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Friday, December 07, 2012

The Kamelot Superpost, Part 3: Iconography of Kamelot

Karma, Epica, and The Black Halo form the core of Kamelot's catalogue, with The Black Halo still being hailed as one of the greatest power metal records in the history of the genre. It was with these three albums that Kamelot really came into their own and refined their sound, placing themselves at the front of the European power metal scene. Thematically, Karma followed in the pattern of The Fourth Legacy with fantasy and myth-inspired lyrics on many tracks (particularly the record's three-part epic "Elizabeth," about the legendary Elizabeth Bathory), but also branched out with two of the band's most popular love songs, "Forever" and "Temples of Gold," as well as the deeply personal ballad "Don't You Cry," written about guitarist Thomas Youngblood's father. The telltale themes of love and loss are strongly present on Karma; all three ballads are concerned with the loss of a loved one, whether it be romantic or familial love. The title track and "Elizabeth" encapsulate another of Kamelot's favorite themes: the lines between holiness and profanity, physical desire and spiritual longing. This theme would be expanded upon between Epica and The Black Halo, but on Karma it takes the shape of reflections on power, creating one's own immortality--and thus sidestepping God--and desire to escape mundane ties or the corporeal form and its strictures, and ascend to something greater. Both a heavily mystical album, between the monster-themed "The Spell" and the blood magic of "Elizabeth," and a personal one with "Don't You Cry," Karma blew open the doors to gorgeous, powerful metal, refining what The Fourth Legacy had begun.

(album cover from Prog Archives)

Epica and The Black Halo form a diptych of concept albums centered around a loose interpretation of Goethe's epic Faust, with Khan and guest singers, including Shagrath of Dimmu Borgir and Simone Simons of Epica (yes, they named their band after Kamelot's album), taking on specific personae in order to tell the story through song. These core characters are listed below:
  • Ariel (sung by Khan)
  • Helena (sung by Mari Youngblood)
  • Marguerite (sung by Simone Simons)
  • Mephisto (sung by Khan on Epica and Shagrath on The Black Halo)
"Center of the Universe" and "The Edge of Paradise" present a pairing tied together by the theme of egoism--a trenchant topic in both Conception and Kamelot's music, which in this case deals with the (possibly vainglorious) soul-searching of Ariel and encapsulates the crux of his quest: he will forsake earthly treasures, including the love of his life, Helena (and even God, as seen in the song "Farewell"), in pursuit of higher spiritual knowledge. At the outset, Ariel's journey is the fruit of his own vanity; however, eventually he is tempted by Mephisto and falls prey to the demon's wiles and promises. Sacred and profane desires intermingle in "On the Coldest Winter Night" when Ariel encounters Helena once more, and this is where the core themes of the album emerge. Though in love with Helena enough to spend the night--and a few weeks after--with her, Ariel then shelves her in order to continue his quest. Despite his ostensibly pure intentions of shielding her from Mephisto's evil, his actions result in Helena's suicide and the death of the child she carries. Once Ariel discovers this (in the depressingly named "The Mourning After"...way harsh, Tai), his journey takes on a new dimension of redeeming himself for causing her death. It's also implied that Helena, in Heaven with her child, has become the symbol of what Ariel is searching for, though he won't become aware of that until The Black Halo. Helena serves as Ariel's moral centerpoint throughout the story, alive and dead, an icon of purity, goodness, and clarity; whether this is fair to her or not is debatable. Ultimately Epica finds Ariel alone and wrecked by his desires--though not necessarily his physical ones. The narrative doesn't indict Ariel for his love, but rather for placing his desire for otherworldly knowledge above the very real, earthly factors of Helena and their child.

Musically, Epica finds Kamelot riding the rising wave of Karma, delving into a more symphonic sound with expanded keyboard sections, female vocals, and choir backing suitable for themes of salvation and damnation. The record also utilizes "interlude" segments that are reminiscent of film soundtracks--Poetry for the Poisoned would perfect this trick--and act as transitions between major plot occurrences, such as Ariel meeting and leaving Helena. Rifftastic guitar lines abound, and the album's atmosphere runs from the pure power metal glory of "Center of the Universe" to the haunting ballad "Wander" to the operatic prog of "III Ways to Epica."

(album cover from Prog Archives)

The Black Halo, Kamelot's magnum opus, is the concluding half of the Goethe story and picks up with Mephisto's ongoing seduction of Ariel via a woman named Marguerite, who bears an uncanny resemblance to the dead Helena. An area where Kamelot steps outside the bounds of their fellow power metallers somewhat is in terms of erotism--Rhapsody of Fire, for instance, is apparently adhering to a strict no-sex policy, lyrically speaking. Kamelot imbues many of their songs, particularly on The Black Halo, with oblique nuggets such as "how could that first time recur" and "I see her shame in my desire." "When the Lights Are Down" is a lengthy metaphor for sex cloaked in a veil of loneliness and betrayal, while "The Haunting" and "This Pain" drive the point home. The album's simultaneous concern with carnal passion and sacred wisdom can be interpreted in a few ways: first, there is the ever-present influence of chaste courtly love narratives, in which the male voice speaks of and longs for his lady love from afar but may or may not actually consummate things; second, there is the possibility of Ariel's romantic/physical desire being ultimately the same drive as his lust for spiritual knowledge and higher wisdom. I think the latter point is more likely, given that in "Memento Mori" Ariel dies, ascends to Heaven, and finds Helena waiting for him--she has become the embodiment of his salvation and his reward all in one. However, these two angles may be synthesized as well, since aspects of courtly love infuse all of Kamelot's albums from Siege Perilous up through Ghost Opera, mingling seamlessly with their ongoing themes of personal search and development.

Though like its companion album The Black Halo is derived from Faust, for my money it also evokes another of Kamelot's favorite literary sources: Arthurian legends. Specifically, Ariel's interactions with Marguerite call to mind Lancelot's relationships with Guenever and Elaine--to be brief, Lancelot is tricked into sleeping with Elaine under the belief that she is Guenever (in his defense, he's super drunk). White emphasizes that the triangle between Lancelot, Guenever, and Arthur is actually a quadrangle, with God being the fourth partner, as Lancelot vacillates between trying to be a good Christian and a good lover to Gwen. This is eminently relevant to The Black Halo, witnessed when Ariel is seduced into sex with Marguerite while believing she is Helena returned from the dead, and echoes the themes of Epica, which show him torn between his love for Helena and his obsession with obtaining arcane knowledge. It's possible that something of Khan's private life came into play in creating these two albums as well; both have a personal vibe unique from more typical fantasy-derived power metal lyrics (in this interview Khan talks about how his personal life inspired many of his lyrics). Regardless of where exactly the core inspirations for The Black Halo came from, the band capitalized on the tensions arising from soul-searching, epic quests, and heartache to create a record both mythological in scope and human in perspective.

(album cover from Prog Archives)
The production on The Black Halo is flawless, showing off every aspect of Kamelot's arsenal, from Khan's pipes to Palotai's keyboards. The guest vocalists and musicians add even more layers to increasingly complex music, and the array of songs displays a band capable of switching from passionate ballads such as "Abandoned" to the riff-heavy "Moonlight" and the intricate "Memento Mori," one of Kamelot's longest single-part songs. Taken together, Epica and The Black Halo are Kamelot's most iconic albums, and the albums most indicative of their distinctive sound and songwriting prowess: essential, textbook Kamelot.

Necessary Tracks: "Temples of Gold" from Karma, "III Ways to Epica" from Epica, and "Memento Mori" (live) from The Black Halo.

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