Well, it looks like the year is half over and I haven’t written a single review. To get back on track reviewing my favorites (and least favorites) of the year so far I’ll start with an album from a very special band for me: Blind Guardian.
German power metal band Blind Guardian was once described by a reviewer as “A consistently great band from a consistently s****y genre” and the power metal subgenre has indeed experienced its share of mockery and ridicule. The genre’s triumphant (if not overblown) melodies and Viking chant choruses combined with an almost exclusive predilection with Tolkein-esque lyrical topics amount to many metalheads as a heaping mound of hot, melted cheese too gross to approach. The genre doesn’t get nearly as much respect as other forms of metal like thrash and death, and hell, even black metal receives (slightly) less hate despite the church-burning and national socialist stigmas the genre possesses. Metal that is so bright and, dare I say, happy and uplifting is bound not to sit well with many crusty metalheads.
Thank Gandalf, then, for Blind Guardian. Although the power metal genre is very easy to laugh at, one has to appreciate the complete artistic sincerity displayed by this band. Without playing a shred of music that follows anything trendy in modern metal – and without sounding “modern” at all – the band stays true to crafting the most grandiose and fantastical metal around without any gimmicks nor a single hint of pretense or post-irony, and because of that the band should be applauded. Beginning as more of a speed metal band in the late ‘80s, Blind Guardian gradually began subtracting the blazing tempos with each release while injecting more and more symphonic elements, and with their latest album Beyond the Red Mirror they put on display more symphonic fireworks than ever before.
This album was hyped as a sort of spiritual successor to their 1995 album Imaginations from the Other Side, often considered the band’s masterwork by fans. Musically, however, there is no resemblance to that record at all. As was the case with their last record At the Edge of Time, Blind Guardian employs a choir and symphony orchestra to play on many of the tracks here to craft their most grandiose and bombastic record yet, and while Imaginations was indeed a bombastic listening experience there wasn’t anything close to full orchestration and many of the speed metal tendencies were still intact. Here, up-tempo tracks give a nod to the band’s early days but sound significantly more polished and sophisticated than the crash-and-bash thrashing of the ‘80s. Many of the band’s trademarks like powerful group vocals, soaring melodies, intricate guitar leads that take great influence from Queen’s Brian May and more are kept intact but with even greater competence and finesse than ever, leading to one of the best records in this band’s consistently excellent discography. With an impressive upward momentum and a steadily increasing focus on full orchestration, Blind Guardian’s future is as bright and exciting as any of their best fist-pumping choruses.
Unfortunately, one big issue to be had with this record is the production. The record as a whole sounds quite dark and almost muffled at times which is very bad for bright symphonic music, and the drums in particular sound like a blanket was placed over them which muffles what would have been a wonderful performance. The symphony orchestra appearances also sound a bit buried in the mix as well, especially compared to how excellently these segments sounded on their last record. Hopefully the band’s next offering features production values that are just as shimmering and radiant as its music.
Blind Guardian shows us once again that they are nothing but the truest and most unabashedly sincere band in metal today. Rebuking all trends and conventions of modern metal music they continue to sound like the Knights of the Round Table formed a metal band and they haven’t once tried to be anything else. For those who point and laugh at artists like Rhapsody of Fire and Manowar, this record may not be the one to convert those skeptics, but fans who crave honest to goodness metal with just the right amount of cheese and bombast should look no further than Beyond the Red Mirror.