Whether you love it, hate it, or are indifferent to it - if there was just one word to describe Flaming Row's "Elinoire", the word would certainly have to be "ambitious".
Hailing from Germany, the core four piece line-up of Flaming Row is Martin Schnella (guitar, bass, keyboards), Kiri Geile (Vocals), Marek Arnold (Keyboards) and Niklas Kahl (drums) - but they are augmented by at least 12 other instrumentalists guesting on various tracks.
Consisting of 79 minutes of continuous music, stretched-over 18 tracks that ebb and flow into one another, "Elinoire" is not so much a 'concept album 'as it is an outright prog-metal opera. The words are not just song lyrics, they are snatches of dialogue and narrative that serve to move the story along. Fifteen featured vocalists, male and female, each represent a character or "element" within the story - Jessica Schmalle (Steel Protector) as "Elinoire", Billy Sherwood (Circa, Yes) as "Past", Brent Allman (Shadow Gallery) as "Liberty", and so on. The vocal lines of different characters bob and weave around each other, and it's often necessary to refer to the CD booklet to keep track of who's singing what. I must say that two vocalists who stood out for me were Schmalle and Sandra Theilman, who gets some brief but beautiful spotlight moments in the part of "Time".
I'll save the spoilers and won't give away the storyline in this review - it's best to just discover it and interpret it for yourself over multiple listens.
It might be easy, for reviewing purposes, to compare Flaming Row's musical style to the prog "musicals" of Ayreon, or the dramatic prog-metal of Symphony X or Stream of Passion...but then come some left turns into other genres, as well as sounds you may not expect - from jazzy saxophone solos, to odd production fiddle-faddles, to vocal-rounds reminiscent of medieval music. The musicianship is all of a high standard, particularly the nimble-fingered keyboard work of Arnold, which often rises-up to steal the show. The guitars also have some impressive moments, but with at least five guitarists in the album credits it's hard to keep track of who played what.
As for individual tracks; "Watershed" is easily a standout, with an atmospheric, vaguely "Floydian" feel and Billy Sherwood handling the main vocals. The five part "A Place to Revive Your Soul" is also quite impressive, bringing the album (and story) to a dramatic close.
So, now that I've addressed the positive stuff - do I have any criticisms?...Yes, a couple of big ones, unfortunately.
For me, the hardest type of albums to review are those that have many good qualities which must be respected - but just enough negative qualities to keep me from fully embracing it. In a nutshell, that's how I feel about "Elinoire". It's hard not to admire the creativity and hard work that goes into creating an ambitious work like this - but a few elements on the album are just so far outside of my musical tastes that I feel they hurt the overall listening experience. One case in point is vocalist Kim Spillner playing the part of "Rage". Spillner specializes in the sort of guttural, grunting "death metal" style of vocals that I just can't ever get into, even when wrapped within a 'prog' package. I understand that he is supposed to represent a dark element within the story, but Spillner's delivery is so over-the-top 'evil' that it borders on being comical. Perhaps a more skilled and melodic metal-belter could have provided the right amount of 'darkness' without sounding so out-of-place in these particular musical surroundings. Also, an instrumental track titled "Do You Like Country, Grandpa? left me with a similar 'fish-out-of-water' feel. I'm sure that there are some who would defend this light, breezy romp into country music territory as an example of 'everything and the kitchen sink' progressiveness, but even after multiple listens it just feels wrong within the overall flow of the album. I also can't see its significance within the narrative of the story - but maybe I'm missing something.
All in all, I found a lot to enjoy here, and the good does far outweigh the bad. But in year of heavy competition which saw the release of many great prog albums, the aforementioned musical wrong-turns keep me from from giving "Elinoire" my highest recommendation.
Reviewed by Jeff Matheus on December 31st, 2011