Live Album Review: Seventh Wonder – “Welcome to Atlanta Live 2014”

I’ll freely admit it: I have been wanting to cover this record pretty much from the moment it was first hinted at. I’m an unashamed lover of Seventh Wonder’s music, as it’s pretty much thanks to them that I became more…tolerant of Dream Theater-influenced progressive metal (I can’t really say “fond”, as I’m still generally not keen on it) and I can’t help giving them huge amounts of respect as a result. Combine that with Mercy Falls being the first record I heard by them and, well, this record was one which I was fully prepared to go out on release day and write a review of because I wanted to hear it so much!

Then it was announced the band had joined Frontier Records AND had their long delayed fifth album due out in 2017 and you probably could have heard my scream of joy from Cuba.

Needless to say, a fair and balanced review ain’t gonna happen this time. But you know what? That’s not really a bad thing in my eyes. Let’s be honest for a few seconds, I’ve spent about a year since the site opened mostly covering stuff I didn’t really know that much about as a personal listener before I had to cover it (I actually checked: out of all of the music reviews I’ve done which don’t fit that definition AND which were me receiving promo copies of the records, that’s only happened three times in total, which was Primal Fear’s Rulebreaker, which was a borderline case to start with because I wasn’t that keen on them, but I knew who they were and had other material by them which I liked, New Device’s Devils on the Run EP and ToxicRose’s Total Tranquility, which was also a borderline case because I had only heard one song off of their debut EP before I was tasked to review it, though I DID adore the song. There was technically a fourth case when Crazy Lixx’s live album came out, but my ear issues meant I couldn’t actually hear it until after it came out, so I don’t really count that one!), so having something to cover which is by an artist which I am already a huge fan of is actually a nice change of pace.

Anyway, for those of you who are reading this and wondering who Seventh Wonder are, I’ll quickly fill you in on the basics. To make a long story short, Seventh Wonder are a Swedish progressive metal band (technically speaking, progressive power metal is more accurate, but you’d be forgiven for not really noticing the power metal element) who formed in 2000 and who have generally been fairly well beloved among prog fans for their incredibly strong songwriting (though not necessarily their originality: one need not be a huge Dream Theater fan to spot overlaps between their sounds!). While they are probably most recognisable to the average metalhead due to lead vocalist Tommy Karevik (who is actually their third lead vocalist: their first vocalist, Shadows Past’s Ola Halen, only sung on one of their demos and their second lead vocalist, longtime Aeon Zen vocalist Andi Kravljaca, left the band shortly after recording the band’s first album, 2005’s Become) being the very respected replacement for Kamelot’s Roy Khan since 2012, they have their own very recognisable reputation for quality material since the release of 2006’s Waiting in the Wings (heck, I’ll even go out of my way to defend Become as a solid debut album which is only really flawed in that it is a solid record in a discography full of incredible material) and one could certainly be forgiven for thinking that the only real reason the band has been unfairly passed over by most people is that they’ve been REALLY quiet in the last few years: aside from the release of a single back in June 2014 of their track “Inner Enemy”, the last release by the band was actually their last studio album, 2010’s The Great Escape. This isn’t entirely the fault of the band, admittedly (have you SEEN Kamelot’s touring schedule?), but I certainly feel that the band’s long silence has essentially caused a lot of the potential buzz they could have capitalised upon had this record come out around the time Karevik joined Kamelot to have fizzled out, leaving the band basically in a position where they have to regain all of the momentum they have lost after the last few years of silence.

Welcome to Atlanta Live 2014 probably won’t do much to help that, I’ll admit, but, for the patient longer time fan, it’s hard to deny that this release isn’t a good reason to get excited over the band again. After all, not only is it a live show of the band playing their third record in full (the concept album/rock opera Mercy Falls, which I personally find to be their strongest record by only the tiniest of margins), but it also has four tracks from Waiting in the Wings, two tracks from The Great Escape, an acoustic medley of tracks, a studio recording of a new track and an official release of “Inner Enemy” (which originally only got released as its music video online).

To say that this sounds like it has everything a Seventh Wonder fan could want (save perhaps some material from Become) would be quite the understatement, to the extent that it almost feels as much like an apology for the long wait for new material as it is a showcase of the band in a live environment while also including something to whet everyone’s appetite for their upcoming fifth record. If it is, then that apology is very happily accepted by me! I wouldn’t call this a flawless release, as I do have some criticisms of it, but there is so much great stuff here that the criticisms don’t even feel like major issues to me!

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For the ease of this review, I’m going to focus on the live part of the package, since that’s the main bulk of it. However, I’ll quickly break down the two studio tracks just now. I will get one personal complaint out of the way now, though: I honestly don’t get why people who release recordings seem to think that putting studio tracks and live tracks on the same recording together is a sensible idea, because they’re completely different things. If you pardon me sounding like I’m being patronising for a few seconds, a studio track is a (often completely new) recording designed to show off what the band sounds like when they have spent a long time working on together to make it sound the best that it can while a live recording is a showcase of what the band sounds like when they’re playing the track in a performance setting (where you can’t really stop and start again if things go wrong), which means that they have completely different sound qualities and are aiming to do different things, so they don’t really fit well together. Maybe I’m looking at things from the wrong perspective, but I just find that it’s much better to keep the two separate from each other, even if it’s just in the form of having the studio tracks on a separate disc.

Anyway, “Inner Enemy” sounds exactly what it was like when it was first released, with no recognisable changes from the original release back in the 2014. It’s a reasonably complex track, but it’s more akin to stuff like Circus Maximus’ “Namaste” in that the complexity is condensed down into a fairly short track and it actually works very well. It’s definitely easy to see why this was the first song released from their upcoming album, as it’s exactly the sort of track that would work well as a single for a progressive metal record: short enough to encourage non-prog fans to give it a shot, but complex enough to not feel like the band have stripped the complexity out of their sound to longtime listeners. It’s not the best song that the band have done by any measure, but it’s still a solid enough track to warrant checking out even if you’re not particularly thrilled by progressive metal.

“The Promise”, by comparison, is a very different beast, though still very good in its own way. A nine and a half minute long behemoth of a track, this is actually the third longest song in the band’s entire discography (easily topped by “The Great Escape” and beaten by “Break The Silence” by a mere two seconds), which should certainly silence any doubts that Seventh Wonder have simplified their sound to worried fans. Interestingly, it has a somewhat symphonic edge to it at points that faintly reminded me of Kamelot, but it still sounds like Seventh Wonder at the same time, right down to the spectacular chorus. The slight symphonic touches raise some interesting questions about where the band is going with their upcoming fifth record, but we’ll have to wait for the album’s release before we see whether those are just restricted to that song or a hint towards what the band will be unleashing upon us soon enough.

The sound quality on these two tracks is actually pretty good, with a solid bass presence (although this is kind of the norm for progressive music in general, so this one isn’t too surprising), great mixing and a great sound (it’s definitely a professional production, but it’s not so clean that it robs the tracks of any impact). The only real criticism is that I think the mastering is a bit louder than it probably should be, but I certainly can’t say it’s done to any major extremes, which works out nicely.

So, with the studio tracks out of the way, let’s start actually looking at the live recording in detail.

First of all, I feel I must be critical of the sound recording on this part of the recording, as I think this recording has an issue which is impossible to ignore. As weird as this might sound from me, I think the bass is too loud on this recording, as it dominates the mix. I appreciate that this is progressive metal and this is a live recording, so a decent bass presence is not unexpected, but this is overdoing it: I had absolutely no problems hearing the bass even without my bass enhancing headphones, but the guitars and keyboards were very quiet in comparison, to the extent that there were occasions that I completely forget there was a keyboardist in the band! The drums and vocals are perfectly audible, so it’s not like all I could hear was bass, but I definitely think that the sound of this live recording should have been better and the best way to have fixed it would have been to have dialled back the bass a bit.

That said, this is a very honest sounding live recording, as I didn’t get the feeling that there was a lot of tinkering around in post with it when I heard it: in fact, probably my favourite moment in the recording which I think proves this point nicely is that, in “Tears for a Father”, you actually clearly hear the audience sing the closing part of the song without anyone on stage singing at all, which was such a great touch that an involuntary “aww” couldn’t help escaping my lips at hearing a crowd passionately singing a song which has always had a soft spot with me. This clear audience participation can be heard all across the record, not just at the end and beginning of songs, so, if there HAS been a lot of post-production tinkering around to improve the sound, it’s been hidden very well!

The performances on this live recording are pretty much what you would expect them to sound like if you are familiar with the original recordings, as the instrumental performances are pretty much flawless on that side of things, with no really noticeable errors that I could spot. Not really a lot to say on this aspect, I’ll admit: it’s just an incredibly solid performance by the instrumentalists of somewhat complex material! The vocal performance, however…OK, I’ll stress in advance before I say this that Karevik’s voice holds up well over the course of the whole recording and his powerful tenor does sound great overall, but something which irritates me is that there’s quite a few occasions when he changes the vocal melodies from what you’d be expecting to hear, with the end result that some of the particularly great melodies that you’d expect to hear don’t actually appear on here. It’s not a major criticism overall and it can probably be excused as him doing it so as not to push his voice too much, considering it’s really just the highest notes in his range which have this happen to them, but, as I love those melodies from when he pushes his voice to those heights, it does leave me personally feeling a bit disappointed. I also find the fact that none of the voice acting moments from the album were in this live show is rather noticeable, as some tracks which had them end up being completely instrumental as a result of their absence, but I think this one is excusable, as most of the people who would have been at the show would have already known those bits of voice acting anyway and their absence is more a nitpick than a serious flaw.

The setlist is honestly about the best that I could have asked for from the band, considering they were playing Mercy Falls in its entirety and the rest of their discography comprises of three records. While part of me is a bit disappointed that the only material from Become was part of the acoustic medley rather than played as a full song and the lack of “Long Way Home” (one of my favourite progressive metal ballads) is a bit of a letdown, I certainly can’t say that the band have produced a bad setlist, as they include some truly great tracks which I honestly think were better picks for what most fans would have wanted to have heard at the show. Overall, not a lot to say here!

A final comment, but I love the interactions between Tommy and the crowd on this record. He doesn’t talk between every song, but the times he does talk, you can tell that he loves being there and he helps to make the whole thing feel like a truly great show. He’s also not afraid to be honest about the fact that he had overslept before the material on the second disc of the recording and, as such, had only been awake for about an hour before he’d got on stage, which arguably makes his performance on that part all the more impressive, because I genuinely couldn’t have told that from his performance! My only personal complaint is that he casually swears A LOT when talking with the audience, which feels quite odd when you compare that to the band’s material, but I’ll freely admit that I tend not to use strong language myself, so this isn’t really a problem so much as a personal nitpick.

Ultimately, despite some flaws which stop me from giving it the highest of accolades, Welcome to Atlanta Live 2014 is a pretty great package that I am really happy that I got the opportunity to cover and is an excellent release that Seventh Wonder fans should love. While I don’t think this release is particularly going to appeal to those not already on board with the band, it’s definitely not a bad release by any stretch of the imagination and it should happily tide me over while I wait for their upcoming fifth album in early 2017.

Welcome to Atlanta Live 2014 will be released on the 23rd of September by Frontier Records. A promo copy of the album was provided for review purposes.