(To be printed in a future issue of PowerPlay Magazine, but in a very edited format as this is far too lengthy for normal publications - be warned, it's a long one)
Navigation has never been my strong point and having made it to Cologne, getting to the area of Ehrenfeld was more of a challenge than I expected. Easily baffled by German train signs and maps and despite having been given very concise travel instructions, I found myself walking the streets of Cologne for much longer than anticipated. One thing that was abundantly clear, even through travel induced exhaustion, was that Cologne is a city passionate about its rock music. In central Cologne and Ehrenfeld itself, the walls were plastered with posters for upcoming tours and releases ranging from the likes of Motörhead to The Pogues. Furthermore, the city centre of Cologne was filled with kids clearly in to their music – I’ve never seen so many goths in one place, and I’ve been to a 69 Eyes concert. With such blatant musical passion in its community, I wasn’t surprised that the launch for an album whose personnel included rock and metal stalwarts Michael Kiske, Amanda Somerville and Mat Sinner was to take place here later this evening.
Having arrived at the hotel with enough time for a power nap, I made my way to Ehrenfeld's Underground Club for the Kiske & Somerville launch event. After a bit of room-changing within the venue, we are all led in to what appears to be the club dance floor area where we were treated to the Kiske / Somerville record in its entirety and, honestly, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect from the album. Michael Kiske, still perpetually associated with his former band Helloween, and Amanda Somerville, whose own solo material is a far cry from metal, are amongst the best singers in the business but neither are exclusively heavy musicians – it’d be fairer to say that they both dabble in the metal world. That’s why when the album started, I was surprised by just how “metal” the proceedings were. Of course, with Mat Sinner as one of the key songwriters and producer, it made sense.
Opener 'Nothing Left To Say' is disarmingly heavy from the start. And yet, despite its furious drumming and pounding chords, the song remains highly melodic throughout; the chorus in particular, which sees Kiske and Somerville’s soaring vocals intertwine with one another in harmony over an exceptionally hooky chorus.
Similarly, the next track 'Silence' opens with jabbed violins before an interjection of thundering guitars. From a restrained verse, it leads in to a suitably epic vocal trade-off of a chorus between the two singers.
Follower 'If I Had A Wish' has a power metal opening of twinned guitar leads, setting the stage for an all around anthemic track. Whilst a tad repetitive, the strength of the hooks is more than enough to sustain it.
'Arise' is amongst the heaviest tracks on the album, boasting pinch harmonic riffs and a groove-metal breakdown that sees the weighted guitars well juxtaposed by serenely smooth vocals.
The sweeping orchestration of 'End of the Road' provides the track’s foundation, with neat flourishes of percussion and extra instrumentation cementing the track as one of the album’s highlights.
'Don’t Walk Away' sees an almost AOR styled addition to the album with a more upbeat chorus providing a welcome change from the rather brooding melodies that seem to encompass the rest of the album. The track is very rocky and very catchy.
Another lead driven number, 'A Thousand Suns' has a slow chorus that is made brilliant by the meticulous vocal harmonising. Furthermore, the flamenco guitar solo, whilst unexpected, is a great touch.
'Rain' fleets from soaring guitars to another infectious chorus and a very heavy bridge, creating another strong track
Slowing down a bit, 'One Night Burning' is a piano led ballad that again, really takes off at its bombastic and tuneful chorus.
Another album highlight, 'Devil In Her Heart' sounds sort of like a ballsier, European Evanescence. The two part chorus consists of one of the album’s best vocal trade-offs before moving in to doomy cries of “I’m going under”. Furthermore, the duel of guitar and keyboard solos provides a great finish.
The official album closer 'Second Chance' is another ballady number, but unfortunately falls a bit flat. It is having saved by a well placed, melodious solo.
Finally, bonus track 'Set A Fire' is heavier than anything that came before it, with its slow, thrashing intro subsiding to thumping drums and serene vocals from Somerville. The almost Eastern sounding acoustic guitars coupled with a haunting bass supplement Amanda’s interlude vocals fantastically, creating one of the best moments of the album. It’s a surprise that this track was only relegated to bonus material.
Whilst occasionally a tad formulaic in some of its song writing, nearly every track on “Kiske / Somerville” contains something memorable. Furthermore, it is nothing short of a treat to hear two talents such as Kiske and Somerville performing together so well. Following the album, we are shown the two promotional clips and then the the journalists get their chance to conduct interviews After a few drinks with the fellow attendees, I’m led to another building on the Underground’s property, where the talents of the album await to be interviewed. Unfortunately, Amanda had fallen ill by this point so I was left in the capable hands of Michael Kiske and Mat Sinner to discuss the album.
“I actually listened to it for the first time today as well,” Michael opens. “Of course I knew the songs, but I hadn’t heard the mix.” Asking what he thought of the finished product, Michael continues. “It’s very nice. The sound system was kind of unclear, so it had an almost ‘live’ sound. When you listen to it on a normal system, it’s going to sound clear.” Indeed, having already heard samples, it was clear this was the case. So, how did the project come together? “Serafino Perugino, the owner of Frontiers Records, asked me if I’d be interested in singing a full duet record with a female voice,” Michael recalls. “I did it once on the Indigo Dying record and it was a beautiful track. I really liked that song, so I said yeah, that I’d love to do it, if it’s the right kind of music. And then he…” Michael gestures towards Mat. “He asked me. He said ‘Mat, I really liked your last productions – are you interested in producing an album with Michael and a female singer?’ And I said yeah, of course, because I’ve loved Michael through all the stations in his career. I like his voice and he has a great background. So we were in need of a singer, a girl singer. We were searching and had a list of singers and we came to the point that Amanda came in to the picture. We’d worked on Avantasia and another project and there had already been a project where Michael and her had been singing together.”
Of course, Amanda Somerville was one of the key personnel behind orchestrating the Aina “Metal Opera”, on which Michael had sung a few tracks. However, Mat is quick to point out that “Michael didn’t recognise her in the first place.” Detailing of the circumstances, Michael adds “It’s a funny story. When I did the Aina album, I was sent a very beautiful thing on that called 'Silver Maiden'. Sascha Paeth sent me a demo with her singing on it. And I said to him, ‘Man, this sounds so good. Why don’t you take her voice? Why should I sing it? I can’t do any better, it’s awesome!’ You can ask her, I didn’t even know who she was, just this awesome vocalist – it was perfect! Then when we came to do the project, I didn’t know of the Aina connection. The thing is, after we did the video shoot – that’s when I found out it was the same girl.” Both Mat and Michael are quick to sing Amanda’s praises in her absence. “She’s very professional and very easy going,” Mat starts. “She’s very sweet and great to work with. With some girls, sometimes you have problems, but not with Amanda. She’s always sweet,” Michael adds. So how was the recording as a whole? Did you ever record together? “No, no. I would perform the songs, the instrumentation and whatever. Then Amanda would record her vocals and then I’d send the songs to Michael to record,” Mat details. Michael elaborates, “I love to record the vocals separately because then I can do it on my own time. Sometimes you’re just not in the right frame of mind to record and if you have people watching you, expecting you to perform, looking at the time… it’s a lot of pressure. I had some health problems in January, I had an operation for a hole in my diaphragm and it affected my singing.” So recording on your own gives you space to work around your health problems and record when you’re best prepared? “Yes, exactly.”
Looking at the credits, it’s quite noticeable that most of the album was written by Mat Sinner and Magnus Karlsson. With the key performers being Amanda and Michael, the album ended up heavier than I would have expected. “It’s heavy with a positive vibe,” Mat tells me. “It’s melodic. To me, it’s not heavier than expected, it’s just normal. It’s how I write, it’s very personal to me.” Michael adds, “It’s very positive and melodic. Just like with those Helloween songs, they were always positive and melodic.” Asking about how he felt not being part of the creative process, Michael states, “I didn’t write any of it, but I’m happy with my imprint on the album. Working with duet harmonies was very different to my previous collaborations but I think the record is an artistic success.” Mat nods.
With this slightly heavier offering and your current band, Unisonic, do you feel you’re re-entering the world of rock and metal again, Michael? “This project is heavy, yes but Unisonic are more rock, not metal. I like metal, but it’s too narrow for what we want. We want to be more open.” Michael has been known to be vocal about the metal crowd in the last decade, he assures me this is “in the past. I like metal, I still listen to some of those classic rock and metal albums.” At this point, Michael shows me his iPod and the wealth of varied music on it ranging from Oasis and Keane to Iron Maiden and Judas Priest. So does he feel that his animosity towards the metal audience was founded in perhaps bad marketing? After all, his solo releases were far from metal but were pedalled to the Helloween crowd. “The record label jumps on past successes, so yes that wasn’t great. But when I was doing signing with Unisonic at festivals… yes, there was a lot of Keepers and Place Vendome but every third album was one of my solo albums so even some of the metal crowd were buying them.”
After listening to the album, we were also shown the videos for 'Silence' and 'If I Had A Wish'. How did you find that? “I was uncomfortable,” Michael admits. “It was my first time on screen in… 16 years? You can see me being uncomfortable in the videos, I’m just sitting down. Amanda was great though, she was the real performer!” Of course, this was the first time the Kiske & Somerville band had properly been in a room together, so nerves were understandable, as Mat points out. “We had to start somewhere. The videos were done before we had relaxed in to it so it doesn’t quite seem like a band.” Michael corroborates, adding, “The second video was better because we were more comfortable.” So, now that the band are used to each other, is there any chance of a tour? “A tour for Kiske & Somerville depends on the record’s response. We have to have the right feed back for it,” Michael states. Mat elaborates, “Live, we want to present the music on a very good level. It’s more like an opera, It’s too big for small clubs. We need a stage where everyone would fit! It would have to be very theatrical.” “Mat’s invested a lot in this, it’s very personal to him so we would want to do it right. It needs a nice foundation to keep it going, live or on record,” Michael adds. “But I think it’s a success, whatever happens. If it’s a success personally, that’s the most important thing.”
Finally, I ask Mat and Michael what their current commitments are from now. Michael is of course continuing on with his new band, Unisonic. Mat tantalisingly mentions that his next commitment is working on the solo album of another talent of the German metal scene, Ralf Scheepers. Teasingly, he reveals that there will also be a lot of interesting guests on the album and it’s with that little snippet we conclude the interview. However, immediately after the interview, we somehow slipped in to a rather lengthy conversation about U2 – apparently both Michael and Mat are big fans of the band – providing probably the most surreal exchange of the evening.
With the interview over, it’s back in to the main club for a generous amount of German beer, loud music and good times. The feeling seems to be mutual that the Kiske / Somerville album is a strong platter that displays the talents of its namesakes brilliantly. Only time will tell how well the album will be received on a wider scale but for me, it was a delight to hear such skilled singers working together so well. I’m sure I won’t be the only one wishing to see this project performed live, especially considering how meticulous Mat Sinner is about presenting the music properly, so hopefully the feedback will be as positive as the launch experience.