How long should a concept album be? There’s no precise answer to this question, for it depends on the few factors. First, the scope of a story to be told plays a huge role in this. The stories differ from record to record: it can be a musical adaptation of an existing piece of art, it can be a fictional story, invented from scratch, it can be coverage of some event in real life, or maybe a narration of the storyteller’s life experience. It can be a mixture of these options, or it can be something else entirely. Second, and probably most important factor is the musician’s approach to writing such an album, his vision of the story, his take on it. Some bands are inclined to release sprawling double albums, sending the listener to a huge, lengthy musical adventure; some musicians, on the other hand, prefer to be more restrained and concise in their storytelling, settling on one disc of music yet managing to convey all the feelings they want and flesh out the entire concept in relatively short period of time. Amadeus Awad seems to lean towards the latter category so far, having brought to life two concept EPs in the last two years: Schizanimus and The Book of Gates; and now he releases a full-fledged concept album, Death Is Just A Feeling, proving that 45 minutes of music is more than enough to tell a captivating, chilling and thought-provoking story about death and human nature.
Along with being a composer, Amadeus is also a multi-instrumentalist, so it’s only natural that besides writing all music and lyrics for Death Is Just A Feeling, he also tackles the acoustic, electric and bass guitars playing duties, as well as the keyboards. Amadeus tends to gather some big names to perform on his works, and this album is no exception, just look at the people behind the microphone, and also at the ones behind the drum kit. The vocals on the record are performed by three people: Elia Monsef, a longtime collaborator who also appeared on previous Amadeus’ works; Anneke van Giersbergen and Arjen Anthony Lucassen. I don’t think there’s any need to introduce the latter two to the readers; and I also think the following two names are fairly well known around here too. I’m talking, of course, about the drumming department here: the drums are provided by Marco Minnemann and Jimmy Keegan. Besides all the usual instruments for the progressive rock / metal album, there is also a cello and a clarinet appearing on the album, played by Nareg Nashanikian and Rafi Nashanikian respectively. The spoken parts are narrated by Dan Harper.
The record starts peacefully with Opia. This song fulfills the role of introduction song well enough, easing the listener into the album with the sedative, calming atmosphere. The soft, chiming acoustic guitar sounds with some gentle keyboard touches are supporting the narration at first, and they continue to project serenity when the spoken part gives way to Anneke’s angelic voice. No drums or electric guitars can be heard in this part, it’s all about emotions and feelings.
Things get a little more hectic when the first keyboard riff of Sleep Paralysis kicks in, and considerably more hectic when the electric guitar joins the mix. The instrumental intro drips with intensity, and the tight, powerful and intricate drumming from Marco Minnemann ups the tension a notch further. The intro is just one highlight of this track out of many; another one is the vocal melodies here, perhaps the strongest on the record, and once again enhanced greatly by Anneke’s vocal delivery, especially on the lines “Give it time / Face the time”. The whole chorus is positively haunting, backed up by the furtive keyboards and ringing cymbals, and it will definitely stay in your head for the days to come; and while the first two times it comes off in full force, it gets progressively less insistent and more blurry until the acoustic outro quiets all the tension.
It gets brought back with the narration on Monday Morning, which is much more swift, forceful and somber here, posing those difficult, poignant questions that some of us may have been asking ourselves some moments in our lives, and providing no answers. Other than that, this song is a keyboard driven instrumental with some excellent drum work once again, serving as a bridge between the wariness of Sleep Paralysis and sorrowfulness of the next track, Tomorrow Lies. Jimmy Keegan is behind the drum kit on this one, and the vocal duties are taken over by Elia Monsef, who provides just right amount of sadness and hopelessness in his voice, matching the overall depressive, bleak picture this song paints. On the instrumental side, the hollow acoustic notes with the scarce keys over them are entwined with the mournful electric guitar slides all the way to the second chorus, after which the keys flow into more orchestral approach, followed by a soulful guitar solo, a perfect match for the song. After that, the track goes calm for a bit only to shine with one short outburst of emotion before the last chorus rings out, ending the composition on somewhat a high and not entirely hopeless note.
The brooding cello is the first sound we hear from Lonesome Clown, the penultimate track of the record, and also the longest one, clocking at twelve and a half minutes. The cello is accompanied by a few short cascades of acoustic sounds; and Anneke is humming wordlessly over it, paving the way for the first verse. With drums leading the way, bass securing the rhythm and keyboards adding the rich colours to the canvas, the song smoothly flows into a swift, thrilling chorus; and the distorted guitar riff after solidifies the tempo, carrying the energy to the second verse. This is as close to progressive metal as we get since Sleep Paralysis, with pronounced electric guitar in the background going on a steady, relentless pace. It gets substituted by the keys after the second chorus, but the momentum is carried on for another minute or two, and then everything goes fairly tranquil again. The serene solo section is enthralling, and it lasts long enough to give the listener a room to swim in his inner thoughts before we’re brought back into the story with breathtaking combination of acoustic guitar and female vocals. It’s one of those sections you can encounter in the longer songs in the progressive genre, the one that is compelling enough on its own, yet it’s subtly building up to a greater climax, and you know all is going to come down soon, and you’re torn apart between enjoying what you hear and anticipating what will come. This is exactly what happens here, and when you hear the recurring riff from 2:50 underneath the line “I beg your forgiveness” you know it’s almost there; and when it goes wild few seconds later with the chorus returning it’s just so satisfying. It’s an absolutely stunning moment.
The song ends with another part of narration, flowing straight into the record’s closer, Temporary. Featuring Arjen Anthony Lucassen on vocals, this track is a great example of an uplifting sounding song that is also inexpressibly sad and melancholic. Arjen got quite simple and straightforward lines here, and as the result, he sounds pretty impressive on this song. This song just fits him, and his singing comes off here as convincing and natural, which is yet another compliment to Amadeus’ masterful songwriting and another proof that Arjen actually can sing, despite what he was saying those last decades. Heartfelt jokes aside — because I think my heart almost broke due to all this sadness this song oozes, especially when that magnificent clarinet solo comes in after the first chorus — Temporary ends the record probably the best way possible, with all the relief and wistfulness engulfing the listener after all the bleakness and somberness the previous songs threw in our way. All the instruments, cello, clarinet, the warmth of the vocals, Marco’s drumming, acoustic guitar and keyboards are united in a way that makes me smile and lament at the same time; and after that, Amadeus just tears the remains of my heart with that splendidly beautiful guitar solo, wrapping up the song and the record then with a short spoken part delivered by Arjen.
Death Is Just A Feeling may seem like a short album, only 45 minutes of music in the days when the CD can contain up to almost 80 minutes, with only six songs and some time occupied by a narration; but turns out that for Amadeus Awad this is more than enough to create a masterpiece. Whatever small quibbles to this album I have, whatever insignificant qualms I’ve got about some of the choices, I can easily overlook them here, because the overall quality of this record is nothing short of astounding. The production is perfectly clean, every instrument is audible and clear, I especially like how the vocals and the drums sound; and I think I wrote enough in the previous five paragraphs to show how I feel about the songwriting on this album. Death Is Just A Feeling rapidly became one of my favourite records this year so far, and I will be eagerly waiting for whatever Amadeus will release next. And in the meantime, I guess I have some catching up to do.