Sunday, 22 February 2015

Blind Guardian's 'Beyond the Red Mirror' - Album Review

No band is probably more accomplished in the progressive/power metal world than the German band Blind Guardian. Since their debut album, Battalions of Fear in 1988, the band have been getting steadily more epic and over-the-top. Starting out as a bona fide speed metal act, their sound has gradually developed over time, adding more progressive and symphonic sides to their sound as they have gone along. 1995's Imaginations from the Other Side, the band's fifth album, was probably the one where this vision was first fully realised. Previous albums had been steadily growing to reach this point, but it was not until 1995 that Blind Guardian managed to fully meld their speed and progressive metal tendencies together. Future albums, particularly 1998's concept album Nightfall in Middle-Earth, have improved on this sound even further. This year sees the release of the band's tenth album Beyond the Red Mirror. It is another concept album, this time based around themes and characters introduced on Imaginations from the Other Side, making this album a semi sequel to it. It is has been five years since the band's last album, making it the longest gap between albums in their history. 2010's At the Edge of Time is a stunning piece of work, and one of my favourite albums from the band. The long gap between that album and this (even the old adage that Blind Guardian release albums for the World Cup did not ring true this time..) raised expectations immensely, and the band had been dropping hints about it for quite a while. Now it is finally released, I can say that while Beyond the Red Mirror does not quite live up to the splendour of their 2010 effort, it is definitely another great album in their catalogue. Those who like the symphonic side of the band's sound will love this album, as the orchestral arrangements have really been pushed to the fore here.While the heaviness is still present in many of the songs on this album, sound-wise this album is more of a cross between Imaginations from the Other Side and 2006's A Twist in the Myth. The production qualities are more alike to the latter, and the song structures and diversity are more akin to the former. This is also the band's first album with bassist Barend Courbois (Vengeance; Tank) who, although only credited as a guest musician in the album's sleeve notes, seems to have been made an official member of the band since. I wonder how this makes Oliver Holzwarth feel, who played for the band unofficially between 1997 and 2011.

The album is bookended by two epic, longer tracks - the first of which is The Ninth Wave. The gothic choir that heralds the opening of the album sets the tone perfectly and melds well with the orchestra. Real choirs and orchestras were uses during the recording of this album for a more authentic sound. The staccato verses have a dark, almost spoken-work quality to them, with Hansi Kürsch's distinct voice sounding restrained which really helps the atmosphere build up. The gothic nature continues with a slow, doomy riff during the latter stages of the verses, but the soaring chorus smashes this vibe and is trademark Blind Guardian. Kürsch sounds fantastic backed up by the huge choir, and the instrumentation from the rest of the band fits perfectly. This song has grown on me a lot, and the gothic verses actually really help with the overall tone of the album, even if they are not your traditional Bling Guardian sound. This song is set to become a great live set opener! Twilight of the Gods is a much more standard fare for the band. It is nearly half the length of the previous song and is much more riff-based, like Blind Guardian of old. André Olbrich and Marcus Siepen once again prove their worth as a guitar duo, and the speed metal riffing atop Frederik Ehmke's fast drumming immediately creates that classic Blind Guardian sound. Kürsch's vocals shine here, with his usual multi-tracked delivery filling the speakers, his diverse range is apparent. The chorus is another winner, with an anthemic melody that is just begging to be sung by a huge crowd. Olbrich's guitar melodies are also excellent, more soundscape-like than your average solo, they really add to the majestic overall sound. Prophecies is a really stunning piece, and really shows the band at their best. It opens slowly, but the bombastic arrangement is soon apparent as Kürsch's vocals lead the way backed all the way with Olbrich's guitar leads. The way he follows the vocal melodies is something the band have used extensively in the past, and it works so well here. The band's Queen influence is very clear here, and the bold arrangements really bring out the best of the song's melodies. The ending of the song is pure magic, building to an epic crescendo that is literally breathtaking! After those three excellent songs, At the Edge of Time (yes, strange I know!) falls a little flat in comparison. However, it never tries to compete, instead following a darker, more downbeat path with simple, yet dramatic string arrangements and some folky melodies during the quieter moments. This is not a bad song by any means, and repeated listens really reveal the hidden depths within. Ashes of Eternity, like Twilight of the Gods, is a much more traditional Blind Guardian metal piece. The galloping guitar riff is typical of the band's earlier work, but interjections of beautiful melodies from Kürsch bring that sound into the modern day. This is a song for the guitarists too, as Olbrich solos his heart out part of the way through, and his crushing riffs in tandem with Siepen are a lesson in power metal song structure.

After the limited edition bonus track Distant Memories, with it's renaissance melodies, we reach The Holy Grail. The speed metal is back full on here with some tight riffing and furious drumming. Ehmke is a brilliant drummer, but he always seems to get overshadowed by original drummer Thomen Stauch, which is a shame as he has a lot of offer - and this song proves it as he actually co-wrote it! Fans of albums like 1992's Somewhere Far Beyond will find a lot to like in this song, as the progressive elements take a backseat to the powerful speed metal. The pace does not let up at all, even during the soaring chorus. Not many bands are able to make a fast chorus this majestic, but Blind Guardian have been doing it for years. The Queen influences return on The Throne with some almost playfully theatrical vocal melodies that are augmented by some truly over-the-top orchestrations. This song's chorus is ridiculously catchy, with melodies that demand to be sung - and show the power of music when a metal band, an orchestra, and a choir all play together in tandem. At nearly 8 minutes in length, this is another mini-epic to go with the rest of the band's great songs in that category. I can almost imagine the band during the writing process of this song saying things like: 'Yes, this sounds epic, but how can we push it just that little bit further?'. The result is something that is huge, and well fitting the song's name! Sacred Mind is another darker song. The opening is quite subtle with gentle, gothic melodies - but it is not long before the song explodes into another metal ripper with some great off-kilter riffing and flashy lead work. The song's chorus is a bit of a let down though, and lacks the power of the rest of the album. Still, not every song is going to be a winner, and this is the one on the album that does not fully resonate with me, despite some very enjoyable sections. Miracle Machine is the album's shortest song at just over 3 minutes long, and it is a collaboration with their long-time touring keyboardist Michael Schüren, who's piano here is lovely. This is the only moment on the album that can be called a ballad, as this album lacks one of their trademark acoustic songs. Still, the melodies here are still very jaunty in places, which mix well with the more melancholic verses which occasionally feature a lone violin to help the atmosphere. As mentioned earlier, the album is bookended by two epics, and we have reached the final song: Grand Parade. In interviews, Olbrich has said that he thinks this is the best song the band have ever produced, and while I am not sure if I agree with him, it is certainly a statement-piece! The melodies are pushed right to the fore, and the orchestrations are really prominent, giving this song the feeling of the end of a big budget film. The songs moves through many sections, with the orchestral-lead sections actually being some of the best. I feel as if this song is the one where the band's long-time vision has finally been realised 100% - the mix of metal and classical music is seamless here, and it is a real triumph in songwriting and arrangement. Overall, this is a stunning album. While it may not quite reach the heights of a couple of the band's previous releases for me, this is an album that is sure to get lots of plays here over the years. I am sure the band's fanbase will take to it with gusto, and it reminds us (not that we ever need that) that Bling Guardian really are one of the best metal bands out there today.

The album was released on 2nd February 2015 via Nuclear Blast Records. Below is the band's promotional lyric video for Twilight of the Gods.

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