metal in 2020, the excitement was palpable and any fan of Savatage, Circle II Circle, Doctor Butcher, etc., was chomping at the bit for the release the following month. Now here we are, just over 2 years and 1 pandemic later (kind of), and Archon Angel’s II may have folks wondering if there will be a second-album syndrome? Fear not; they deliver and then some.
As with Fallen, Zak’s wife Kathrine wrote all the lyrics, and I think it’s safe to say she can keep that job. Her lyrics sung through Zak’s amazing voice send chills down one’s spine. It’s been 30 years since Zak’s Savatage debut, and he sounds just as good today; not always an easy feat for a vocalist. The band has also evolved with the addition of Alessandro Del Vecchio on keyboards and piano; previously this was done by Antonio Agate (now credited with the excellent synth and orchestral arrangements). Drummer Marco Lazzarini also returned to continue punishing our speakers (in the best way possible). The biggest change was the departure of bassist Yves Campion (Nightmare) and entry of Nik Mazzucconi. Like Aldo and Alessandro, he hails from the magnificent Edge of Forever, plus Sunstorm (sans Aldo). With so much chemistry already existing between these folks, it is no wonder they were able to put out another stellar release.
Kicking it off, we have Zak’s phenomenal voice being the first thing we hear after a single piano note. On that note, let’s take a moment to appreciate the amazing piano artistry this record has. They are present throughout, but really stand out on certain tracks, such as this first one. While not nearly as overdubbed as “Chance” there’s a couple times throughout where there is a bit of that layered vocal effect. This writer certainly wouldn’t have minded hearing that expanded more on at least one track. It works in the capacity of only having 2-3 layers of different lyrics over itself, but leaves you wanting a bit more. One thing to make clear is that there’s obvious Savatage elements, but this is not Savatage 2.0. Songs like “Avenging the Dragon” have heavy riffs, crushing drums, a solo that would make Criss proud, and even bells that combined feel like they could easily have been a lost Savatage track. Then there are tracks such as “Afterburn” and “Shattered” that have a sound all of their own. It’s clear that while Aldo might have some inspiration, he has crafted a tone that is exceptionally his.
II is a highly enjoyable album filled with soaring guitar solos, pounding drums, thumping bass (which can be clearly heard, but a bit more prominence going forward would be welcome), and riffs that hook you in and get stuck in your head. Zak’s unique and tranquilizing vocal style is hallmark and intrinsic to what makes this a striking release. In addition to the amazing performances, this record boasts top-notch production that allows you to hear every instrument clearly, while not sounding overly produced. Like Fallen, much of it still has that European power metal feel; it’s as if Savatage, Jag Panzer and Metal Church had a baby with Stratovarius, Hammerfall and Rhapsody of Fire, but it was raised in Brazil by Angra and Almah. That combination may sound ridiculous, but it’ll make sense after a couple of spins.