Tuesday, February 3, 2015

album review: 'beyond the red mirror' by blind guardian

I've said before that it's hard to talk about legends, especially as a critic and especially when you know these bands had a seminal impact on shaping their genre. But do you want to know what's even harder? Talking critically about musical acts that were so formative to my musical evolution that I couldn't imagine being a music critic without hearing this band, who I first discovered online in the mid-2000s on clunky fantasy fansites as making music to a favourite novel series I was reading at the time. At the time I was a teenager absorbed in the Dragonlance series of novels, and I discovered that at the time, two metal bands actually wrote songs surrounding some of the characters from those stories. I'll talk about the second band in a month or two, but the first... Now keep in mind at this point I pretty much only listened to pop, hip-hop, and country, with limited exposure to rock and pretty much no metal. And I had never gone through an 'angry white boy' phase, I had no reason to listen to nu-metal or metalcore or even much punk, but I was curious.

The song was called 'The Soulforged', the album was A Night At The Opera, and the band was Blind Guardian. It might have taken three or four listens, but I was hooked - and from there, I started listening to power metal and symphonic metal. The folk tinges pushed towards fantasy-themed acts like Blackmore's Night which led me to Deep Purple and hard rock and blues, and the explosive, fast-paced chugging riffs pushed me towards the greats of thrash metal and punk. The rest is history, but I can say this definitively - if it wasn't for Blind Guardian, I probably wouldn't have this channel today. 

And thus revisiting the band is a little daunting for me, half because of their reputation and half because I know so much of their music by heart. Hailing from Germany, they started out as a speed metal band in the mid-80s before transitioning into a more epic, fantasy-inspired scope with Tales From The Twilight World in 1990. Plenty of fans hail the Tolkien-inspired Nightfall In Middle-Earth as their seminal work from the 90s, but for me it's always been Imaginations From The Other Side - the perfect blend of their speed metal roots and the folk-inspired power metal they would evolve into, and a damn classic, at least for me. And that evolution reached its apex with 2002's A Night At The Opera, a title that matched the overblown Queen-like bombast of its sound that features some of my favourite Blind Guardian songs like 'The Soulforged', 'Battlefield', 'Sadly Sings Destiny', and of course the gargantuan fourteen minute 'And Then There Was Silence'. But the record really is indulgent, and a lot more uneven than one might expect. It was enough that their drummer Thomas Staunch left the band, dissatisfied by the change in direction for the band.

And by all reckoning, he might have spoken too soon, because Blind Guardian changed again in 2006 with A Twist In The Myth, with less over-the-top bombast and more for a straightforward, hard-hitting thrash feel. And not only was the production stronger, the drumming of Frederik Ehmke was more intricate, varied, and wasn't as reliant on triggers for drum fills, which I definitely preferred. It didn't always hit the high points of A Night At The Opera, but I'd argue it was more consistent and a lot tighter. Unfortunately, that didn't really carry over into their 2010 album At The Edge Of Time, which... yeah, it wasn't bad, but that tightness wasn't there, which meant the album had a lot of pomp and bombast, but not quite the great songs to really stick the landing for me.

But now, five years later, Blind Guardian are back, with Beyond The Red Mirror, an album that was being hailed as a sequel to Imaginations From The Other Side, my favourite Blind Guardian record. And let's be honest, it's been twenty years from that album, and if you're planning to make a sequel to one of the best power metal albums ever made, you had better do it justice? I have to admit, I was worried - did Blind Guardian pull it off?

Well, a few things become important before we get to that conversation, namely that the Blind Guardian that made Imaginations From The Other Side is a very different band than the one that made Beyond The Red Mirror. But make no mistake, there's a lot of ambition and stabs at grandeur on this record, and for the most part, they really do manage to stick the landing in one of their strongest records since A Twist In The Myth, balancing their progressive and symphonic sides with the ability to craft a really strong melodic hook. As for the concept... well, we'll get to it, but if you're a fan of symphonic-flavoured power metal, Beyond The Red Mirror does not disappoint, not in the slightest.

So the best place to start would be in the production and instrumentation - and really, to some extent if you've been listening to Blind Guardian in any way for the past couple decades, you'll recognize their sound. Andre Olbrich still has a knack for killer melody lines, Marcus Siepen's rhythm guitars bring together some great chugging grooves, and the addition of full-time bassist Barend Courbois adds some significant meaty crunch which I definitely liked, especially considering the much greater symphonic touches in the usage of three distinctive backing choirs and orchestras, one from Budapest, one from Prague, and one from Boston. And I must give some serious credit to Frederik Ehmke's drumwork, which always manages to surprise me with some layered and starkly progressive patterns that really stand out. And they really step up to deliver stellar moments - the glitchier industrial fragments and horns on 'The Ninth Wave', that fantastic drum progression on 'Twilight Of The Gods', the eerie twinkle of 'At The Edge Of Time' that leads into one of the best hooks of the album and easily outstrips the majority of the album that shares its title, the fiery cascade of a guitar solo on 'Ashes Of Eternity' the leads the clattering chorus, the fantastic soaring melodic interplay on the bonus track 'Distant Memories' - one of the softer songs in terms of the groove but still superb - the skittering panic of 'The Throne', and the biggest surprise, the Queen-like piano ballad 'Miracle Machine' that actually turns out to be one of the most understated and gorgeous tracks Blind Guardian have ever made. And of course Hansi Kursch is impressive - the man has one of the most potent and expressive voices in power metal, and his usage of plenty of overdubs only accentuates that huge presence, and it's a natural fit for dimension crossing, epic journeys like the one described on this album. If I were to have one nitpick when it comes to the vocals, it'd be in the production and delivery - I do miss some of the more visceral howls that came from Blind Guardian's speed metal days, and whether this could have been achieved through turning up the vocals a little bit or Hansi Kursch delivering a little more fire, I do think they could have been a little better.

This inevitably takes us to the lyrics, and let me try to describe the plot of this album the best I can. Following off of Imaginations From The Other Side, the mirrors that once bridged the gaps between the world of science fiction - clearly a metaphor for our world - and the world of fantasy and imagination have been shattered one by one by both worlds taking a turn for the worse. The sci-fi world is falling into dystopian ruin, and the fantasy world appears to be dominated by devilish powers as the old gods have gone to sleep. As such, the loosely sketched protagonist must find the last remaining mirror, bridge the gap, and somehow manage to find the truth and save both worlds through the discovery of the Holy Grail. Now let's make this clear - Blind Guardian are playing fast and loose with classical iconography, this is not so much the clearly defined storytelling of Ayreon but more a tale that works in metaphor and a lot of broad symbolism. As such, following the actual "plot" of this story, especially considering Hansi Kursch is playing all the characters, can be difficult at best. Now to be fair, this is power metal - if the storyline isn't convoluted and hyperbolic, simultaneously underwritten in terms of plot and yet overwritten in terms of detail, they wouldn't be in this genre.

But there are thematic elements that can be traced together if you go deeper. For one, the returning protagonist seems to begin the story as a soldier for destroying that old order in the sci-fi world, taking a brand of militant atheism to annihilate the old gods and their ways, and while he can't quite destroy them, he can break the gates to their world, even despite apocryphal prophecies foretelling their return. And yet when he reaches the Red Mirror, the last gate, he is confronted with the horrible destruction he's wrought, and stricken with guilt, he wanders through the red door to find some form of solace, a grail that might redeem him. And of course he finds it and tries to send it back, first trying to defeat the dark tyrant that rules the fantasy world - and yet the tyrant retorts that said salvation our protagonist is trying to bring to his world might be going to the wrong hands. And in the next song, it is, as they surge through the Red Mirror with a zealotry that can only be described as religious. And thus our hero uses the Grail, a symbol of magic and faith, wrought with the machinery to seal that final gate, define a new truth, and create a path of enlightened reason, with only a fragment of hope and belief in the otherworldly to come, one more 'lie' that he knows is really all the more true.

So what does it mean? Well, on the broadest level, it's a screed against religious fanaticism, the servants of the 'fire' who will blindly destroy everything in their wake without reason - and how those who think they serve to enlighten humanity by bringing a new way can often be just as deluded and only replace one set of old gods with another - not a new concept, considering the Warhammer 40,000 Horus Heresy series has near-identical themes, but still well executed. In this case, Blind Guardian casts the sci-fi gods under the vein of Scientology on 'Sacred Mind' and isn't afraid to unleash a pretty impressive stream of bile against them in the subtext as the real demons. It's not saying the old strictures were better, but that balanced reason needs to hold sway. And yet if you view the sci-fi world as our own and the fantasy world as the imaginary world where one creates fantasies and beliefs, the metaphor actually grows even further, as 'Grand Parade' shatters the beliefs and yet allows the 'otherworld' to materialize for all, merging the worlds and bringing imagination to all men - and yet leaving one lie behind, the one of what comes after death, that last great mystery.

Now this is an ambitious story - and at the end of the day, I think Blind Guardian does do a good job with it, and I really do love a lot of the concepts. But I can't help but feel it could have been executed a little better - the album definitely could have used an editor to trim back some of Blind Guardian's more indulgent side - but then again, overblown indulgence is half the reason people come to power metal, and they've definitely got the melodic compositions and instrumental prowess to back up their over-the-top sound. So for me... yeah, the streak of great albums continues, because this get an 8/10 from me and definitely a recommendation if you're a fan of this sort of fantasy-inspired power metal. Yeah, it's a little cheesy, but like the best of power metal, I think it earns the right to be called epic. Definitely check this out.

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