Time flies. My love affair with Kamelot started in the halcyon days of 1999, when I stumbled upon a copy of “The Fourth Legacy” at a now-defunct Tower Records. I must admit – it was an impulse buy, prompted as much by trying to find new underground metal as it was by somewhat titillating album cover (I was 18, don’t blame me!). What I discovered was one of the better power metal releases of the era, made even more impressive by the fact that the band was American rather than European (with one notable exception, but I will get to that in a minute). For a youth whose flirtations with underground metal at the time did not much deeper than Iced Earth and In Flames, “The Fourth Legacy” was an eye-opening find, a melodic metal gem that owed its success to both strong songwriting, prominent use of symphonic elements and vaguely Middle Eastern melodies, and unique vocals of Norwegian singer Roy Khan.
While I felt that follow-up “Karma” was not as strong, the band upped their ante with “Epica” / “The Black Halo” conceptual duology, and continued the streak with solid “Ghost Opera”. By that time, Kamelot developed a very distinct sound, taking on elements of goth that proved to be somewhat divisive with their fan base, especially on 2010’s controversial “Poetry for the Poisoned” (for the record, I rather enjoyed those forays, though I can understand some of the backlash from the older fans).
Fast forward to 2015. Roy Khan has long departed, and his replacement, Swede Tommy Karevik, is on his second Kamelot album as a lead vocalist alongside Kamelot mainstays Thomas Youngblood, Casey Grillo, Oliver Palotai, and Sean Tibbets. While 2012’s “Silverthorn” served to introduce the fans to the new man behind the microphone, it was a transitional album of sorts, and perhaps a safer choice from songwriting and performance perspective as the band stuck to its familiar style, scaling back on some experimentation to produce a good, but not necessarily groundbreaking record. As such, it falls to “Haven” to show what the new and reinvigorated Kamelot could do.
First things first. “Haven” is not the second coming of “The Black Halo” or a clear shout-out to “The Fourth Legacy” or its three largely forgotten predecessors. At the same time, it has enough elements from those days to remind even the most jaded fan that yes, this is still the same band, and they have not lost a step. The symphonic element is as strong and as prominent as ever, and if anything, it is even more accentuated on most of the album’s tracks. The vaguely Middle Eastern melodies and the sense of dynamics which separated Kamelot from many hyperspeed power metal acts during their formative days come to the fore on tracks like “Insomnia”. The overall album pace, however, is probably in the mid-tempo territory.
There are two ballads, which are, as one would expect from Kamelot, good. “Under Grey Skies” made me think of something John Lennon could have conjured up, though it might have been due to lyrics making some pointed nods in the direction of Lennon’s “Imagine”. Both that song and “Here’s to the Fall” are strong, and sound sufficiently distinct to justify their inclusion.
This is not to say that “Haven” entirely lacks in speed. “Veil of Elysium” is as power metal as they come, fast, melodic, and an excellent choice to release as the first glimpse of the album. “Liar Liar” alternates fast and atmospheric mellow parts to great effects, and though the opener “Fallen Star” is more moody than fast, it is not without a degree of aggression. “End of Innocence” is pure symphonic metal magnificence with its orchestral arrangements, transitioning perfectly from short instrumental “Ecclesia”. Though Kamelot’s membership in the confines of the power metal genre might be more tenuous these days, it is good to see this venerable band maintain a clear connection to where it came from, and create music at least partially reflective of its roots.
There are, of course, nods to the more recent Kamelot works, which may prove to be more controversial. Several songs maintain a harder edge that is not, strictly speaking, bearing a lot of resemblance to power metal (“Beautiful Apocalypse” with its modern metal riffing and electronic touches, or “Revolution” with its flirtations with extreme metal). Simpler, slower Dio-esque “Citizen Zero” sounds like it could have fit on “Poetry for the Poisoned” (case in the point: “Necropolis”), at least until the operatic choir section in the middle changing the feel of the song. “My Therapy” is not a million miles removed from “Silverthorn” in that it makes a good use of poppy melody, creating a catchy chorus that would not have been out of place on any modern rock station.
From performance standpoint, there is nothing to fault. Karevik continues to fill Khan’s shoes with vigor and enthusiasm, sounding close enough to maintain Kamelot’s unique vocal approach, but adding enough of his own personality to be able to tell the two apart. Where Khan’s voice often took on aspects of operatic, Geoff Tate-esque dramatic pathos, Karevik adds some rock sensibility and grit while still capably hitting every note within his extensive range and alternating between silky smooth crooning, power metal heroics, and unbridled aggression when the songs call for it. The rest of the band plays like the consummate professionals they are, not missing a beat. As always, Kamelot brings on board several guests, including lead singers from Delain and Arch Enemy to provide female vocals (and, in Alissa White-Gluz’s case, adding an assortment of harsh growls on “Revolution” and “Liar Liar”).
The songs generally carry a darker mood, though this time, it is less about Faustian tragedies and more about the nature of human existence, the contemplative dirges about social ills and dystopian nightmares. In my opinion, it made for a different feeling from any Kamelot album past, as fantasy and mysticism are largely amiss in favor of the real world. The album is, therefore, fairly consistent in feel, and has a definite flow, with several standout numbers drawing attention.
That said, “Haven” is not without some flaws. I applaud Kamelot for continuing to experiment, but the results of said experiments range from stunning (“End of Innocence”, the closest “Haven” gets to a single focal point) to questionable (“Revolution”, which somehow feels less coherent as a song). There are no tracks I would want to skip, but while the strongest songs are easily as good as anything from the band’s classic releases, there are few weaker tracks – “Citizen Zero” with its plodding pace nearly breaks the momentum, and “Beautiful Apocalypse”, while not bad by any means, has the misfortune of being bookended by two of the album’s strongest tracks, therefore seeming lesser by comparison. The aforementioned closer “Revolution” feels somewhat forced during transitions between parts of the song, and its extreme metal stylings seem out of place on a Kamelot record.
Even with these misgivings, it is hard to argue that Kamelot have created a strong record. It grabbed my attention, and though it is less immediate than some of the band’s catchier material, I suspect that it will get more plays from me than anything since “The Black Halo”. It ranks in the upper half of Kamelot’s discography for me, and confirms that they are still a creatively viable band. Good stuff!