Review by Rick Ossian
Progressive rock. Symphonic rock. Classic(al) rock. Prog metal. These are all terms that you may have heard before. They are the beasties that many choose not to acknowledge or speak of, the elephant in the room in a way. However, when it comes to Krefeld, Germany‘s progressive heroes Blind Guardian, I feel comfortable using the ‘p’ word! In some ways they defy description. Not many bands exhibit their passion so plainly, so powerfully as these gentlemen do. Unless I miscounted, this is album #14 for these fellows, and they have been gracing us with their wares since 1988. So, in three years, they will have been recording for 30! Of course, on further investigation, one discovers that two demos were recorded in 85 and 86, not to mention their first band name – Lucifer’s Heritage! Evidently like-minded prog warriors Fates Warning inspired the name change. Who knew?
Blind Guardian are Hansi Kursch (vocals), Andre Olbrich and Marcus Siepen (guitars), and Frederik Ehmke (drums). They signed with Nuclear Blast in 2005. From what I’ve managed to discern thus far, they lean heavily in the symphonic direction, as mentioned above. In fact, in an interview I watched just yesterday they were discussing the use of a string section on their latest work. If you listen close you can hear violins, violas, cellos, etc., in the background. We’ve all experienced this phenomena before; however, in the case of the band at hand, it fits like it would in a proper song. There are many moments here where I was absolutely transfixed by the majesty of the musical arrangements. Some of the songs even needed multiple airings/hearings to ultimately satisfy my musical needs!
There are two BIG, epic numbers on Beyond the Red Mirror: the opener, The 9th Wave, and the closing piece, Grand Parade. Both are nine minutes plus. In fact, both tunes are almost exactly the same length. So what are we doing bringing attention to two nine-and-a-half minute tunes? The reason why is because the formula seems a bit repetitive, and I guess I’m just being a bit critical. Unfortunately, this is music that I find very difficult being critical about. There is a bias here, a prejudice even, because I ADORE progressive metal – especially the heavier, darker stuff (Fates Warning, Dream Theater, etc.), so I would be listening still even if these numbers were twice or three times their intended length.
If you’re looking for comparisons, then I believe I can provide a few. In addition to the groups mentioned above, I was also reminded of Savatage and/or Trans-Siberian Orchestra on several occasions. Those of you who are fans of these folks will recognize what I’m talking about almost immediately, particularly in the track Twilight of the Gods. This track features Yngwie-calibre lead playing, not to mention plenty of powerful vocals and slamming drums. There are also guitar solos, albeit brief ones. They merely add to the heavenly mix on board. The choruses are filled with bright, angelic voice(s), and bring to mind all manner of (mostly Swedish) other symphonic, proggy outfits. I caught myself air drumming trying to keep up with Frederik on numerous occasions!
Prophecies is chock-full of more of the same, stupendous vocals, a veritable extravaganza of pounding instrumentation, and even a melodic guitar solo (3:00). I began to wonder if we were dealing with Christians here (‘We shall overcome/The king will come/Once upon a dream ago’). I suppose it matters not. My religious suspicions aside, there is some serious jamming going on here, with plenty of double-bass drum slamming and LOTS of vocal prowess.
At the Edge of Time is a 7-minute leviathan with a mysterious intro, and everything including the kitchen sink is thrown into this one (is that bells I hear?). There are also violins and possibly other stringed classical instruments involved. The words atmospheric and dynamic also came to mind when faced with possible words to describe the ‘mood’ of the intense jamming on display. We close, lyrically at least, with a neat, if not pompous, phrase; ‘That’s when the ancient gods return!’ So, perhaps NOT Christian, or maybe just excited about writing songs about various deities..?
Ashes of Eternity is in full-on go attack mode, featuring a Maiden-esque gallop (1:25), some heavy hard riffing throughout, a lengthy guitar solo that shreds everything in its immediate vicinity for about 45 seconds, and at the end we are reminded that ‘the saints come marching in‘. Isn’t that phrase part of another song? Yes, of course, I am playing devil’s advocate, and you would be correct in accusing me of being facetious. Again, just try to keep up with the drummer if you dare!
The Holy Grail is a six-minute monster that is extremely heavy at the outset, and the vocals come on very powerfully again. There is a guitar duel going on (1:45), and a couple of lead guitar solos (2:00 and 3:25). There is lots of guitar and bass and drums here to revel in, as well as the vocal prowess mentioned above.
The Throne is another 8-minute epic piece about the guy who sits on it (king):’The king will come/it’s over/Give us shelter from the storm’. I was expressly reminded of TSO again on this number, and hence Savatage as well. There is an excellent little jam about 4 minutes in, and a couple of nice guitar solos as well. This is sweeping and grandiose, stately prog at its finest.
Sacred Mind begins life with some weird synth-style riffing and beautifully bright vocals. There is also a heavy duty double bass drum attack (busy drummer alert!), double slam (2:55), another wicked lead guitar solo (from about 3:55 til 4:40!!), and some speed-shifting, if you will. The guitar section is more of a duel than anything else; it is also a melodic, complex, compelling duel. If you are a guitar fan, you most likely will enjoy this piece.
Then we come to Miracle Machine, a short (3 minutes), beautifully plaintive ballad featuring only vocals and piano at first, then some light string action about half-way in. It is bizarre in its lack of length, for one; also in its musical attitude, if you will. It is the only ballad on the record, and I don’t recall hearing any bass or drums, either. If you like this type of tune, then that is fine, but, unfortunately for you, it is the only one of its ilk contained herein. Everything else is balls-to-the-wall progressive/symphonic madness!