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By Jay Roberts, Massachusetts Contributor
Monday, December 7, 2015 @ 4:30 PM

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Letters From The Labyrinth

Lava Music / Republic Records - 2105

With the group's first full length studio in seven years, the hope was high for a return the artistic heights of the band's earliest works. The non-Christmas related release and stories contained within end up making some of the same strides forward (reminiscent of the brilliantly executed Beethoven's Last Night album) and the same steps backwards (that resulted in what I thought was the abysmal Night Castle release).

The first third of the album is consists mostly of lively instrumentals that have the unfortunate result of bleeding together a bit. TSO does open the disc with "Time & Distance (The Dash)", which features a huge vocal chorus providing the lyrical content to the song before they give way to a more rock tempo 2 minutes into the song. Unfortunately, the recycling of bits and pieces of SAVATAGE or even prior TSO material continues unabated because you can clearly hear shades of the SAVATAGE song "Blackjack Guillotine" from their album The Wake Of Magellan (to spotlight just one example). The huge chorus singing lead returns on the song "Who I Am" towards the end of the album, but there the heightened vocal intensity helps make the song better instead of detracting from it.

The album comes fully equipped with a lengthy CD booklet that has three separate stories to coincide with the music. The first is called The Dash and is about a class substitute teacher and the lesson the students receive. The second is a 16 page illustrated story tied to the instrumental "King Rurik" and the third is called Dreams Of Fireflies (which is tied by at least the partial title to TSO's 2012 EP Dreams Of Fireflies (On A Christmas Night).

The song "Prometheus" features Jeff Scott Soto providing the minute long vocal after 2 1/2 minutes of admittedly lively music. But this song tends to get forgotten about or buried in the memory as it is surrounded by a total of four instrumentals. This is a track sequencing of death for the song.

Paul O'Neill co-wrote (mainly with Jon Oliva) most of the material on disc and produced the album (plus played some guitar as well). He's the musical Svengali behind the latter stage of SAVATAGE's recording history and the force behind the continued success of TSO. But the man has to start putting in more original material or shorten up the album instead of recycling previously used material. Case in point: The song "Stay". I realize that most people who listen to the TSO albums will likely not realize that the song was originally performed by SAVATAGE with Zachary Stevens on vocals, but I do and it is kind of annoying to see the song stick out like a sore thumb on Letters From The Labyrinth. It is not that it is a bad take on the song, but the breathy and over-dramatized vocals from Adrienne Warren do nothing to enhance the song here or give it a new life of its own.

While not perfect, things do pick up beginning with track 7 on the disc, a song called "The Night Conceives". It is a masterful rocker that in a way seems out of place being on a TSO album. Aiding the greatness of the song and lyrics is a superb vocal performance by Kayla Reeves. There's a gravel toned inflection on her singing and everything about it makes this song my pick for the showcase track of the set. Reeves also sings lead on the song "Not The Same", but with more of a "clean" tone to her vocals.

Russell Allen (SYMPHONY X, ADRENALINE MOB) has the lead on the song "Not Dead Yet". He comes out on fire from the beginning with a rough and ready vocal accompanied by a rather minimalist musical score, but halfway through the song the vocals end and there is a long instrumental outro that feels like a completely different song altogether. I like the song, but do think it probably should've been split into the two parts so as not to be so polar opposite to itself.

The other standout cut is "Forget About The Blame". It is another electrifying rocker track and there are two versions of the song. The "Sun" version of the track is sung by Robin Borneman and he sings it so magnificently he kind of reminded me of the late and much missed TSO singer Daryl Pediford. Perhaps not so much in vocal sound quality but in the depth of feeling said vocals creating a bond with the listener. The "Moon" version of the song is included as a bonus track and features HALESTORM's Lzzy Hale on vocals. She does an excellent job conveying the lyrical sentiments of the song as well, though I do prefer Borneman's rendition a little bit more.

While I wonder why the band (or more specifically, Paul O'Neill) continues to reuse/recycle so much in the way of previously released material to fuel more TSO songs, I did find myself enjoying a large portion of Letters From The Labyrinth, and given how much I hated their previous full length studio release, that is a marked improvement to say the least. Any time you can get more music from WHITESNAKE guitarist Joel Hoekstra and SAVATAGE mates Chris Caffery, Al Pitrelli and Johnny Lee Middleton, it is a good thing. Of the band's three non-Christmas albums, this one would land somewhere squarely in between the other two. I can only hope that the next album sees more of the strides forward and less of the steps backward.

Letters From The Labyrinth is a very good disc and when it focuses more on the rock side of the ledger, things get amazingly interesting.

3.8 Out Of 5.0

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