Review

SECRET SPHERE The Nature of Time

Album · 2017 · Power Metal
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4/5 ·
DippoMagoo
As much as I enjoy reviewing music, there are times where I initially struggle with an album and wonder if it’s even worth it to keep trying and see if it will open up for me, or if I should just give up on it. Often times, situations like this can ultimately be rewarding, though, as albums I usually wouldn’t have the patience for if I wasn’t committed to reviewing them can often end up winning me over in the long run, and such is the case with The Nature of Time, the eighth full-length release from Italian progressive power metal band Secret Sphere. I’ve had some experience with the band in the past, being immediately blown away by their 2010 release Archetype, which ended up being the last album with their original vocalist Roberto Messina, and being fairly disappointed by their 2012 release Portrait of a Dying Heart, which marked the beginning of a new era for the band. Between being disappointed with that album, being unimpressed with the samples I checked for 2015 re-recording of their 2002 album A Time Never Come and initially being fairly bored with this new release, I was just about ready to give up on the band for good. And then it suddenly clicked on the third listen, completely out of nowhere!

Portrait of a Dying Heart was quite the change in sound for the band, as earlier releases like Mistress of the Shadowlight and A Time Never Come featured more of a classic power metal sound, while Archetype was their most modern sounding, hardest hitting blend of prog and power metal to date, with some very aggressive riffs at points, where Portrait of a Dying Heart was a much more laid back album, with the prog albums taking on more of a melodic prog style compared to their past releases. This approach has only continued further on The Nature of Time, as this is very much a stripped down, less explosive album than anything they’ve done in the past, which is probably part of the reason for why it initially didn’t impress me much. The one lineup change on this album was the departure of guitarist Marco Pastorino, and I wonder if that affected the music in a big way, because the guitars are certainly less punchy on this release, even compared to its immediate predecessor, and instead the leads are mostly very melodic and guitars are used more to set the tone than to be particularly heavy, aside from on a couple tracks. One thing that hasn’t been reduced is the use of symphonic elements, which are quite prevalent throughout the album, both on softer tracks like “The Calling” and more speedy tracks like “Courage”.

Speaking of which, this release is a concept album, which seems to be about dealing with your inner feelings. Just by looking at the track listing, you can see 8 of the 11 tracks have to deal with positive emotions and personality traits, such as “Love”, “Courage”, “Honesty” and “Commitment”, and so lyrically it’s no surprise that this is a very emotional album and one that impresses more with its overall feel than it does with exciting musical passages. Indeed, there are quite a few tracks here that are fairly tame for the genre, as well as probably more balladry than the typical power metal fan is willing to put up with, which again is a reason I struggled with the album at first. At the same time, once you get a bit deeper into the album there are a few more upbeat and catchier tracks, and the power metal elements are very much still an important part of the music, even if they aren’t as dominant as on past releases.

Another aspect I wasn’t too impressed by at first is vocalist Michele Luppi. In fact, I’ll be honest here: I’ve heard some of his work with Vision Divine as well as obviously his previous work with Secret Sphere, and for some reason, I just never cared much for his voice. He’s definitely a great singer, with a very impressive range, able to hit all kinds of high and low notes with seemingly little challenge at all, and he can be very emotive at times, but for some reason there’s just something about his voice that prevents me from liking him as much as I should and I can’t figure out what it is. With that being said, I definitely enjoy his vocals more on this release than I have on anything else I’ve heard him on, and I do think he sounds terrific throughout, whether it’s on the more powerful, speedier tracks like “Courage”, “Faith” and “Reliance” or slower, lighter tracks like “Love”, “Kindness” and “The New Beginning”.

Moving onto songwriting, things get off to a rather slow start. Contrary to what its name would suggest, “Intermission” is, in fact, the beginning of the album, and is a fairly typical orchestral opener, with some nice piano parts in the middle, and a very brief voiceover at the end. One thing I will say right away, while this album uses narration throughout, it’s done rather tastefully, usually at the beginning or end of tracks and doesn’t really get in the way like it does on some albums, but instead just adds a bit of context to the overall concept, so this is one case where I can actually appreciate it. The first full song is “The Calling”, a rather slow paced track which has some nice melodic leads, including a nice guitar section at the beginning, before the orchestral elements take over, and it settles down into a fairly nice melodic prog track. The verses are a bit tame for my tastes, but the chorus is excellent and showcases Michele’s voice nicely, and I love the more emotional vocal section that comes towards the end and how it sets up the excellent guitar solo and epic final run through the chorus that closes out the track. Basically, it’s a track that starts out kinda boring but gets better as it goes along, and by the end, it’s really good.

After that, though, things slow down further with “Love”, a ballad mostly dominated by light keyboards and vocals. It’s a nice enough song, and the symphonic elements are again effective, but it’s not exactly the most exciting track and doesn’t really do much to help the momentum of the album early on. Thankfully, things pick up big time with “Courage”, the first speedy track on the album, and one of the best. While not quite as intense as anything on Archetype, this track is very fast paced and has some solid riffs, moving along at a great pace throughout, and delivering another huge chorus, as well as excellent instrumental second in the second half, and then the final run through the chorus is simply incredible. Easily the best song on the first half of the album. As expected, “Kindness” is another ballad, roughly on par with “Love”, meaning another solid, but unspectacular track, with some decent vocal melodies, but nothing really special. The first oddball of the album is next, that being “Honesty”. Right out of the gate it has some very modern sounding riffs, mixed in with epic orchestral arrangements, making for quite the weird contrast. This track took some time for me to get used to, as initially, the chugging riffs were bothering me, but over time I’ve come to appreciate them and how they contrast nicely with the very melodic and uplifting chorus, which is definitely the highlight of the track. There’s an epic instrumental section, later on, enhances both of these elements further, and the second half of the track is pretty amazing on the whole. Excellent track, overall, though it definitely requires a few listens to fully appreciate it.

Moving towards the final stretch, “Faith” is another fairly straightforward power metal track, with some solid riffs and a big, epic chorus. Definitely one the more fun and upbeat tracks on the album. Next is “Reliance”, another fairly uptempo track, though this one is much harder hitting than the others, with some pretty explosive riffs as well as a nice use of epic symphonic elements. The chorus is slower and brings in some of the prog elements, while later on, we get some pretty intense instrumental sections. This track is a bit all over the place, but it’s all very well done and it certainly makes for one of the more exciting and complex tracks on the album. After that, we have the fairly calm instrumental “Commitment”, which starts off with some heavy riffs, but quickly turns into a more melodic track, with some great keyboard work as well as some nice melodic solos throughout. It’s a pretty solid instrumental and serves as a nice lead-in to the climax of the album.

That climax comes in the form of a near 9-minute epic, titled “The Awakening”, which starts off with some epic orchestral arrangements during the first minute before the guitars kick in and it speeds up and turns into another epic, fast paced power metal track. I find this track takes all the elements found throughout the rest of the album and kicks it all up a notch, leading for one of the fastest tracks on the album, as well as easily the most epic and most memorable. Michele is also at his absolute best on this track, delivering easily the best performance I’ve ever heard from him, and there’s some great instrumental passages throughout, as well as a catchy chorus. Easily the highlight of the album, and along with “Courage”, and “Faith”, I’d say it’s one of a few tracks should leave listeners impressed right from the first listen. Lastly, “The New Beginning” is another ballad, but it steps things up a bit, by reusing lyrics from previous tracks but in a more emotional way, and again Michele delivers some great vocals, making it a nice way to end the album.

Overall, The Nature of Time is a great release, which shows Secret Sphere continuing to move towards more of a melodic prog sound, without sacrificing their power metal elements entirely. It’s an album that likely won’t blow many people away on first listen, but given some time it should open up and prove itself to be a very rewarding release, with some great tracks and some excellent vocals. I still prefer the more aggressive approach of albums such as Archetype, but I will admit this release has won me over in the end and has made me want to revisit its predecessor, as well as making me excited for any future releases the band puts out. Recommend for fans of power metal and melodic prog, and especially for those who like concept albums that are more about the lyrics and overall feel than about individual tracks.

originally written for myglobalmind.com (http://myglobalmind.com/2017/06/10/secret-sphere-nature-time-review/)
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