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Thursday, December 13, 2012

The Kamelot Superpost, Part 4: Beyond the Pale

Released in 2010, Ghost Opera was Kamelot's much-anticipated follow-up to the commercially and critically successful Black Halo; however, it wasn't quite what most fans might have been expecting. Darker and less fantastic (in the genre sense) than what came before, Ghost Opera broke new ground for the band both instrumentally and lyrically. In terms of content, Ghost Opera is perhaps the most similar of Kamelot's albums to those of frontman Khan's former band Conception; Khan and Youngblood's religion-related lyrics were always unorthodox, but on Ghost Opera they became downright cynical, interrogating everything from humanity's effects on the world to whether Christ was truly divine to war in the name of God. Furthermore, the three love ballads largely don't veer toward even the slight hopefulness of those found on previous albums--"Blücher" and "Love You To Death" both feature the ultimate separation of untimely death, while "Eden Echo" blends sex and religion to evoke a bleak betrayal. Most of Kamelot's familiar mythological and fantasy elements are missing from this album, replaced with geopolitical musings, stories from recent history, and an array of dark mutters about faith. The overall atmosphere of Ghost Opera is world-weariness: grounded, harsh tracks like "The Human Stain" and "Under a Mourning Star" stand in stark contrast to the soaring, ambitious nature of The Black Halo. However, Kamelot's consistent focus on soul-searching remains--though the conclusions drawn by the narrator indicate a more fatalistic worldview from Ariel on Epica and The Black Halo. Ghost Opera's songs are also significantly shorter and somewhat more straightforward, leaning away from archetypal power metal flourishes and toward goth metal and hard rock influences. Ghost Opera may not have been the follow-up to Kamelot's epic that fans were expecting, but it's a worthy record and one that signifies that the band weren't willing to rest on their laurels or churn out a boilerplate production of power metal tunes.

(album cover from Prog Archives)

Poetry for the Poisoned, rather than being a return to power metal form, was even more experimental than its predecessor. These two albums are much debated in the fandom and Poetry particularly evoked strong reactions, with some listeners decrying it as muddy, boring, uninspired, and nigh un-listenable. I find Poetry to be opaque, certainly, but ultimately a beautiful album which served a couple of purposes. First, it allowed the band to continue expanding their musical borders and experimenting, which they clearly wished to do; second, it allowed Khan some room to breathe, which--since he retired before the "Pandemonium Over North America" tour started--he clearly needed. His vocals on this album are vastly different from previous recordings, to suit his somewhat-diminishing range, and the complex instrumental work surrounding each track gave him back-up and a cushion to rest on. It's not every band that can turn the problem of a burned-out lead singer into an interesting, thoughtful record. 
(album cover from Prog Archives)

Lyrically, some of Kamelot's familiar elements are present; the fantasy motifs turn toward horror in songs like "The Great Pandemonium" and the title track, a four-part suite of incubi and beautiful prey-turned-predators, and "Hunter's Season" is a companion ballad to Karma's "Don't You Cry." However, the majority of the tracks are oblique, even menacing, with "The Zodiac" and "Necropolis" recalling real-world dramas. Poetry is a dark album, to be sure, and it's especially notable in my view for its treatment of women in the lyrics. As discussed in previous posts, the female characters in Kamelot songs almost always fall into the mold of "lost lover on a pedestal": Irea, the unnamed women in "Forever" and "Temples of Gold," Helena, and the subjects of "Love You to Death," "Blücher," and "EdenEcho." Poetry sees arguably the first female villain (not counting "Elizabeth," as that character is her song's protagonist and the listener is expected to identify with her despite her actions, and Marguerite of "The Haunting," who is Mephisto's dupe): the woman in "If Tomorrow Came," a femme fatale who crushes those who love her. We find as well the first overtly sexual woman in part two of "Poetry for the Poisoned." Unlike some other bands, Kamelot has never been one to go in for female archetypes other than the princess in the tower, and to a lesser extent the female victim, particularly on Ghost Opera; there are no evil sorceresses or crones, and until Poetry there wasn't even a temptress (again, not counting Marguerite, who is largely a channel for Mephisto to work through)--and most importantly, none of the tracks on Poetry feature the princess in the tower/lost love figure. "House on a Hill" comes closest to the male/female vocal duets of yore, but certainly isn't in the same vein as "Love You to Death" or "The Haunting." Too, "Poetry for the Poisoned" spins the female-victim trope on its head, creating the woman in the story as a predator once she encounters the incubus. Ultimately, the modes and roles in which women appear in Kamelot lyrics are up to the listener to analyze; most of them aren't straightforward.

Necessary Tracks: "The Human Stain" from Ghost Opera and "If Tomorrow Came" from Poetry for the Poisoned.

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