20 May 2016

Disco Rundown: Blind Guardian

Blind Guardian - A Tale of Power and Speed
Evolving from the speed metal band Lucifer's Heritage in 1986, Blind Guardian have been turning heads on the international power metal scene ever since. With ten full length albums and a slew of other releases in their back catalogue, by 2015 they're a heavy metal mainstay. Almost universally acclaimed, every album shows a band still ready for more with fresh ideas and hard-hitting compositions.

With some bands their journeys through several subgenres and styles are quite sudden and unexpected. This is less so the case with Blind Guardian. Having evolved over time from a prime speed metal band, their music quickly began fusing with more and more grandiose and majestic elements. Helmed by eternal frontman Hansi Kürsch, his unique vocals sets them apart from, and in many cases above, the rest. A part of the German power-speed wave of the 80s and 90s which also counts legendary bands like Helloween, Gamma Ray, Running Wild, Rage and Grave Digger, they've had tough competition but in many aspects emerge victorious.

Battalions of Fear
1988, No Remorse Records
Though the true origins of this album lies with the 1986 Lucifer's Heritage demo of the same name, Battalions of Fear was the first real breakthrough for Blind Guardian. Featuring tracks that to this day remain classics - Including Majesty - BoF is in many ways the epitome of what classic speed metal should be. Thrashy riffing, energetic drumming, epic vocals that are rough around the edges, and a sense of golden power and force to push everything forward.
At this point the band consisted of three original Lucifer's Heritage members - Kürsch, guitarist André Olbrich and drummer Thomas Stauch. The second guitarist, Marcus Siepen, was added to the lineup in 1987, after the creation of Blind Guardian. Though Stauch remained a member for many years until his departure in 2005, both Kürsch, Olbrich and Siepen remain members - and integral parts of the band - to this day.
Listen to: Guardian of the Blind, Majesty, Battalions of Fear

Follow the Blind
1989, No Remorse Records
Following up on the raw and powerful Battalions of Fear album from the year before, Blind Guardian at this point showed no intentions of slowing down. Opening with the ominous intro Inquisition, the now-classic Banished from Sanctuary follows up quickly with a swift jab to the gut, cementing what we already know: That Blind Guardian means business. Though still largely a classic speed metal album, the epic moments are now more prominent, the lengthy passages of more intricate compositions ever present. As such Follow the Blind feels more ambitious in scope, retaining the raw power that made Battalions of Fear great and combining it with new elements. By now the lineup from BoF feels more together, their internal dynamics resounding in more competent structures and even more forceful performances. Follow the Blind was also the first appearance of Mathias Wiesner, who would remain an integral part of Blind Guardian for years to come as a session musician providing the keyboards that would soon dominate their sound.
Listen to: Valhalla, Banish from Sanctuary, Hall of the King

Tales from the Twilight World, 1990
Tales from the Twilight World
1990, No Remorse Records
Continuing their streak of one-year album cycles, Tales from the Twilight World came out just a year after its predecessor. Fantasy-laden lyrics based on classic works had been a steady part of the mix since the Lucifer's Heritage days, but by now these themes have escalated into a fully fledged concept. With the weary folk tune Lord of the Rings being the prime example, fantasy was pushed forward. In my own personal opinion, Tales from the Twilight World is the most perfect mix of traditional speed metal and power metal that Blind Guardian would ever achieve. At this point in their career the original lineup works so well together, both at a performance level but also in regards to songwriting. With a slew of classic songs and immensely memorable choruses, Blind Guardian's third album is both fast, strong and hard, while yet leaving room for odd intermissions like Weird Dreams and the sombre aforementioned tribute to Tolkien's magnum opus.
Though their sound, courtesy of sound engineer Kalle Trapp, has changed little since Battalions of Fear, Tales from the Twilight World did offer a slight change. Both in playing style and in guitar tone did Tales... anticipate the, for a lack of better words, 'whining' guitar tone of later albums. As such the band's third album marks a sort of second (or third, if you count Lucifer's Heritage) phase of the band, where Blind Guardian emerges as a fully fledged power metal band.
Listen to: Lord of the Rings, Lost in the Twilight Hall, Welcome to Dying

Somewhere Far Beyond
1992, Virgin Records
With a basically unchanged lineup, and with Trapp still behind the buttons, Somewhere Far Beyond feels somewhat of a diminished effort compared to the phenomenal Tales from the Twilight World from two years prior. It opens with the fast and furious Time What Is Time, but already the lengthier solos and more melodic tendencies reveals that the band are changing, leaving behind a larger portion of their speed metal origins. Ushering in an era of great power metal albums, Somewhere Far Beyond still has a portion of great songs. But rather it is a collection of great individual moments instead of wholly phenomenal compositions. In that way it sounds very much like a transitionary effort where the band are trying to find a new leg to stand on. A few tracks retain the reckless speed in the main riff sections that made their previous albums a force to be reckoned with, but as choruses and riffs turn ever more melodic and epic, Blind Guardian crosses a sort of point of no return. Echoing Lord of the Rings from the previous record, the twin tracks The Bard's Song (In the Forest and The Hobbit) pushes forward that same sombre fantasy that has been lurking for some time. As a whole Somewhere Far Beyond feels like a step down, especially in the light of what was to come...
Listen to: Time What Is Time, Journey Through the Dark, The Bard's Song In the Forest

Imaginations from the Other side, 1995
Imaginations from the Other Side
1995, Virgin Records
Some may recognise Danish producer Flemming Rasmussen as the guy who produced and engineered a good part of Metallica's influential discography. His escapades are, of course, not limited to working with Metallica, and as such he has also worked on a portion of Blind Guardian - Namely Imaginations from the Other Side and Nightfall in Middle-Earth. While groove metal was rampaging through the rest of the metal world, Blind Guardian were also subject to change. But where the previous album disappointed, Imaginations... more than makes up for it. Three years under way, Blind Guardian's fifth record is, at this point, the most anticipated of their discography. As they teamed up with Rasmussen, their sound opened up and attained a less old school feel which fitted their newfound style just right. By now the melodic passages became dominant, keyboards and grandiose choruses being at the forefront while heavy guitars groan in the background. Blind Guardian experiment with their songwriting, taking it beyond the usual recipe and making their music all the more unique for it. Their German contemporaries were going through a similar evolution at the time, so perhaps thrash and speed metal really was dead at this point (though only to be resuscitated later on).
Blind Guardian had always had an affinity for lengthier compositions, but on Imaginations... there are barely any songs less than 5 minutes in length. Though the album can mostly be said to be slower than the previous efforts, their arrangements also show signs of wanting to try something different, and this is something that is especially evident on the following album.
Listen to: Imaginations from the Other Side, A Past and Future Secret, And the Story Ends

Nightfall in Middle-Earth
1998, Virgin Records
To this day, Nightfall in Middle-Earth is probably Blind Guardian's most ambitious album. A concept-album of sorts, it is based on Tolkien's The Silmarillion and runs in excess of one hour in play time. Almost every song is followed by a continuing narration, telling the stories of Middle-Earth from various perspectives. Nightfall in Middle-Earth is in many aspects the band's first true power metal album, and in that regard it was also the beginning of the end for long time drummer Thomas Stauch's involvement in Blind Guardian.
The arrangements found on the album are lofty and, at times, pompous even. Again, the dual guitars of Siepen and Olbrich are at the forefront with riffs that are not only memorable, but enticingly intricate. Aided by a vast force of flutes, keyboards and piano, Blind Guardian's soundscape becomes an expansive vista where choirs, lead vocals, guitars, orchestras and drums orchestrate their grandest, most vivid fantasy opus yet. My favourite moment comes early on the album, but it is tightly packed with fantastic songwriting. When the title track, Nightfall, hits a crescendo and repeats the chorus with redoubled strength, you know exactly what you're in for. 
Nightfall... also features the first appearance of Oliver Holzwarth who with this album took over bass duties from lead singer Hansi Kürsch. Though only ever credited as a session member, Holzwarth remained in the band until some time between At the Edge of Time and Beyond the Red Mirror.
Listen to: Nightfall, Mirror Mirror, Time Stands Still (At the Iron Hill)

A Night at the Opera, 2002
A Night at the Opera
2002, Virgin Records
On A Night at the Opera you'll find Blind Guardian's longest track yet - And Then There Was Silence. Aesthetically and musically the album feels like a direct continuation of Nightfall in Middle-Earth, with similar use of great orchestral effects, an ambitious soundscape and long stretches of melodic guitars on top of deeper distortions as the base work. In addition to being a gifted singer and a unique vocalist, Kürsch excels at storytelling with his lyrics and delivery. This has always been evident to some degree, but with A Night at the Opera the lyrics and song structures in themselves seem to have taken on a more independent life of their own where each arrangement and composition is a story in and of itself.
A Night at the Opera would be the last album with Thomas Stauch behind the drum kit. Seemingly dissatisfied by the direction the band had been taking since Nightfall, he left Blind Guardian after more than 20 years of service. His departure from the band would usher in another era of Blind Guardian, where melody well and truly takes over, and the last shreds of their speed metal origins disappear.
Listen to: Battlefield, The Maiden and the Minstrel Knight, And Then There Was Silence

A Twist in the Myth
2006, Nuclear Blast Records
Blind Guardian's eighth studio album marks what is probably the biggest transformation in the band's history, at least style-wise. Suddenly the Germans found themselves signed to German metal label Nuclear Blast Records, who are well-known by now for releasing the latest trends in heavy metal. And true, A Twist in the Myth - as if the title is a play on the change in style - is an album that seems to pander to the trends of 2006: Clean production, groovy riffs, over the top melodies, epic choruses and even a few electronica synths here and there. Many found it too populist, and too sudden of a departure from their established power-speed metal style from the previous albums.
But even so the majority of the album is rather enjoyable and fun to listen to. Admittedly, it isn't quite as well-written as the preceding records - and there is a lot to live up to. In the end, though, there came to be a few concert-favourites out of it all, including the crowd-pleaser Fly. The new incarnation of the band, now including drummer and percussionist Frederik Ehmke, sounds rejuvenated and use their newfound playfulness to try out new and different things, with varying degrees of success.
Listen to: Fly, Another Stranger Me, Skalds and Shadows

At the Edge of Time, 2010
At the Edge of Time
2010, Nuclear Blast Records
By 2010, four years after the release of A Twist in the Myth, we find the group finally embracing the progressiveness that has long been lurking underneath. They had been hinting more and more to the coming of an album such as this, and with the playfulness of A Twist in the Myth out of the way, they return in full force with this ten track album of majestic proportions. Arguably At the Edge of Time is one of their heaviest albums, and it certainly helps that they juxtapose their top-heavy choirs and orchestrations with gut-churning distortion at the base. At the core, the album is exotic and fresh with its own fair share of great tunes. Nine albums in, Blind Guardian show no signs of tiring or lacking in songwriting capabilities.
Listen to: Tanelorn, Ride Into Obsession, Control the Divine

Beyond the Red Mirror
2015, Nuclear Blast Records
A slow starter, Beyond the Red Mirror - like Somewhere Far Beyond - takes a little while to get into. Though guitars are now a background instrument for the most part, their latest album is not without its heavy tunes and shredding riffs. With Kürsch's vocals still at the forefront, Beyond the Red Mirror unites the band behind a dramatic and colourful veil of cinematic symphony. Held against the classic preceding albums, it doesn't quite hold up, but at the same time its modern, melodic disposition elevates it to its own position among great power metal albums.
It continues the story originally started on the title track from Imaginations from the Other Side and thus extends Blind Guardian's tradition for concept albums. But where previous albums were mostly symphonic courtesy of keyboards, the band's 2015 album also marks the first full album use of an entire orchestra. The credits list is, quite frankly, ridiculous in length, and as such reflects the ambition behind the album. Though it's far from my own favourite, both in contents and style, it does at the same time reveal that the band are by no means done writing engaging music.
Listen to: Sacred Mind, The Holy Grail, Grand Parade

Why do bands change so much over time? With a group like Blind Guardian, it could just be the signs of a band maturing and evolving, both as people but also as musicians and songwriters. Preferences change. While Marcus Siepen co-wrote a good deal of the early music with Blind Guardian, he gradually let Kürsch and Olbrich take over, which, perhaps, could also explain the gradual move from speed metal to a more power metal-oriented sound.
The 90s were a tumultuous decade for metal. Thrash and speed metal had ruled the 80s, but suddenly there was glam, grunge, groove and more extreme styles like death and black metal. Almost the entire German speed metal scene became less abrasive and more focused on melody.

Blind Guardian have never, in my opinion at least, made a truly bad album. Even the 2006 album A Twist in the Myth which garnered less favourable than usual response from fans and critics isn't a complete failure and yet features a few crowd favourites. With bands like Iron Maiden most would agree that maybe Seventh Son or Powerslave are their best albums, but with Blind Guardian naming any definitive 'greatest album' or defining moment for the band is harder. Given the transition over styles from their first to their latest album, they've found a wide audience where everyone has his or her own favourite album. For me, Tales From the Twilight World is their best and most well-rounded album, but Nightfall is my favourite individual track. From exciting speed metal over furious power metal to grandiose metal symphonies, Blind Guardian have stayed consistently good over many years and albums. Hopefully there's still more to come.


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