Sabinas Rex - A Rock Opera
Self Release
Symphonic Rock/Power Metal
Disc 1: 10 songs (39' 1") Disc 2: 10 songs (44' 59")
Release year: 2013
Sabinas Rex
Reviewed by Andy
Surprise of the month

There is no shortage of moments to admire, and moments to despair over, in Sabinas Rex's incredible rock opera, straightforwardly titled A Rock Opera. My colleague Ken reviewed them way back in '05, and he noted the huge ambitions of the band. Eight years later they have delivered the result of these ambitions; large on the EP, these ambitions have only grown since then, culminating in two CDs worth of pure rock/metal opera. Even if you're not particularly faint of heart, this can be a hard listen, and something this ambitious is bound to have shortcomings. But the scale of what they're trying to do, especially given that other than the EP, this is basically their first try and a self-release, is worthy of note in itself.

Told in 30-page detail (the booklet is a mass of white-on-black text), the album follows the story of a kingdom about to be overrun by barbarians led by an evil lord, but whose hope rests on a clairvoyant peasant girl named Sabina. I've mentioned fan-fiction-style power metal storylines in one or two other reviews in the past, and this has all the benefits and drawbacks of that approach, just multiplied. As far as I can tell, this is a double album not for conceptual reasons but just to handle the huge amount of tracks the band needs to tell their story, with full backstory and lyric book, featuring the main characters (both good and evil) on the front and a castle in the background that looks suspiciously like it's been 3D-rendered, and a narrated intro and outro that make a Bal Sagoth song's narration sound tasteful and restrained. After the cover, the album booklet, and the intro, I expected things to get ridiculous right away, but Sabinas Rex is careful at the beginning. The first songs introduce the story with a gentle and easy-going sound. One of the advantages of presenting all this as a rock opera is that Sabinas can take its time in developing the songs, without any real requirements for them to do any more than carry the storyline, and the first few songs begin the story in an unhurried manner, being mostly driven by the soft keyboard work of Vlados Kormos, the mind behind this album, rather than guitars.

Don't get me wrong though -- there are plenty of heavier songs with a larger guitar role, featuring the band's primary guitarist, Vladimir Ouchakov. Brothers Just and Right, a thunderous power metal anthem that is unexpectedly heavy and delightful to a metal-loving listener, is excellent, and Cara Lynn Robinson, in her leading role as Sabina, makes Hard to be a Lady, the fourth track, one of the best tracks in the set. The guitar is often just inside the boundary of what I would consider metal rather than straightforward rock and the solos are good; the tunes are well-executed; and all the vocalists put on an excellent performance in their various roles. In keeping with the "rock musical" theme, there is no real "lead singer"; instead, vocal duties are taken on by eleven separate vocalists. The range of the album is enormous and varies with the subject matter, and it goes into some rather interesting places -- for instance, from the power metal of Brothers Just and Right, we segue into a very gothic Dying Angel.

This was produced in what sounds like Kormos' home studio, with what must have been an unbelievable amount of painstaking work. In some ways this causes one to look somewhat indulgently on its failings, but the production problems are real nonetheless. Too many tracks have that flat, boxy tone that comes from being run through heavy digital compression that one has encountered over and over when listening to high school and other amateur bands that are trying to clean up the noise from their recording, and the drums, guitar, and vocals thus often glom together without any one musician standing out much. At its worst, the production can rear an ugly head that retards an otherwise good song by making it sound like it was mixed on somebody's home computer (which it probably was). The booklet art isn't immune to this either; at least one portrait, already produced with a 3D modeller that made it look a bit like a World of Warcraft character, was scaled down without preserving the aspect ratio, reducing his heroic height to stocky dwarfism.

However, Sabinas Rex's talents can't be denied, and the vast breadth of what they are attempting can win over a listener pretty easily despite the flat production. They've kept the best songs from their original EP, including the former eponymous Praise the King (it sounds just as good on this album) and junked some of the ones that were previously panned. Between the army of quality vocalists and the strong keyboard/guitar performance, the listener is every once in a while transported into the storyline they want you to experience, such as in the somewhat pensive Beside Me, usually just before corniness in the lyrics, the production, or a turn for the worse in the songwriting pulls one right back out. Occasional rock/musical-oriented departures, which may be a matter of personal taste, such as Masquerade and Music of the Realm (probably the worst songs on this album), are cringe-inducing. They aren't terrible, when it comes down to it (well, maybe Masquerade is -- that one was painful), but they sound like they belong in a completely different album, and I must admit these made me grit my teeth quite a bit. Evil's Faith, which is doomy and sung in rough vocals along with spoken-word narration, feels like it may be too far in the other direction -- while its purpose was to introduce the bad guy, Lord Gazdashag, it disrupts the feel of the album. Message and The Vigilance, on the other hand, are very easy on the ears without getting boring at all, and Brotherhood, a wistful yet still rock 'n' roll song, effortlessly meshes with the atmosphere of the album.

A Rock Opera is a slow-crafted montage which, no matter how you look at it, is a lot to take in at once. Sabinas Rex has bitten off way more than it can chew in taking on this theme, and they inevitably fall short, but I'm not sure that that's really something for which one can blame them. Much more accomplished bands than they have tackled easier targets and failed, and one can't help but admire their ambition -- the sheer amount of work that went into this magnum opus, with its do-it-yourself production quality paired with its span of track material, is quite impressive. I can easily see this turning into a performed musical, though perhaps it will never reach Broadway, and its bombastic and completely over-the-top tracks, for all their problems, can nonetheless appeal to metal fans who want a strong fantasy element in what they listen to.

Killing Songs :
Hard to be a Lady, Praise the King, The Charge, Brothers Just and Right
Andy quoted 78 / 100
Other albums by Sabinas Rex that we have reviewed:
Sabinas Rex - Praise The King (EP) reviewed by Ken and quoted 75 / 100
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