The Ghost Xperiment - Illumination

Vanden Plas

So right off the bat as a disclaimer; I hate this whole subtitle naming convention. […]
By Ian Yeara
December 26, 2020
Vanden Plas - The Ghost Xperiment - Illumination album cover

So right off the bat as a disclaimer; I hate this whole subtitle naming convention. "Netherworlds" was one thing, but purposefully misspelling experiment as Xperiment lands both these albums on my "dumbest album names of the decade list". It might seem like an innocuous thing to comment on, but it irks me. The "Netherworld" duology is even worse, I'm pretty sure everyone forgot the ridiculous full titles of those albums; "Chronicles of Immortals: Netherworld I/II", I completely forgot until I was researching for this review. Not only is it completely unnecessary, it can be really annoying when it comes to sorting my mp3s. At least this time they did away with the part 1/part 2 bollocks and of course the name of the album hardly has an impact on the music. VANDEN PLAS has been one of my favorite bands ever since I discovered "The Seraphic Clockwork", which happens to be my favorite album of theirs and the album I always end up comparing their new material to. I liked the "Netherworlds" duology enough, part one is catchy enough, but rather tame by VANDEN PLAS standards. Part two is much better and pushes the "progressive" aspect of their music more than the band had in a long time.

Part Two of one of my least favorite naming conventions in metal. No I won't let this go because I still think it's dumb, but I won't harp on it because at least this time they didn't actually name these albums part 1 and 2, plus the music is even better than last time. VANDEN PLAS isn't exactly a revolutionary band, they play a very specific niche style of Progressive Power Metal, they don't like breaking out of that box and this album doesn't really change much. What keeps their albums fresh and interesting though is their ability to write interesting and addictive hooks. Combined with a very unique guitar tone and a very dark and heavy organ sound from Günter Werno . If you're reading this review I assume you're familiar with VANDEN PLAS, but on the off chance you're not, this duology of albums is actually a pretty good place to start because it pretty much encompasses everything the band has tried to do sonically over the years.

"Awakening" always seemed like an album that I should have liked a lot more than I did, but now that I have both "Awakening" and "Illumination" I can properly analyze this duology as a whole. The more time I spend with "Illumination" I realize what it was that turned me off to "Awakening" It's similar to my dissatisfaction with "Netherworld Part 1" which sounded like a victory lap after "The Seraphic Clockwork" where they didn't experiment with their sound at all, if anything "Netherworld 1" sounded like a substantially watered down version of "Christ0" and "The Seraphic Clockwork" and it ended up being fine; good, but not great. "Netherworld Part 2" fixed almost every problem I had with 1, they brought in more of the Prog sound from "The God Thing" and expertly melded it with their slick, modern Prog/Power sound. I really enjoyed the references to their past work.

Sorry if I'm talking too much about a different album, but once again VANDEN PLAS was able to deftly analyze what they could do better from part 1 to part 2 and clean it up, so once again the second part of their duology sounds much more focused and cleaned up compared to the first part, not to mention I really feel like stylistically VP pulled in some different vibes this time. Nothing major, VANDEN PLAS still hasn't come anywhere near actually changing up their sound or experimenting, but probably about as close as they're going to come to doing that. "When the World is Falling Down" has a killer chorus and bridge/solo, from the moment I heard that song I was excited for this album, but it wasn't until I heard "Under The Horizon" that I knew this album was going to be better than "Awakening". "Under The Horizon" is as close to a departure from their usual sound as we're likely to get. It's hard to put my finger on exactly why I find this song so fascinating.

Now initially the middle of this album didn't really grab me as much as I would have hoped, but of course this is VANDEN PLAS and accessibility isn't exactly the name of the game. I usually love when bands have multiple songs longer than seven minutes, but VANDEN PLAS does this on almost every song on every album, and after "Awakening" I was weary. "Black Waltz Death" hooked me first, I've always liked how VP approaches ballads, with one exception, since "Christ0" they haven't really written what I would term a power ballad, no VP likes their Prog ballads which means it starts off slower and softer, but it builds up to an incredible breakdown, not to mention the chorus changes with each iteration. I love how this song evolves, the first four minutes or so are incredible enough, and really they could have stopped there and it would have been a great song, but the second half is just so good I would hate to lose it. The guitar solo and keyboard solos are excellent, but the final iteration of the chorus and subsequent breakdown are what really sold me on this song. This song really reminds me of something from "Christ0" in a lot of ways and as far as prog ballads go this one is killer.

"Now The Lonely Psychogon" took me a little bit longer to really get and I think it's mostly because it kind of sounds like a "generic" VANDEN PLAS song. I tore "Awakening" a new one because I though "Devil's Poetry" and "Phantoms of Prends-Toi-Garde" both sounded uninspired. It's not until just shy of four minutes in that this song really grabs me, the bass is more audible and better utilized on this album, and I am a huge sucker for some proggy basslines. The bridge (or development section if you like) of this song is really fantastic, the solos are awesome, though once again I find myself loving the keyboard solo more than the guitar solo. Stephan Lill is a great guitar player of course, but Günter Werno is constantly surprising me with fresh and groovy lines; just listen to the end of the bridge at about 5:20, which is topped off by a great bass fill to lead the song back into the chorus. After all of that proggy goodness I find myself more positively inclined to the chorus, I also think it helps that they only use the chorus twice which gives it a bit more weight at the end. Also let me say, the outros on this album are on fire, I mean holy crap Werner is really going all out on these finales, and lest we forget Andreas Lill on drums putting in a monster performance.

"Fatal Arcadia" is the opposite of "Psychogon", the verses aren't my favorite thing but the hooks are really good and make up for other parts of the song dragging a bit. It's another song that grew on me, but once it gets to the bridge this song really takes off. Once they stop chugging for a few minutes we get some actual Prog and VP are so good at noodly Prog. It probably says something that this is the song I have the least to talk about so far which isn't necessarily a bad thing, it's just an enjoyable song.

Okay now it's time for the big one, when I saw they were doing a 13 minute song I cheered a little, let's be real for a minute VANDEN PLAS is awesome at wrapping up albums with 10+ minute epics. That also meant that "The Ouroboros" had a lot to live up to. As a disclaimer in case you just want to know the quick and dirty opinion on this, no I don't think this is their best epic, nor is it as good as "Blood Of Eden". It's still really bloody good. Just so you understand where I set the bar, "On My Way To Jerusalem" is my pick for best VP epic. I know a lot of people will pick "January Sun", but I mean they're both really freaking awesome. Let's go down the list: "Beyond Daylight" is awesome and probably my favorite song off that album. "You Fly" and "Soul Survives" aren't quite 10 minutes, but they set the early standard for the epic usually being the best song on the album. Oh and "Blood of Eden" is excellent and possibly my second favorite overall.

With that out of the way, "The Ouroboros" is... weird, on the one hand I really like that it takes some twists and turns that I wasn't expecting, but at the same time the twists don't really seem to fit with the rest of the song if that makes sense. I really like this song, I like all the parts of it, but I worry that they don't all come together to create the most cohesive song. It's a minor complaint, but it's what keeps this epic from receiving a 5/5 as all their others do. Now all of that being said, the chorus is fantastic, the intro is kind of there, it's not super compelling, but once the song starts it's immediately great. Just so we're clear the part where it becomes great is when Andy Kuntz starts singing to the heavens with the conviction of a holy man. I mean by the gods the man's voice barely seems like it's aged, I love his theatrical delivery as ever and it's what really sells the chorus. The build up to the second chorus is better than the first which helped sell it to me when I sat down and really paid attention to this song. The abrupt end of the first half (or act as I'm sure the band would want you to call it), how do you feel about it? I'm really not sure how I feel about it, but I do think the bridge/breakdown/development section thingy doesn't fit with the song, it just doesn't to me, but it's still really cool I mean these guys are so good at this stuff it's almost become routine that they write awesome bridges. I think it's the tritones, the tonality gets fairly dissonant with the strings underneath the guitar and keys laying out a mat of tritones. I looooooove tritones, back in high school my friends and I would find new ways to use tritones and make them fun. So this is a very cool breakdown, but I do still think it doesn't really fit with the rest of the song. Critics like all humans are complex and paradoxical creatures and all I know is this song hits all those notes and highpoints that I expect from a VANDEN PLAS epic. The closing absolutely deserves mentioning, remember when I said the band really seemed to nail the outros on really every song on this album? Well all of the others pale in comparison to this one, I mean they pull all the dramatic theatrical classic tropes out and to some it might seem excessive, I wouldn't blame them, but I love it and I love how it picks up tempo for the last 30 seconds to deliver an excellent race to the finale.

First let me say that I am glad they included the cover, I don't know the song or the band, but I love VANDEN PLAS' cover of "Krieg Kent Keinne Siege"r as a final ending to the album(s). I love it because I gotta be honest with you, "Ghost Engineers" doesn't really land with me. It's just kind of boring and lacking any interesting hooks. Like after such an epic album, and don't forget this is technically the end of a double album and it makes a poor ending which is the only real misstep Illumination really makes. I hate to end on a negative note, I absolutely adore this album, it's not as good as "Netherworld II" or their classics, but it's definitely better than "Far Off Grace", "Netherworld I", and "Awakening". The band finally tried some new things and even if they didn't all work gangbusters enough of it did that I was pleasantly surprised throughout the album.

As for the totality of the "Ghost Xperiment" duology and how it stacks up with "Netherworld"? I think "Netherworld" succeeds as a story better and as feeling like one story. "Ghost Xperiment" is fun, but far less cohesive, it's fun and the highs are as high as any in their careers, but the lows are pretty low by their standards. If you're new to VANDEN PLAS you can disregard most of my thoughts because this might end up being your favorite album, I have too much nostalgia in the past to properly judge this album and I encourage everyone to try and listen to new albums with as open a mind as possible.

First published on The Metal Observer.

9 / 10

Almost Perfect

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"The Ghost Xperiment - Illumination" Track-listing:

1. When The World Is Falling Down
2. Under The Horizon
3. Black Waltz Death
4. The Lonely Psychogon
5. Fatal Arcadia
6. The Ouroboros
7. Ghost Engineers
8. Krieg Kennt Keine Sieger (Saltatio Mortis Cover)

Vanden Plas Lineup:

Andy Kuntz - Vocals
Stephan Lill - Guitars
Andreas Lill - Drums
Günter Werno - Keyboards
Torsten Reichert - Bass

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