Nightswimming: Avantasia’s Moonglow

Its been just a little over three years since Tobias Sammet released Ghostlights, an album that stunned me and stayed with me during what turned out to be a darkly turbulent year, enough for me to call it 2016’s album of the year. In my personal Avantasia pantheon, it often tops the Metal Operas as my favorite album of all time (though sometimes when I get nostalgic, dips below them however briefly). It had some bold guest choices on there, with Tobias taking chances on the shaky Geoff Tate, a relatively obscure talent like Herbie Langhans, and Dee Snider (long before his Jasta helmed metallic resurrection) in addition to strong regulars like Jorn Lande, Ronnie Atkins, the great Bob Catley, and of course Michael Kiske. More impressively however, all thirteen of its songs landed knockout punches, each with their own unique sonic identity and sometimes strikingly distinct style —- it was Tobias’ most expertly crafted batch of songs in ages. I was completely surprised, seeing as how my expectations were as low as ever considering my lukewarm appraisal of 2013’s The Mystery of Time (I’ve gone back and listened to it recently, that opinion still stands). I think being surprised when you have low expectations doesn’t necessarily make a good album sound better than it would have had you heard it out of context, but it does make you appreciate whatever’s surprising you more.

With that mind, the opposite can also be true, and it seems to be the case with Moonglow, which has the misfortune of following the impeccable Ghostlights. But I wanna be clear, Moonglow is a good, at times even excellent album that actually distinguishes itself by having its own unique album spanning cohesive sound that seems to originate from its lyrical and thematic concept. That may seem obvious at first, but with post-Metal Opera era Avantasia the styles and songwriting approaches tended to fall into Tobias’ songwriting tropes (for better or worse). Here I’m referring specifically to the “roundness” or softness of the edges on this collection of songs, which largely tend to lack the sharp, hard angles that made up the sheer catchiness of the Ghostlights songs. This works for the better on a song such as album opener “Ghost In The Moon”, where a bouncy Jim Steinman-esque melody is carried along not by the guitars, but rather the rolling piano underneath all the vocal layers. Aside from the post chorus outro, the guitars in this song seem reactive, playing off the vocal melodies, which result in a more rock n’ roll affair than anything close to power metal. Its the album’s most poppy moment, and one of its best because those vocal melodies are simply awesome. The addition of gospel backing vocalists Bridget Fogle, Lerato Sebele, and Alvin Le Bass give the song a sense of joyful enthusiasm and uplifting energy. Tobias has of course used backing vocalists before to great effect (particularly on The Scarecrow trilogy), but this is noticeably different and refreshing.

Likewise I hear this rounded, flowing feel on another standout track, “Moonglow”, where Tobias engages in a duet with Blackmore’s Night vocalist Candice Night. This is one of the smartest guest picks Tobias has nabbed in awhile, eyebrow raising in its reach outside of the metal realm and steering away from obvious choices that we’ve all come to expect. Its a pretty song, again built on piano lines, this time sparsely performed in such a way that conduce a feel appropriate to the nighttime imagery of the song. It strikes me as a cousin to “Sleepwalking” off The Mystery of Time, the dreamlike verses and sunlit choruses for both, but I might love “Moonglow” just a touch more because Night’s vocal approach and clear ringing tone seems particularly suited to Tobias’ power balladry. The background keyboard atmospherics here are something that producers Sascha Paeth and Miro Rodenburg have used often in Avantasia, most notably on songs like “Lost In Space”, “Carry Me Over”, and the aforementioned “Sleepwalking” (basically, the poppier cuts). At this point its something of their production trademark, because you’ll hear variations of it on nearly every band they produce, and it could be tiring if overused (ahem… *stares at Kamelot*), but Tobias’ seems to know when its most effective and when he needs to keep the atmospheric wash at bay.

Similarly the Bob Catley star turn on “Lavender” is another piano driven affair, a drama rich slice of pomp rock that takes a more choral driven approach than his Ghostlights appearance on the masterful “A Restless Heart and Obsidian Skies”. Where the latter was all heart stopping arcing melodies and gut wrenching epic starts and stops, “Lavender” is a rather more subtle tune. The chorus is well defined and appealing, though it lacks a magical transition from the verse/bridge sequence, and you get the feeling that Catley might’ve been underused. He’s a home run hitter, the guy who made “The Story Ain’t Over” such a spectacular why isn’t this on the album fan favorite. I actually like “Lavender” a good deal, and I don’t think its verses nor its chorus are lacking, but I suspect there’s something missing in terms of a powerful buildup, that maybe Tobias misfired when writing the bridge. Its partially redeemed by that magnificent dramatic mid-song detour at the 2:38-3:02 mark, and maybe I’m wrong but if he used that moment just a few more times throughout the song, it might’ve made the difference. Then again, as we’ll see on “The Piper At The Gates of Dawn”, that singular moment might be that much more appealing because of its rarity. In the case of “The Piper…” we’re treated to a magical musical moment at the 5:30 mark, one of the more gorgeous guitar solos on the album and in Avantasia’s history overall. I wish its opening motif were longer, or repeated a few times throughout what is a largely lackluster song, with verses that are strangely devoid of anything musical besides production wash and a drum beat. Its the weakest song on the album, yet has one of its most lovable moments. Strange.

The album’s preview/hype track was the guest vocalist monster “The Raven Child”, which has one of the more gorgeous opening sequences that sees Hansi Kursch and Tobias trade off lines. We got to hear these two together on Ayreon’s majestic “Journey to Forever” a few years ago, and this is spellbinding in similar ways, and a fitting return for Hansi to guest one of Tobias’ songs since his much loved appearance on Edguy’s “Out of Control” way back in the day. His vocal performance on those opening verse sections is the kind of bard-like balladry that we all have come to love him for, particularly in that little “woah-oh-oh” bit towards the end before the big dramatic musical exclamation mark. He and Jorn are a dominating presence on this track, with Tobias serving as the glue guy. Its an album highlight, continuing Tobias’ winning streak of lengthier Jorn-infused epics that will likely be concert staples ala “The Scarecrow”, “The Wicked Symphony”, and “Let The Storm Descend Upon You”. I was also surprised by how much I liked “Starlight”, a song that makes the best use of Ronnie Atkins vocals in a compact, aggressive rocker. I say surprised because I wasn’t that fond of Atkins’ previous solo turn on “Invoke The Machine” off Mystery, so its nice to have my doubts erased as to whether he could deliver as a standalone partner to Tobias. Its also one of the few songs here that really breaks free of that smooth, rounded feel, it being built on urgent tempos and some well timed quiet-loud dynamic shifts.

If I was surprised by Ronnie Atkins, I was reaffirmed by Geoff Tate’s once again excellent performance on a Tobias’ penned tune, because just like his debut on “Seduction of Decay” on Ghostlights, he sounds like his old self on “Invincible”. This is equal parts Tobias being unafraid to write Tate into his higher range that he seems to have avoided in his latter day Queensryche and now Operation: Mindcrime albums, and also just giving him a fully arcing chorus melody that is actually emotionally affecting. And on its direct follow-up track “Alchemy”, Tate sings over a rhythm structure that sits right in that mid-tempo pocket that allowed him to sound so convincing on so many Queensryche gems. The only downside here is that the chorus doesn’t match the intensity of the verses, and ends up feeling a little half-baked, an ugly negative drawback to the rounded, dare I suggest softened approach that yet again makes it presence known here. As far as other songs that suffer a bit in the songwriting department, I wasn’t wild about “Book of Shadows” even though it features Hansi and even Mille Petrozza. Just something about that chorus where it doesn’t seem to get the proper amount of lift under its wings. I do enjoy the contrast of Petrozza’s vocal part, and ultimately I wish he was given a larger role for the album, perhaps a song of his own to kick up the overall heaviness factor a bit. I also liked yet didn’t love the Michael Kiske “Requiem For A Dream”, and its largely due to a remarkable bridge/chorus that makes up for some pretty uninspired verse sections. Tobias has done better with Kiske before, and “Wastelands” is really the benchmark to my ears… unfortunately he didn’t quite get there this time.

I don’t know what to say about the Michael Sembello “Maniac” cover, because we’ve all heard the song before and if you’re like me you always thought it sucked and likely didn’t want one of your favorite artists touching it with a ten foot you know what. But its done, and I hate it and only listened to it long enough for reviewing purposes. I actually really love the bonus track for the deluxe editions in “Heart”, which was written as a tribute to Steve Perry era Journey and sounds the part. The roundness of this album that I’ve been vaguely harping on about throughout the review is both a blessing and a curse, dramatically shaping some songs for the better and hurting others. I think for me personally, this album faced a bit of an unfair uphill battle following up a record I loved so much, but at the end of the day lofty expectations don’t determine whether or not a song feels underwritten or that a chorus lacks some punch. I’ve enjoyed Moonglow for the most part, it has an interesting concept and sonic palette, and I definitely didn’t feel anywhere near the level of discontent as I did with The Mystery of Time. Something I was thinking about earlier was that its going to be well over five plus years since the last Edguy studio album, and having had two Avantasia albums in a row unexpectedly, I find myself longing a bit for his other songwriting side lately. I’d love something shockingly heavy, rollicking, and aggressive in the vein of Mandrake or Hellfire Club, it would be the perfect way to veer in the opposite direction.

Forgotten Bard Songs: Ten Overlooked Blind Guardian Gems

 

 

 

Some of you might recall that I attended the Houston stop of Blind Guardian’s 2015 North American trek on Wednesday, November 25th. It was an unforgettable night —- out on Thanksgiving Eve with friends who were equally passionate about Blind Guardian, amidst a giddy crowd tipsy with the revelry of not having to work the next day (they don’t call it Blackout Wednesday for nothing), and the bards playing with more vigor and energy than in any of the other two times I’ve seen them live (2006 and 2010 for those keeping count). The band was nearing the end of their North American tour, to come to a close two shows and three days later in Orlando, which made their performance all the more gratifying: That one of our most treasured metal bands was committed to delivering excellence even when they were likely nearing exhaustion from being on the road for over a month straight. When they told us we were being recorded for inclusion in a future live album, we sang even louder, blowing out our voices by attempting to hit every note ourselves and keeping up the pace during Hansi’s ridiculously long crowd only outros for “Valhalla” and “The Last Candle”. It was a devastating set list full of classics, and the kind of joyous, celebratory mood that only a truly transcendent band can inspire.

It was one of the most satisfying highlights of my concert going history, one that’s been hard to shake. In the next few weeks and now months, I’ve begun to revisit the entirety of the band’s catalog from start to finish. In the process, I’ve gone over the setlist we got in Houston, and thought about what inclusions I’d love to hear in my idealized Blind Guardian show. I’ve realized that most of the songs I’ve picked out were ones that didn’t get talked about much by the Blind Guardian fanbase as a whole. I don’t think its due to anyone disliking them either —- I suspect its just that they tend to get overshadowed by the widely hailed classics on their respective albums whenever the subject of your favorite Blind Guardian songs comes up in various Facebook comment threads or message board discussions. I did a bit of checking on Setlist.Fm and realized that with an exception or two, most of the songs I’ve picked out are ones that hardly get played live at all. Their lacking presence on the band’s set lists tour after tour has perhaps largely contributed to their status as deep-cuts, a grouping of songs every band has, and whose fans’ only hope at hearing them live is for An Evening with… styled tour (hello Iron Maiden and most of Somewhere In Time). So here’s my alphabetically ordered list of what I consider the ten best of Blind Guardian’s overlooked songs, those gems still hidden beneath Smaug’s long, foreboding shadow.

 


 

“Another Holy War” (from Imaginations From the Other Side)

 

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1s9Wmk_us3U&w=560&h=315]

 

Were we to have a hypothetical, NCAA March Madness-styled contest for the most “metal” metal song of all time, I’d select “Another Holy War” as my candidate. It’d soar through early rounds with ease, get through the sweet sixteen and elite eight on some nail biters, have a truly epic OT victory in the final four, and would be in a jump ball, anyone’s game showdown with Maiden’s “The Evil That Men Do” for the championship (on this issue there is a no debate! /#Papi#Seinfeld). So how can such a devastatingly awesome, powerful, and adrenalizing metal classic be considered underrated? I’ll refer you to Blind Guardian’s Setlist.fm statistics, where they have played this gem a mere sixteen documented times! Sixteen! Once in 95 shortly after Imaginations was released, then most famously as part of their 2003 Blind Guardian Festival setlist (as captured on the ‘Looking Glass live DVD), and finally only at a smattering of festivals afterwards (most recently at a show in Stockholm in 2010). And I get it —- this is a damn tough song to pull off live, not only because you need at least two solid back-up singers to fill in the backing vocal parts during the chorus, but also because in its original studio incarnation Hansi actually sings over himself quite often.

His lead vocals on the pre-chorus lyric “I am your light on through the night” gets overlapped by the first words of the chorus (“Why am I born”), as well as his epic vocal extensions at the end of verse lyrics such as “I will die before my vision ends”, where in his own inimitable way he gets as much passion out of that final word as possible (see the 1:51 mark for reference). In fact, you’re hard pressed to find moments where vocal sections don’t overlap one another by at least a second or two, and they all contribute towards building this palpable sense of violent urgency throughout the song, that Hansi is racing ahead of his band members and its out of his control. Its all by design of course, a result of the band’s pure devotion to their studio craft… that nothing, not even the complications of a playing a song live could alter their course in sculpting a piece of music to achieve exactly what they envision. And what they envision out of “Another Holy War” is a concentrated barrage of rage with Hansi as its physical manifestation. His performance is masterful, unlike anything we’ve ever heard in metal and the only piece of evidence you need to put prejudiced extreme metal fans who pooh-pooh power metal in their place. His half sung, half screamed vocal extensions of certain lyrics here are what his status as a living legend are built upon (refer to 3:22-3:27, and 3:42-:3:46 for further evidence), and that oh so sweet outro guitar melody beginning at the 4:02 mark matched with Thomen Stauch’s classic battlefield snare percussion is the 24k gold band this diamond is set in.

 

 

“A Past and Future Secret” (from Imaginations From the Other Side)

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i8GIVtCNlCk&w=560&h=315]

 

Before you spit out your coffee and thunderously ask aloud how I can consider “A Past and Future Secret” as forgotten, I’ll ask you to consider that I’m coming at this from an American Blind Guardian fan’s perspective. Since the band has been touring on our shores since 2002, they’ve aired the song Stateside only once back on November 15th, 2002 at the ProgPower III festival in Atlanta, Georgia (incidentally, their first American show ever). Meanwhile, every single show here has featured the much loved “The Bard’s Song” —- and rightly so, its a classic and no one’s complaining about it. And I get it, most metal shows only have room for one ballad unless you’re Nightwish or Sonata Arctica and even then two is pushing it (it being the patience of a general standing room audience, I for one welcome all belligerent displays of balladry). We love “The Bard’s Song” for its simplicity, for the easiness of it’s vocal melody and how it can be strummed on an acoustic guitar in someone’s garage, or by a campsite at the RenFest —- its by nature a portable song, you don’t even need the guitar. But I’m going to step out on a ledge here and suggest that between the two ballads, “A Past and Future Secret” is actually the better song, both in composition and execution, and a better representative of how malleable, rich, and multifaceted the band’s sound is.

Its secret weapon is Hansi’s lyrical perspective, actually setting the scene by endearing to an audience around him, “Listen crowd I’ll tell you everything!” —- though who “I” is the subject of some debate. Some feel the narrator is Sir Bedivere, or an alternation between Merlin and Arthur, while others simply assign the narrator as a bard, shifting in various perspectives as he unfolds this tale of Arthurian drama. Regardless of how you see it, it paints a picture, and gives you a sense of being in a physical place as a listener that defines your experience when listening to it. Andre’s opening acoustic guitar figure is lilting, romantic, and instantly memorable, becoming the motif from which every other guitar and keyboard pattern swirls off of. But its in the layering and juxtaposition of the vocals where the song truly becomes an epic, in those gently mixed down full throated Hansi screams that seem to echo off in the distance. He peppers them in throughout the song, culminating in its climatic apex at the 2:34 mark when he passionately declares “I will wait and guard / The future king’s throne!”, his extension on the final word sending shivers down our spines. Even more than that, I love the call and response section towards the three minute mark, when he passionately sings “It was nice but now it’s gone” like some tortured madman a great distance away bellowing to the open air, his voice sounding like its crossed hills and rivers to get to us.

Also worth noting are Thomen’s martial percussion patterns, soft drumming on snares, a deeply ringing suspended cymbal, and booming array of timpani. Thomen doesn’t seem to get enough credit for his imaginative approach to percussion in general, but go back and really pay attention to what he’s doing on those albums and you’ll realize that he drives a lot of their classic moments in the same way that Andre did with his guitar fluidity. What you get on “A Past and Future Secret” that you don’t quite get on “The Bard’s Song” is Blind Guardian on full display, using every trick up their sleeve including Hansi’s crazy powerful Imaginations-era vocal ability (no one ever sounded so melodic yet so brutal at the same time) to create not an opulent, thundering metal epic, but a delicate, brushstroke ballad that makes you emotional about a lyric that comes from myth and fantasy. With “The Bard’s Song”, its simple and direct lyrics could be transferable to our actual lives, but in “A Past and Future Secret”, we suspend our disbelief and step willingly into another world to hear fictional characters’ memories.

 

 

“Ashes to Ashes” (from Somewhere Far Beyond)

 

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vSjLEJbsHrI&w=560&h=315]

 

There’s a moment directly in the middle of this song when it deviates from its tense, palm-muted riff fueled verse and chorus and daringly goes into something of an extended bridge, it starts and ends from 2:56 to 3:17 —- but the precise moment that really does it for me is at the introduction of the lyric, “…Obey my call to the cemetery / And don’t be afraid / To step into the dark…”. Its a transcendent moment. Take a second to rewind back to 2:56 to listen to it again, listen to that build up, Hansi’s choice of extended phrasing around the word “cemetery”, the way Andre’s lead guitars gush forth underneath it all during the next two lines beginning at the 3:07 mark, almost mirroring the vocal melody itself in order to better support Hansi’s emotionally charged performance. There’s something about that small little part, that little deviation in the trajectory of the song that has always captivated me and that I have long associated as a characteristic of truly great bands —- to have the confidence to implement such a remarkable musical moment only once in a song as opposed to hitting it again and again. I’m not suggesting that the rest of the song is weak in comparison, its not, but that part has been the reason “Ashes to Ashes” has stuck in my mind all these years.

I have to note here that “Ashes to Ashes” was written about the death of Hansi’s father, marking one of the few times he turned inward as a lyricist albeit still writing with an eye towards the fantastical. This might be a stretch but hear me out: I’ve always felt that the reason that moment sounded so emotional to me was because of how much it truly contrasted with the stony stoicism of the rest of the song. This contrast not only exists in the music but in the lyrics as well, notice how the bulk of the song’s lyrics seem to be about Hansi’s rationalization of death: “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust / The life clock strikes and you obey / Like a candle light that fades… Time isn’t here to stay”. Its hard not to notice how even the vocal approach to those lines is purposefully detached, like its being chanted from afar (the combined choir vocal approach helps). Yet in sharp contrast there’s far more raw emotion in Hansi’s lead vocal during the build up to that extended bridge, as his lyrical perspective turns inward while expressing regret, “Morning is whispering in my head / Too late to say goodbye / Too late”, and of course how ten seconds later we reach our cataclysmic bridge where everything from the music, lyrics, and vocal approach combined just seems to reach an emotional apex.

Diving further into those lyrics its hard not to view the entire bridge as a dialogue between Hansi and his father, perhaps not directly but metaphysically, and in its own way being the place in the song where that aforementioned rational stoicism melts away and you hear the emotional grief of a son trying to make peace with the loss of a father. Its followed directly by yet another injection of that stony, detached chorus, like he’s trying to pull himself together after such an emotional outburst. Look I realize I’m getting into a hyper-textual interpretation here, and I doubt that Hansi had all these things in mind when he was writing this song, but that’s kinda the point —- subconsciously this is how he ended up writing this song, and how it affected me. Before I knew that this song was about Hansi’s father, I always regarded its narrator as being really confused about how to feel concerning the concept of death, and as a result often thought of “Ashes to Ashes” as confusing in itself. But after I learned of its origins, I still regarded its narrator in the same way, only this time the song made perfect sense.

 

“Lionheart” (from A Twist In The Myth)

 

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_FyKipQyhCA&w=560&h=315]

 

One of the things I’ve been doing in my revisiting Blind Guardian’s catalog is give a lot of extra attention to A Night at the Opera and A Twist in the Myth, both albums that I had been neglecting in the past few years. The former had the benefit of coming to me anew, with its remixed version appearing on the band’s recent boxset, but unfortunately the Nuclear Blast released Myth didn’t get the same treatment, barring “This Will Never End” in its remixed state on the Memories of a Time to Come best of/remix collection. Why that was the case is puzzling… if you’re going to remix one song, why not do all of them for an album that needed it just as much as its predecessor (if not more so)? I get that the Traveler’s Guide To Space and Time boxed set was a Virgin Germany release and that Myth obviously couldn’t be included on that, but if you’re going through the trouble of updating your entire catalog, how about nudging the guys at Nuclear Blast into re-releasing that album with a new mix as a selling point? Part of me wonders if Nuclear Blast had to pony up for licensing fees for all those Virgin era Blind Guardian classics for re-release on the Memories compilation and they felt they had spent enough already (because while three songs were re-recorded, everything else on the set was simply remixed). Possible interview question for Hansi perhaps?

Anyway, A Twist In the Myth is understandably tagged as the worst of latter day Blind Guardian (oh hell, lets just say post 1990 Blind Guardian), with some songs that never took off (“Carry the Blessed Home”, “Straight Through the Mirror”), a radical change in style and sound (“Another Stranger Me”, “Fly”), and just an overall feeling that the whole affair was a bit underwhelming. I remember debating my theory at the time of its release with another Blind Guardian fan, that Myth was a deliberately different production approach in direct reaction to how A Night At the Opera was perceived as overproduced. He argued that no one could reasonably say that Myth was under produced, but I think we settled on both agreeing that it was badly produced. It seems weird to say that about a Charlie Bauerfeind album, but in retrospect it seemed that both Bauerfeind and the band had to take those first two albums together as a sort of calibration period that finally resulted in them getting on the same page for 2010’s At the Edge of Time. Even now when I go back through it front to finish, I hear those production side blemishes: Hansi’s vocals seem at times over-processed; the choral vocals aren’t pushed up in the mix enough; the guitars sometimes fall back into the mix to be buried under the keyboard arrangements; and speaking of which, the keyboard built arrangements can be all over the place, with a preponderance of odd sound effects instead of pure orchestral accompaniment.

On “Lionheart”, all those tendencies popped up in possibly the worst configuration —- yet for all its flaws, it rises on the strength of being one of the band’s best ever songs, with a chorus that could level a shopping mall. Built upon a truly inspired series of overlapping vocal melodies where the verses are just as compelling as the refrain, no time is wasted in a long instrumental build up as twenty-seven seconds in we hear Hansi usher us in with an ambiguous lyric, “Speak to me / It all would be easier / I want to talk to you”. What you don’t really hear with clarity due to its muddled mix is the repeating chant of the underneath backing vocals singing “Just let me out of here”, a sonic tidbit that requires some good headphones to detect. Let me pause here and again just marvel at how easily this band seems to conjure up vocal melodies that sound epic on the surface, and resonate with us beyond a surface level, and that’s just the intro! Frederik Ehmke delivers a monstrous percussion performance here, just pummeling us with double kick and furious, battle-inspired drum patterns that violently shake all throughout. And Andre’s inventiveness pops up in wonderful ways, such as his alliterative riff sequence (see :45-:53) during the pre-chorus bridge. As for the chorus itself, try listening to this song while reading along with the lyrics and see how many lines you’ve been missing simply because they’ve been submerged by a faulty vocal mix. You don’t get to hear huge chunks of whats actually being sung, not with clarity anyway. Its a shame because I dare anyone to deny this song’s greatness —- but its begging for a remix, for it to never get one would be a disservice to all Blind Guardian fans.

 

 

“Noldor (Dead Winter Reigns)” (from Nightfall In Middle-Earth)

 

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kl1rroJOZzw&w=560&h=315]

 

Its understandable that the first songs you’d think of when considering Nightfall in Middle-Earth would be “Mirror Mirror”, “Nightfall”, “Time Stands Still (At the Iron Hill)”, or even “Into the Storm” —- because duh! (insert pic of Batman slapping Robin here). It would however be a crime if you began to neglect listening to the rest of the album in some sort of misguided yet gallant attempt to create a best of Blind Guardian playlist on your iPod. The truth is I could’ve picked from a number of forgotten deep cuts off Nightfall, and in fact almost chose “The Eldar”, that doomy gloomy piano ballad that was imagined as Finrod Felagund’s dying lament of regret and farewell (its power is slightly diminished when you consider that things worked out for him in the afterlife with that whole getting to return to Valinor to live for eternity with his long sundered love Amarië kinda thing). But if we’re taking the concept of the album and its source material at heart, then no other song should stand out more for its sheer heartbreaking passion and sentiment than “Noldor (Dead Winter Reigns)”, as it so perfectly captures that agonizing path that led the Noldor towards war and destruction.

First there’s its opening guitar figure, composed of romantic yet somber notes that serve as the bedrock for the see-saw melody that is draped over the song’s refrain. The Savatage-esque theatrical drop in of every other instrument briefly suggests that we’re in for something uptempo, but then those choir vocals kick in and we abruptly shift to something more mid-tempo, the unfolding of a moody, bi-polar song that at times quietly seethes and then furiously lashes out in a sonic tantrum. So erratic is the structure of the music here that at times it seems like you’re listening to entirely different songs, such as the shift from those aforementioned choir vocals to Hansi’s solo verse vocal, “We were lost / On grinding ice / In fear and hunger…”, all the way back again to the pummeling speed metal uproar during “(You) can’t escape / From my damnation / (Nor) run away / From isolation”. That pre-chorus transitions to a bridge that contains one of Hansi’s most glorious vocal moments ever, namely, his primal high note extension on the last word of the lyric “Hear my words / Fear my curse” hitting you like a shockwave completely out of nowhere. When you try to explain why Blind Guardian may just be the best metal band of all time to some plebeian, its difficult to articulate just how utterly majestic a specific moment like this one is —- words can’t come to mind that sufficiently describe it (and around that time the person you’re talking to nods and changes the subject).

The awesome final note of that bridge by the way transitions into one of the band’s most beautiful and underrated choruses. It seems silly to ask this, but are we collectively underrating Hansi as a lyricist? Because I’ve rarely heard, read, pondered over a stanza of lyrics as perfect as “I know where the stars glow / The sky’s unclouded / Sweet the water runs my friend”, a brushstroke of imagery that affects you for its cosmic spirituality, but then deepens in significance if you’ve read The Silmarillion (or seen the iconic cover art that graces its most common edition). The vocal melody that those words are sung to, with the help of lush layered lead vocals and group choral vocals all works in tandem to glorious effect —- its a chorus that tugs at me spiritually. The lyrics that immediately follow pay homage to J.R.R. Tolkien’s authorship directly, “(But) Noldor / Blood is on your hands / Tears unnumbered / You will shet and dwell in pain”, with its knowing reference to the prophecy of doom spoken by Mandos upon the Noldor after their kinslaying at Alqualonde: “Tears unnumbered ye shall shed; and the Valar will fence Valinor against you, and shut you out, so that not even the echo of your lamentation shall pass over the mountains.” Yes I posted the whole quote (that’s not even all of it), because its an awesome moment in the book, and you should read it (dammit!).

Its worth delving into the lyrical perspectives here, because “Noldor” is essentially a metaphysical dialogue between Mandos (one of the Valar, he being the Lord of Doom aka afterlife) and Fingolfin. Oh if there’s ever a sympathetic figure in The Silmarillion, its Fingolfin. The backstory is a little too involved to get into here, but essentially Fingolfin and his people are in a rough spot, having participated in the kinslaying of the Teleri (elf-on-elf violence) due to their sworn allegiance to the increasingly rage-maddened Feanor in their act to leave the paradise of Aman and depart to Middle-Earth to go after Morgoth (who has just stolen the Silmarils, oh and killed Finwe, the father of Fingolfin and Feanor). Feanor and his people departed on the stolen Teleri ships first, but instead of sending them back for Fingolfin’s people, he burns them after reaching the far shore. Fingolfin sees the fires in the distance and realizes that he and his host will have to go the long way around to Middle-Earth, on foot, through the icy wasteland of the Helcaraxe (the “grinding ice” we hear about in the song). Why would Feanor do such a thing? Because despite Fingolfin’s sworn allegiance, he still distrusts his younger brother —- Fingolfin is born from another mother; he at one time in the past stood against Feanor’s selfishness in withholding the light of the Silmarils from the Valar, and that up to no good Morgoth worm-tongued words of distrust to Feanor regarding Fingolfin’s supposed intentions to be the heir of Noldor (all lies of course). Also Feanor is by this point out of his mind, so blinded by grief and his rage at the loss of the Silmarils that he’s not quite thinking clearly.

I think its interesting that Hansi chose to contrast Fingolfin with Mandos’ prophecy of doom rather then Feanor, who gets his own perspective song in “The Curse of Feanor”. It goes to show just how well Hansi understood the source material that he could achieve an even greater emotional impact by honing in on the remorse felt by Fingolfin at this juncture —- losing many of his people along the brutal march through the Helcaraxe, feeling enormous guilt for the Kinslaying, yet still feeling bound to his oath: “See my eyes / Are full of tears / And a cruel price / We’ve paid / But still I can’t claim / That I’m innocent”. His perspectives are kept to the verses, while Mandos’ takes over the rest of the song. Its hard to tell if that gorgeous chorus is a split between him and Fingolfin, or if its just all Mandos —- I’m inclined to think the latter, because of course the place with sweet waters, unclouded skies, and glowing stars that he’s referring to is Arda, home of the Valar and the place from which the Noldor who left are banished from. When I hear the Mandos perspective lyric “And the lost / Who will not reach the / House of spirits / (Will) grow old and weary”, I think of Galadriel much later on in the third age, lone surivor of the Noldor who left Arda, with her bleak outlook on any possibility of returning to Arda, with the guilt for all she’s seen for thousands of years weighing down upon her. From one fan of The Silmarillion to another, Hansi is communicating some of the unwritten emotion present in Tolkien’s true masterpiece. Thanks Hansi!

 

 

“Precious Jerusalem” (from A Night At the Opera)

 

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UWeeV7N3vDM&w=560&h=315]

 

So much attention has been paid to the fourteen minute long epic that is “And Then There Was Silence” before and after the release of A Night At the Opera that it sometimes seems as if the rest of the album has been sitting in its shadow. Certainly no other track from the album was played live on the band’s recent American tour, and it ranks as the most played song from this album since its release in 2002 (again according to Setlist.fm stats). Now let me preface this by saying, I do adore that song —- for weeks and months from its CD single release in November 2001 til the album release in March 2002, it was the only new Blind Guardian I had to listen to (well, that and its b-side “Harvest of Sorrow”). And boy did my Blind Guardian loving friends and I listen to it, over and over and over again, up until when the album was finally released and we were so burned out on it that we skipped over it during spins. I gave it a long miss for many years, honestly only hearing it when the band played it live in 2006 and 2010, and when they re-recorded it for the Memories of a Time to Come collection. Hearing it in a fresh recording gave me new appreciation for it, witnessing it performed live again bolstered that enthusiasm, and lately I’ve found myself humming various sections of it at random.

A year after the re-recording of “And Then There Was Silence” came another surprise: a completely remixed version of A Night At the Opera on the band’s A Traveler’s Guide to Space and Time boxed set. The band had murmured about the possibility of remixing it in interviews for years, and for awhile I chalked it up to wishful thinking (on their part and mine). Alongside many others I had always felt that the original release was a tad overcooked; perhaps too much compression of certain layers in the recording, too many vocal tracks, whatever it was —- the album could be a chore to listen to, an aural equivalent to an Australian’s nightmare, as Spinal Tap manager Ian Faith would put it. The remix breathed new life into its songs, adding space between instrumentation, bringing up interesting musical elements that had been trapped behind walls of noise, loosening up the layering of choral vocals so they could pop more. On the whole, I thought it was a triumph… oh, except for the deleting of one of the most epic moments from the best song on the album. Yes I’m referring to “Precious Jerusalem”, finally we’re here! Before I heap praise upon it, I have to take issue with the band and ask: Why was the decision made in the remixed album to delete the line “Let’s celebrate the dawning of the sun” at the 1:23 mark? Its such an integral musical segue from the intro verse to that first glorious rendition of the chorus that its absence in the remixed version seems unnaturally empty and incomplete. For the purposes of this article and you the reader, I’ve linked the original version above (and while I love and recommend the remixed album over the original, I’d urge everyone to replace the remixed “Precious Jerusalem” with the original for their tracklisting).

The band has elected to avoid touching “Precious Jerusalem” live, likely due to the necessity of the song needing a strong backing choir to even get close to pulling it off. The patterns of the vocal melodies are reminiscent of “Another Holy War” in a fittingly similar way (both songs lyrically seem to touch on the same topic) in that bridges and choruses begin while the previous verse, bridge, or chorus is finishing up on its last line. It works towards the same effect here, to build up tension and deliver epic payoffs, and it succeeds on both counts. I’ve always loved the lyric on the dramatic bridge, “I’ve gone beyond but there’s no life / And there is nothing how it seems / I’ve gone beyond but there’s no life / There is no healing rain in Eden”, its imagery suggestive of both physical and spiritual journeys. But its the chorus that houses the song’s emotional core, “I turn to you oh my precious Jerusalem / Deny your prophets their passion and treat them like fools / I turn to you oh my poor old Jerusalem / Deny my love but you can’t change fate”, with Hansi and his longtime choir emoting and inflecting just enough on that third repeating line to give it an extra dose of ache —- it sounds like these guys are pained singing this song, in a good way. Oh one other vocal related thing, how brilliant is Hansi at understanding alliteration and the value of repetition when he sings “I’ve found myself in desert lands in desert lands / But you’ve been on my mind”? Repeating “in desert lands” twice not only works syllabic-ally but reinforces the unending and repetitive nature of what we think of as Middle-East desert landscapes. It has a passionate yet tortured quality to its overstatement, so when he follows by singing “…you’ve been on my mind”, it makes you wonder —- for how long?

 

 

“Theatre of Pain” (from Somewhere Far Beyond)

 

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9JXlYgUGQ50&w=560&h=315]

 

Easily the most cinematic song off Somewhere Far Beyond (and the band’s career at that point), “Theatre of Pain” was also one of the album’s mid-tempo numbers alongside “The Quest For Tanelorn”, the aforementioned “Ashes to Ashes”, and the epic title track. In tandem they redefined the band’s sound, building the path that lead them away from mostly speed/thrash metal and paving the way for the birth of their classic sound on Imaginations From the Other Side. What sets “Theatre of Pain” apart from those however is its panoramic use of keyboard orchestration to create a Hollywood-esque backdrop for Andre, Marcus and Thomen to play off of. So prominent was the orchestral arrangement for this song, that the band delivered a “classic version” on their 1996 rarities collection Forgotten Tales that pushed up both Andre’s lead guitars and the keyboards to the forefront. There was a time when I preferred the classic version, but over time I’ve come back around to the more raw, desperate push and pull of the original. Hard to believe that a song that the band saw fit to release in two incarnations can be overlooked by the fanbase at large but I hardly ever seen anyone mention it as a favorite. I guess its the price it pays for being on an album with “The Bard’s Song” and “Time What Is Time” (although I guess its not that surprising considering that once again, the band rarely plays it live).

I had a hard time coming up with an adjective for this song besides cinematic, but perhaps its a little swashbuckling? Not in the dumb Alestorm kind of way, but in the sense that its streaked with a touch of adventurous spirit in its see-saw swagger and overtly fantastical lyrics. Speaking of the lyrics, they’re apparently inspired by a 1979 sci-fi novel called The Merman’s Children by Poul Anderson, a book that I’ve never read but seems interesting its in premise. Needless to say, its hard to grow attached to lyrics that are so specific to unknown subject matter as they are here, but there are some standout moments, the most vivid to me being the chorus itself: “Don’t fear your last step / From the theatre of pain / And the children will love your singing”. To be honest, I have no idea what those lines mean, their specificity is the only aspect I can critique —- but their reassuring intention and tone seem obvious enough. And despite you asking yourself while listening to it one day, “Just what is a theater of pain anyway?” as I did, its Hansi’s delivery and the well timed joining in of the chorus vocals that have always made this a feel-good Blind Guardian song.

 

 

“The Curse of Feanor” (from Nightfall In Middle-Earth)

 

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XFAskJN4YKE&w=560&h=315]

 

Lost amidst a dense tracklisting between”Into the Storm”, “Nightfall”, and “Mirror Mirror” is this severely overlooked / under-discussed gem. Funnily and cruelly enough, the band unleashed their debut airing of this song just one show after their Houston date in Atlanta. It was hard to be bitter about it at the time while still riding high on the excitement of the show, and of course any cursory understanding of the tragedy of Feanor in The Silmarillion should be a warning for holding grudges and being selfish —- that being said, I still can’t help feeling a little robbed of hearing this glorious anthem live. But hey, I’m happy for my Atlanta brethren, it was about time the band played this in concert and its nice to see that an American audience got a live debut of a song for once (no I’m not gritting my teeth!). This is one of the most aggressive songs off Nightfall, just punishing you with heavy, barreling riffs and percussion after Andre’s joyously opulent lead guitar intro. At first listen someone might expect this to unfold in a fairly standard manner, with a cliche power metal chorus to follow, but Blind Guardian are nothing if not tricksters. We hit the bridge, and our racetrack tempo slows down, Hansi’s vocals briefly turn to a gentle hush, all before aggressively building towards the chorus where another tempo shift occurs, this time to a mid-tempo, almost stately march. Its in that chorus where Hansi once again displays his masterful command of the song’s source material in crafting a perspective based chorus that brings you right into the heart of Feanor’s despair and fury. The lyrics in the chorus are flawless, “Don’t fear the eyes of the dark lord / Morgoth I cried / All hope is gone but I swear revenge / Hear my oath / I will take part in your damned fate”. Its partly addressed to his followers in the house of Finwe, but also to himself and aloud in the air to Morgoth, quite a lot for one chorus to be getting on with.

The unusual and of course brilliant feature of “The Curse of Feanor” is how that chorus seems to be extended by virtue of a mid-chorus bridge where a brief guitar solo introduces a tempo change in the rhythm section and Hansi delivers another searing lyric, “I will always remember their cries / Like a shadow which covers the light / I will always remember the time /But it’s past / I cannot turn back the time / (I) don’t look back / There’s still smoke near the shore / But I arrived / Revenge be mine”. Okay there’s a lot to point out here: First, how about another shining example of Hansi’s choice to repeat a word or phrase for dramatic effect ala “Precious Jerusalem”, in this case how he repeats the “I” in the first line “I will always remember their cries” —- its a small thing I know, but it makes Hansi’s interpretation of Feanor come alive, become tangible and almost conversational (even though its real use is for the vocals to synch in better with the guitars swooping in). How about “Like a shadow which covers the light”, a general bit of imagery that can speak to the non-informed listener yet also speaks directly about the stolen Silmarils? And I’ve always loved the inclusion of “There’s still smoke near the shore”, because it reinforces what was suggested with “I will always remember their cries” —- that Hansi’s interpretation of Feanor brings with it some remorse for the kinslaying at Alqualonde. Is it too much for someone to get Hansi on a podcast and just talk The Silmarillion for an hour or so, is it really that hard? I’ll even take a print interview, but enough questions about tour dates and recording processes. Let’s talk to the man about Fingolfin (go-with-the-flow rube or saintly hero?); Glaurung’s candidacy for greatest fictional jerk of all time; Feanor or Turin Tarambar? (who was dealt the worse hand?); why couldn’t Morgoth have found Gondolin with some aerial scouting by one of his flying baddies?; and what were the real estate prices like in the Blessed Realm anyway?

 

 

“The Maiden And The Minstrel Knight” (from A Night At the Opera)

 

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sxeiH5q3Dlw&w=560&h=315]

 

This might be THE most overlooked Blind Guardian song of all time, not only because the band has ignored it live, but because it rather unjustly seems absent from any discussion I’ve seen regarding fan favorites. If we’re to go by the lyrics alone then we can consider this to be the bards’ first and only love song, a surprise considering the depth of their catalog. But hey, being Blind Guardian this isn’t just a regular love song, its based on the tragic romance of Tristan and Isolde of course! Many years ago, one bleary night around two in the morning while lying beached-whale-like in bed, I caught an opera performance of this on PBS that was subtitled. I remember it vividly for being the first opera I actually watched from start to finish (because it was 2am and the remote control was somewhere over there *points vaguely*), and surprisingly enough I actually enjoyed it in some small way. Anyway, Hansi essentially took a few important moments from this classic story and stitched together two perspectives of different characters. Without getting into the story (because its been awhile), we get a little bit of King Marke of Cornwall and his “testing” of his soon to be betrothed Isolde’s innocence, and we get Tristan who in his grievously wounded state is crying out for his true and sundered love (Isolde!). Look, you get the idea.

What A Night at the Opera brought in spades was an aggressive expansion of the band’s sound that a lot of people just lazily term as “progressive” —- which yes it was, but the band opened up their sound by reducing their usage of straight ahead metallic riffs, building songs around vocal melodies and lead guitar motifs, as well as increasing the role of keyboard designed orchestrations. All of which are cornerstones of “The Maiden and the Minstrel Knight”, which is largely built around Hansi’s lead vocal melody alone, so much so that you’ll notice hardly any instrumentation during the beginning verse apart from keyboards that echo his tune. Its a daring way to write a ballad, one that gets even more daring when the group vocals join in during the chorus (“Will you still wait for me? / Will you still cry for me?”), as Hansi cedes his spotlight at a moment in which most other vocalists would want to seize it. Guitars don’t kick in until the 2:12 mark, and despite the punctuating kick they deliver, they’re still secondary in nature even considering Andre’s excellent solo that works as the set up for the song’s best moment. That moment spans nearly a minute from 3:14 to 4:12, where intertwining lead vocal melodies work alongside group vocal layers to create breathlessly beautiful harmonic bliss. The lyrics during this segment speak of loss and ache, and despite their call and response nature between Hansi and the choir they seem to read as one long run-on train of thought.

 

 

“War of the Thrones (Piano Version)” (from At the Edge of Time)

 

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6L0jQTAilJQ&w=560&h=315]

 

Had this blog existed in 2010, Blind Guardian’s At the Edge of Time would have sat atop 2010’s Best Albums of the Year list. It was the return of the bard’s classic speed and power metal styles infused and expanded with their post-2002 experimentation. It boasted not just one, but two supreme epics in “Sacred Worlds” and “Wheel of Time”, as well as neck-snapping cuts like “Tanelorn (Into the Void) and “Ride Into Obsession”, which seemed like modern distillations of the band’s early 90s era. Even the slow burning cuts were compelling, “Control The Divine” and “Road of No Release” were twisting and complex with their inspired tempo/riff changes; “Valkyries” soared with its cinematics; “A Voice In The Dark” brought us a quintessential Blind Guardian classic; and “Curse My Name” was a stirring, jangly acoustic guitar driven ballad in the vein of “A Past and Future Secret” that saw Hansi delivering a passion filled lead vocal. But what really caught my ear at that time and still now was the gorgeous, subdued piano ballad “War of the Thrones”, an unusually delicate song in that its subject matter was the violent and bloody tale of George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones.

It was interesting in itself that they decided to match one to the other, because anyone’s first thought would be that any Game of Thrones inspired Blind Guardian song would be brutal and heavy, but in a strange way, it was a perfect pairing. Its been a mystery as to why it hasn’t gotten a live airing, nor is it talked about that much by fans in general. If you can guess which character(s) the lyrical perspective of this song is based on, you’re far better off than I. Some people say Jon Snow, but that doesn’t necessarily add up all the way through. One person on SongMeanings suggested Coldhands, and I’ve heard another suggestion that its actually from Ned Stark’s perspective, as he realizes his time is coming to an end. No matter which you choose there are details that don’t correlate, but does it really matter overall when the lyrics speak of doom but the melodies are sprightly, lilting, and dare I suggest happy?

That dichotomy might be the most appealing aspect of “War of the Thrones”, and it starts off at the very onset a few seconds in, with a lone piano dancing into one of the most singularly beautiful moments in Blind Guardian’s catalog, a tinkling melodic figure that could melt icicles (at the :08 second mark to be exact, but the buildup is just as affecting). Hansi’s lead vocals throughout are a balanced blend of sublimely melodic with aggressive accents on specific words for dramatic effect. Lyrically, you’re not supposed to feel as uplifted as you are when the chorus comes around, with its major keys and orchestral swells and Andre and Marcus’ dancing acoustic guitars. Maybe its fair to say that strong melodies will overrule lyrical direction in most cases, and Blind Guardian is no exception. The clincher begins at the 3:45 mark and runs to the very end of the song, where they extend the melodic line of the chorus through to a layered harmony vocal, Hansi directing the choir with additional setups for the group choral vocals. Its my favorite moment on the album, and of the band’s catalog in general, as Hansi sings “Leave a fee for the tiller man / And the river behind” while he and his select group of studio vocalists extend the final syllable on “behind” longer than a normal band would ever think to do. Seriously, who thinks of that?! Its a sequence that brings to mind Renaissance Fairs for me, as I vividly remember listening to the song with friends while driving up to one, its cheerful harmonies begging for a sing-a-long. Its also emblematic of the nature of Blind Guardian, to not shy away from all manner of emotion, nor from wearing their heart on their sleeve.

 

Blind Guardian Take Us Beyond the Red Mirror

There are so many things to discuss in regards to a new Blind Guardian album that I had trouble deciding where to begin. I settled on getting the obvious stuff out of the way first, namely, that four years (five on paper) has yet again separated their newest effort from its predecessor, in this case 2010’s highly acclaimed At the Edge Of Time. Four years in the rock and metal world is twice as long as the average 2-3 year gap between most artists’ releases, but the extended length of time for Blind Guardian is reasonably well accounted for: Multiple leg world tours take up a year and a half or more, and the writing, recording/production of one of their albums requires a longer gestation period than your typical meat n’ potatoes metal band. They’re not quite the obsessive perfectionists ala Axl Rose or Wintersun’s Jari Maenpaa, nor do they have the lackadaisical attitude of Tool, whom seem to regard new albums as a chore (and whose results have yet to justify the excessive time taken); no Blind Guardian are actually working productively in some form or fashion in the period between album releases, and fans have grudgingly gotten accustomed to these lengthy wait times ever since 1998.

This longer wait between albums most obviously raises anticipation, but I often wonder if it distorts expectations as well. Take At the Edge of Time for example, it was viewed as a return to form, a sort of throwback to their early 90s speed/lean metal approach combined with a grand orchestral backdrop that made it both their most hard hitting work in a decade as well as their most atmospherically epic. It was a complete 180° from the stripped down experimentation of A Twist in the Myth, itself a departure from A Night At the Opera’s grandiose excess. I can personally attest that the musical changes present in each of these four albums came as a surprise upon their release; there was little to nothing in each of their predecessors that would’ve foreshadowed those changes. I suspect its why At the Edge of the Time was so warmly received, because it differed so much from A Twist in the Myth’s odd blending of hard rock inspired sounds, toned down arrangements, and accessible songwriting. After four years of sporadic attempts at getting more into Myth’s eccentricities with partial success, I was blown away by the vastly different flavor of Blind Guardian that At the Edge of Time was presenting, in a very good way that is.

For better and worse a Blind Guardian fan’s post-2006 dilemma is that we’re unable to foreshadow what the bards will do next, because unlike most other bands they don’t gradually phase-in change over successive albums released in shorter intervals. Quite contrarily, Blind Guardian shifts their approach rather wildly and with zero mechanisms for forewarning, and as fans our last impression of what they did musically is already four years old (at least!) by the time something new comes around —- its why “And Then There Was Silence” was such a shock to the system when it was released as a single in 2002. When had you ever heard anything like that in the band’s bag of tricks? Never is the answer. Four years is long enough for the band to internally develop a new direction, but its also long enough for fans to tend to lose a sense of context in regards to what modern Blind Guardian should, or more importantly, could sound like. Its the price you pay for brilliance —- if Hansi Kursch and Andre Olbrich need two and a half years to write and record another great album as opposed to six to eight months, who are we to question their methods?
 

I mention all that because chances are that when you first hear Beyond the Red Mirror, the band’s tenth studio album in their now twenty-five year plus career, you’re liable to ask yourself just what am I listening to now? What you’re listening to is the most asymmetrically complex album that Blind Guardian have ever written, with songwriting that makes the tunes on At the Edge of Time seem poppy in comparison. Upon your first few listens, you’ll find it difficult to discern melodies, patterns, or anything resembling a prototypical hook throughout a large chunk of the album. I certainly did, but this being a new Blind Guardian album, you’ve gotta give it the extra time and attention it deserves and treat yourself to many repeat spins in order to let the experience sink in, wash over you, or whatever metaphor you subscribe to. Its another in a long line of surprises that have come with each of their past five releases, and the band offers no apologies, this is the music they came up with and you can take it or leave it.

If you’re still having trouble digesting what you’re hearing, perhaps it might help to frame the album as a mix of A Night at the Opera’s songwriting complexity with At the Edge of Time’s orchestral/choral bombast. Andre packs in the aggressive riffs and wild melodic zig-zags as only he can, but they’re denser, closer together, less anthemic and structured more as swirling patterns that support Hansi’s vocals, which drive the bulk of the melodies in these songs. Typically, a Blind Guardian song finds its balance between the melody being ushered along in equal parts by Andre and Hansi working in tandem (usually in the case of the vocals picking up where the guitars leave off during the chorus) —- except in the case of A Night at the Opera and this album, where Hansi’s vocals serve as the primary driving melodic thru-line for the song, the instrumentation left to play around it. It may seem a strange call back, a 2015 release sharing something so structurally important with an album released in 2002, and I don’t really have an explanation for why it worked out that way. I’m guessing that the band doesn’t either.

What this means of course is that you won’t find a direct spiritual successor to At the Edge of Time’s anthemic “Tanelorn”, or “Wheel of Time”, but you’ll find bits and pieces that remind you of them. Take the most radical song, the lead off nine-minute epic “The Ninth Wave”, where a solo choir intro clashes with futuristic sound effects, a strangely affecting buildup that helps to unleash one of the most purely anthemic choruses on the album. Hansi’s jump back in after the first chorus is equally dramatic as he shouts “To Muriel’s fire, walk with me!”, one of those fist-raising moments that you’ll get at least a few times an album with these guys. Andre’s extended guitar passages in the middle of the song are a treat, full of explosive solos and lead runs that rocket away from any motifs heard before within the song, a brave thing to do when the easier way out would be simply mimicking the vocal melody.

The other equally radical epic is the concluding song, “The Grand Parade”, a waltzing semi-power ballad that skips along on Frederik Ehmke’s rhythmic percussion and a gorgeous orchestral arrangement where strings and horns chime together in opulent fashion. Here Andre and fellow guitarist Marcus Siepen eschew riffs in favor of long Brian May-esque sustains, channeling their Queen fandom to its expressive best, suitable for a song that sounds like a celebration. This one took me awhile to wrap my head around, but its become one of my favorites on the album not only for its awesome, majestic chorus, but simply for the fact that its such an unusual Blind Guardian song. Unusually, “The Ninth Wave” and  “The Grand Parade” share a length of exactly 9:30, serving as symmetrical bookends —- whether that is by design or sheer accident is a mystery, but this is a concept album after all (more on that in a bit) so its worth noting.
 

Another one that took me a touch longer to get into was the song “At the Edge of Time” (I’ve read an interview where Hansi speaks on why they titled a song after their last album, but its a bit difficult to summarize in a sentence, suffice to say there IS a reason). The song starts out with an intro that features one of the album’s singular shining moments, at the :57 second mark, Hansi beautifully dreams out the lyrics “Who’ll grant me wings to fly? / And will I have another try?”. Its a simple lyric on the surface, but its unanswerable question is evocative in the very essence of what its asking —- and Hansi’s phrasing and emotive delivery just bowls me over every time I hear it. Moments like that are what I wish I could instantly summon whenever someone asks me why Blind Guardian is so great (if I haven’t slapped them across the head by then). Perhaps the song I still have trouble with is “Sacred Mind”, particularly in the chorus where I get the feeling Hansi might’ve over sung just a touch. Its not a bad song by any means, but there’s a monotone-ness to the chorus melody that prevents the song from reaching a higher emotional place.

Of course, some songs are easier to crack than others, such as the advance single “Twilight of the Gods”, which sounds grander, bolder, and more punchy here than on the YouTube lyric video release (its time for labels to reconsider the low quality of their lyric video uploads). The limited edition/vinyl copy of the album has an additional song within the middle of the track listing called “Distant Memories”, a beautifully lush and wonderfully written power ballad in the vein of “Noldor” and “War of the Thrones”. Why this song was kept as an exclusive track and not featured on the jewel case edition of the album is kind of a head scratcher, because its one of the most instantly accessible songs here. Hansi’s vocal is almost aching in the refrain where he sings “They’re just caught in distant memories /Then these fools will fade away / They may not fear the fall”. Its quickly become a favorite of mine and that shouldn’t come as a surprise to some of you, knowing that I’m a sucker for ballads.

Other favorite moments… lets see, how about the entirety of “The Holy Grail”, the heaviest and fastest song on the album, where you get a “Tanelorn” meets “A Voice in the Dark” vibe. I love the way the choral chant of “Magna eterna! /Magna eterna sings!” sounds a lot like “Run like hell now! Run like hell now!” (or is that just me?). Then there’s the sneakily catchy “Ashes of Eternity”, a song that grows on you after many listens and features one of those aforementioned shining moments of pure brilliance, towards its end at the 4:23 mark when Hansi exults “I won’t lie / While bright eyes are turning pale / Your sands run low”. Not only is the callback to “Bright Eyes” something that makes you smile, but the delivery of that lyric and its subsequent passage is so dramatic in its timing, its placement, and its execution that it makes you wish it was the chorus of the song and not just an isolated moment. And of course, I have to mention the delicate intro to “Miracle Machine”, where Hansi sings over a lonely sounding piano, only backed up by his own multi-tracked vocals. I quite like the song, though in Blind Guardian’s piano ballad history it falls short of the standards set by “War of the Thrones” and “The Eldar”.
 

Saving the best for last, there’s my two favorite songs on the album, “The Throne” and “Prophecies”. The former is a seven minute masterpiece; a perfect storm of great riffs, battle horns, Hollywood symphonics, and angelic choral sections. It also boasts the album’s most ear wormy chorus amidst all that bombast, a simple couplet that is simultaneously catchy and pulse pounding, “We must serve the fire / We must confess we are liars!”. Its on a level of excellence as that of “Wheel of Time” or “Sacred Worlds” from At the Edge of Time, one of those all too perfect gems where the verses are as compelling as the mighty refrain. “Prophecies” is a perfectly crafted case study in mid-tempo understatement, where the line between verse and chorus is blurred as a result of Hansi’s almost effortless lead vocal —-  his narrative voice here is the song’s greatest strength, the backup vocalists only chiming in to punctuate specific lines in the refrain. Its worth noting that “Prophecies” was initially my least favorite song after my first few listens of the album, probably due to my thinking that its lack of any kind of build up suggested a directionless nature. Your favorites will likely change in similarly tumultuous fashion.

If you didn’t know by now, Beyond the Red Mirror is a concept album in the vein of Nightfall, a song by song unfolding of a storyline. Its connected to the song “As the Story Ends” from the Imaginations album, and deals with the consequences of a boy who refused to jump through a portal to another world. In the digibook edition of the album, the band provides beautiful artwork that is directly tied into the fantastical concept of this album. There’s also a few lengthy short stories and poetic etchings courtesy of Hansi that serve as narrative guides —- they’re interesting reading, although I should probably emphasize that this is all entirely optional on your part. Enjoying the album as an aural experience alone is a viable option, but if you want to delve into the conceptual storyline there’s plenty to tuck into. I’ve given it all a few looks and read a thread on the band’s official forum that dissected it further, but the discussion participants were still having disagreements on just how the story fits together so I suppose I’ll just wait for them to hash it all out (hey I’m already behind on other albums!).

A few days after getting the album, I tweeted out that people should have patience and not give up if they were having difficulty getting into it. Now, more than twenty-five complete playthroughs later I can’t emphasize enough just how dependent this album is on your ability to press play once more. Listen after listen, songs that went right past me began to open up bit by bit, like peeling the layers off an onion. This is Blind Guardian’s most inaccessible album alongside A Night at the Opera in that its so deeply intricate that your brain needs time to interpret everything its hearing, a process that by definition requires repeat listens. The opposite of pop music then. But despite its inaccessibility, Beyond the Red Mirror is also perhaps their most rewarding album. I’m at a loss to explain how a band on their tenth album begins to make the most challenging music of their career, because things don’t usually work that way. Nor am I at that point yet where I can honestly say that this is my favorite Blind Guardian album, or even that I enjoy it more than At the Edge of Time —- which I love a thousand times over. But there’s something here that will undoubtedly keep me coming back, perhaps secrets that I haven’t uncovered just yet.
 

Iced Earth Return with Plagues of Babylon

I just realized something —- this will be only the third time I’ve written solely about Iced Earth in the history of this blog, the first being Dystopia‘s inclusion on the Best of 2011 list, and the second being a 2012 gig report that turned into trip down memory lane back to 2004 when I saw Iced Earth cram close to a thousand Houstonians in a sweltering converted warehouse on the Glorious Burden tour during their Ripper Owens era. I only point it out because its a surprisingly small number for a band that is among my longest running fandoms, as well as an important part of my breaking away from mainstream metal in order to explore the European power metal scene in earnest. I’m certain everyone is aware of the many upheavals within the lineup the past few years but its worth pointing out yet again what a huge shot in the arm the addition of Stu Block has been —- simply in terms of making Iced Earth a fully functioning band again.

Unlike the sporadic live shows in the final years of the Barlow era, Iced Earth is now doing their longest full length world tours yet, and in the span of the past three years have released two studio albums and one live album/dvd. The music has also improved, the difference in quality night and day from the final Barlow offering, The Crucible of Man in 2008, to 2011’s Stu Block debut Dystopia. As I wrote in that linked 2012 article, the band looked fired up on stage, Jon Schaffer in particular looking noticeably happier. I felt happier myself witnessing that. It was a rebirth of a band that I’ve had a tremendous amount of respect for in addition to simply being a fan, as I’d always felt that the struggle of Iced Earth to sustain themselves as an American power metal band during the dry spell of the mid-nineties mirrored what many of us stateside fans had to endure as well.

I was encouraged to hear by the middle of 2013 just how quickly the band was able to finish writing and start the recording of Plagues of Babylon, their second effort with Block. It was a sign that the Block-Schaffer partnership wasn’t fraying from the demands of the road, and that they were eager to parlay that enthusiasm into productive work. And tellingly on Plagues, they’ve either consciously or subconsciously brought their live sound to the recording studio. This is a noticeably rawer and grittier Iced Earth than we’ve heard on their past couple releases (specifically I’m referring to all their albums since 2001’s Horror Show). Speaking broadly, there’s a sense that they have carried the effects of their long touring over into the studio —- Iced Earth have always been far heavier and even thrashier live on stage than they’ve been on record. Here the band goes easy on layered choral vocals during refrains and excessive displays of major key melodicism, instead opting for gun metal grey riffs with slight melodic variations alongside mostly solitary lead vocals that recall to mind their classic Something Wicked and Dark Saga period. Overall there is a very stripped down and “live” approach being employed —- and its a darker album as a result.

 

The first four songs on the tracklisting are particularly apparent examples, the highlight among them being the adrenaline pumping “Democide”, as thrash metal-y as Iced Earth have sounded in years. Block’s solo lead vocals seem heftier and far more menacing here than on Dystopia, and again it reminds me of how he sounded when I saw him live. Its ironic then that Blind Guardian vocalist Hansi Kursch turns up in a guest spot on “Among the Living Dead”, where he doesn’t really add his trademark wall of sound vocal layering approach to the mix, instead merely offering up his own solo vocal counterpoints to Block’s. Honestly it took me a few listens to even spot Kursch’s usually instantly recognizable voice, and even after many, many listens I wonder if his talents are going under utilized here. But these thoughts are put aside by the time “The End?” kicks in, where Schaffer and lead guitarist Troy Seele deliver a lushly melodic array of guitar work to introduce some contrast to Block’s brutal take on clean vocals —- here he even delivers a near black metal styled scream midway through.

The band amps up the multitracked vocals on semi-ballad “If I Could See You”, a track that recalls “I Died For You” off the Dark Saga in a big way, not a bad thing mind you but its just another thing that ties this album’s sonic feel back to that era. And I particularly love the lush vocal layering on “Cthulhu”, where the refrain is so well written that it bleeds out emotion, despite being a song about a gigantic, mind-boggling octopus beast-god. Again referencing the past, it’s a quality song that would sound right at home on Horror Show (musically and thematically as well). But let’s face facts, eleven albums into their career no one is expecting Iced Earth to reinvent themselves, only to deliver the metallic goods so to speak. I think I could speak for Iced Earth fans if I suggest that all we want is a consistently good to great record that delivers all the trademarks we expect, with a high level of energy, and Plagues does deliver in that regard. Its not all perfect… I feel that the back to back pairing of both “Peacemaker” and “Parasite” tend to fall largely flat, but two out of twelve isn’t bad.

 

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9unWRsD2QQM&w=560&h=320]

 

 

Now to discuss the obvious album highlight, which may irk some as its a cover, but the band’s take on “Highwayman” is nothing short of spectacular. This is of course the Jimmy Webb penned namesake track of the eighties super group of Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Waylon Jennings, and Johnny Cash The song was fitting both lyrically and structurally for those singers, four country stars long pegged as outsiders in their own genre, four verses for each of them. Iced Earth invite some friends to flesh out their version of the classic, with Schaffer himself handling the first verse on lead vocals, followed by Symphony X’s Russell Allen, then Block, and finally rounded out by the distinctive country-punk twang of Volbeat’s Michael Poulsen. It really works, Schaffer has occasionally done some lead vocals on Iced Earth tracks here and there, so he has the chops to do it and sounds commanding here. Allen is of course a long ranged vocal dynamo, who even adds some of his trademark vocal run extensions despite only singing a few lines. Block’s verse might by my favorite, about the dam builder “Across the river, deep and wide / Where steel and water did collide”, his delivery touched with a hint of outlaw country and rock n’ roll abandon. Poulsen is admittedly an acquired taste, but I don’t mind a little Volbeat here and there and in small doses such as the concluding verse here he is a refreshing change up. They all do a great job.

This was among the first major metal releases of the year, and one of the first cannon shots representing what might be a banner year for power metal. With Plagues of Babylon, 2014 seems to be getting off to a strong start. Its not the best Iced Earth record ever, but its a solid, at times great album that I’m anticipating will sound even better on April 28th when I see them once again in Houston. I’m looking forward to finding out how my back and neck will hold up.

Mead Horn Metal! New albums from Ensiferum and Wisdom

 

 

So this year I’ve decided to induct the Fall season with a welcoming, light-hearted, cheery mood — mainly to counteract the eventual headlong plunge into all that excellent dreary, depressing metal that traditionally serves as the soundtrack for the autumn months. And I’ve been keeping my ears open for new music that would fit the bill. I’m talking about tunes that bring to mind sloshy mead horn raising, overeating at Renaissance Festivals type gluttony, lingering outside in the bracing air of the nighttime chill, and the warmth of standing near the fire pit. Still don’t know what I’m talking about? Think “The Bards Song” by Blind Guardian, or “Stand Up and Fight” by Turisas. I’m in the mood for some fun in my metal, and lo and behold, here’s a new album by Ensiferum, and a re-release of a year old album by a Hungarian power metal outfit called Wisdom. Can these two deliver the goods?! Someone get the mead ready!

 


 

 

Ensiferum – Unsung Heroes:

Here’s my thing with Ensiferum. I love their first two albums, in fact, lets capitalize that LOVE. I consider the self-titled Ensiferum and its follow-up Iron to be amongst the finest folk metal albums of all time. As for the band’s releases after those two albums?…Eh, really hit or miss to be frank about it. There’s usually a few good, not great songs per album, and a load of formulaic filler. Some coincidence then that I’m writing this as we all sit on the near eve of the release of the long awaited Wintersun album Time I, as it was Wintersun brainchild Jari Mäenpää that was at the vocal and writing helm of those first two Ensiferum albums. Together with Markus Toivonen, the longtime Ensiferum founder/guitarist, the pair created memorable folk metal anthems that are every bit as fresh today as they were upon release. And since seeing the two parties split off and hearing their individual results, I feel that it was Mäenpää whose musical vision was the larger voice showing up on those records; so easy is it to trace the similarities to the music in that first stunning Wintersun album. Toivonen has soldiered on though, with the aid of vocalist/guitarist Petri Lindroos and bassist/lyricist Sami Hinkka. What they’ve managed to come up with on what is now the third post-Mäenpää Ensiferum album can be best summed up as well meaning songs suited to their strengths, and a fair share of unrealized experiments that fall flat.

 

First the good stuff, and that starts off with the lead single (and lame video), “In My Sword I Trust”, a strike directly at the comfort zone of fans of the first two Ensiferum releases. Their last record, From Afar, had quite a few of these as well, the type of emblematic song that defines the core sound of the band in a catchy, energized, and inspired fashion. One thing I’ve been lamenting about modern day Ensiferum however is their tendency to rely too heavily on choirs to provide a musical uplift to a songs chorus, as is the case on this particular song. When I imagine them using harsh vocals all the way through, I feel the song would’ve been stronger, darker, and fiercer. Maybe its the production that’s bothering me, but things seemed a little too Korpiklaani-ish during a handful of moments throughout this album. The other gem here is a rare moment where some radical experimentation works rather well, as displayed in the female vocal laced ballad “Celestial Bond”. Its every bit as overwrought and sentimental as you’d anticipate, but stirring all the same and a nice bit of delicate atmospherics.

 

Then comes the drop off — the rest of the record ranges from the passable to the skippable, and the primary culprit is the reoccurring problem found with Lindroos’ vocals. Quite simply he just isn’t very exciting as a harsh vocalist — I’ve never been able to put my finger on it, but I’ve felt the same way about his performances in Norther. Its almost as if he can become so overtly monotone, or staid, that I find myself losing interest and not feeling anything resembling the crackling excitement I found in those first two Ensiferum albums, where Mäenpää’s vocals were a vicious mix of Dave Mustaine-esque snarl and Alexi Laiho sandpaper grit. There is a wide variety of tempos, sounds, and volumes on this album, but the trouble is that most of it isn’t very memorable. Why bother discussing the details of songs that don’t draw a reaction out of me one way or another? I’m sure some fans will enjoy it, but at what effort? I don’t mean to disparage the band, or this album, its worth a listen on Spotify at least. I suppose you could conclude that I’m disappointed, but it didn’t even do that, it just left me shrugging my shoulders.

 

 

 

 

Wisdom – Judas:

This album may be the biggest surprise coming out of European power metal in the past two years. It is certainly the most enjoyable front to back album in that vein since Blind Guardian’s At the Edge of Time; and while I’m not attempting to directly compare the two albums, with 2011’s Judas these Hungarians deliver the same gratifying, big-meal satisfaction that the Bards provided in 2010. The album had been severely limited in distribution until August of 2012, when it was re-released through a worldwide deal with NoiseArt Records. I had been aware of Wisdom in the past, but despite being impressed with their always rockin’ and bare-bones musical approach, their previous vocalist István Nachladal didn’t do much for me.

 

The new guy is another Hungarian, Gabor Nagy, who completely dominates the album with a powerful vocal performance that I can only best describe as blending together prime era Ronnie James Dio, a dash of good Ozzy, with a splash of Hansi Kursch thrown in — all filtered through a Hungarian accent that gives Nagy a stamp of personality all his own. Of course such talent would be wasted if not for what is arguably the strongest collection of Wisdom songs to date, led by the songwriting of guitarist Gabor (must be like Mike over there amirite?) Kovacs. The album highlights here are led by the single “Heaven and Hell”, a vaguely sludgy mid-tempo stomper where Nagy takes center stage over a chorus that is as aggressive as it is soaring, set over a bed of guitars that are perfectly thundering in their short bursts of riffs. “Somewhere Alone” is another mid-paced gem, led along by a strong guitar melody that serves as the song’s true refrain directly after its choir-laden chorus. The band does pick up the tempo to spectacular results, such as on “Live Forevermore”, where the vocals in the chorus seem to race against a drum beat that is putting on the brakes from its all out double bass assault in the verses — the resulting effect being bracing and adrenaline inducing.

 

I suppose its worth mentioning that Wisdom base their songwriting around a lyrical concept that has run all throughout their discography, where each song is based around a well-known quotation, hence tying this all together with their band name and mascot (the cloaked guy on all their album covers). Its an interesting idea I suppose, and although I’m often puzzled at what quotations are actually being utilized within the songs, I feel its worth the tip of the cap to the band for attempting to put some thought and weight behind their lyrics in a genre that sees so little of that. But the lyrics aren’t the selling point here, its the music that will win you over. This is that rare breed of power metal that is done with muscle and aggression, all while emphasizing great melodies and harmonies in the guitars as well as vocals. I realize that’s a fairly vague description especially since we’re talking power metal here, but think of the sparseness of Falconer’s approach mixed with the cheery melodies of Gamma Ray or Iron Savior and maybe you’ll get a better idea. Or better yet, check out the video for “Heaven and Hell” below (which I might add despite its expected corny aspects is one of the most well done power metal music video’s I’ve seen in a long time).

 

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RbWYtuSaWL0&w=560&h=315]

 

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