Saturday, February 7, 2015

Blind Guardian – Beyond The Red Mirror

Blind Guardian is easily one of the most well-respected and appreciated bands in the metal scene, and rightfully so. Somewhere along the way however, something changed in their music. I’m not referring to the move from “Follow The Blind” to “Tales From The Twilight World”, but instead, the shift that happened after “Imaginations From The Other Side”. It was more of an intangible quality they lost, because their music still sounded like Blind Guardian. For that reason, I still buy any Blind Guardian album without question, even if I don’t enjoy the albums as much as the pre-“Nightfall In Middle-Earth” work. This brings us to “Beyond The Red Mirror”. As you may have guessed, it is in line with what Blind Guardian showed us on their last album; however, it is also far superior. “Beyond The Red Mirror” is Blind Guardian’s most inspired work in 2 decades. In fact, upon first listen, this was possibly the most complex album I’d ever heard. After subsequent listens, it is easier to understand just what the band has created here, but it is still an incredibly intricate masterwork that leaves one wondering how they hope to recreate these songs live.

The opening of the album shows that the band is increasing the focus on the symphonics. While this may scare off some, the good news is that every track here still has a monolithic number of riffs, so it never feels like the band is sacrificing riffs to add orchestras. Perhaps more importantly, “The Ninth Wave” shows Blind Guardian’s new propensity to reach unparalleled levels of progressiveness. Sure, there are choruses on this album (and they’re pretty great), but the verses seem like an endless journey, as Hansi and co. seamlessly switch amongst various movements with ease. This is why the choruses are so important though: they keep each song distinct from one another, rather than simply having 65 minutes of verses. The choruses take songs that are incredibly difficult to follow, and add a sense of familiarity to them.

Some songs are easier to digest than others. It is no surprise why Blind Guardian chose “Twilight of the Gods” as the lead single. Every second of this song is incredibly infectious, and that goes well beyond the chorus. This song also shows the band still using their patented style of lead guitars that were incredibly prominent on classic tracks like “Mirror Mirror”. Another highlight is the epic closer “Grand Parade”, which truly is a celebration of “Beyond The Red Mirror’s” bombastic flare. This is the happiest and most upbeat song, but it is an appropriate ending to the album.

Perhaps the best thing about “Beyond The Red Mirror” is Hansi’s vocal performance. Not that the quality of his singing would ever be in doubt, but he really stepped in up here. There are, of course, numerous layers of vocals on every songs. The interplay between Hansi doing lead sections and backing choirs is stellar (and not unlike “And The Story Ends” from 20 years ago). Although I would imagine he doesn’t have the range he used to, it never feels like Hansi is holding back here. Instead, each vocal line is perfectly crafted to the strengths of his voice, and this is a major reason why the lack of linearity on this album is effective. Although each song has an endless number of twists and turns, it works because Hansi is leading the way.

As good as “Beyond The Red Mirror” is, it isn’t perfect. Though it never completely falls apart, the band loses a bit of momentum on the back-to-back lineup of “At The Edge of Time” and “Ashes of Eternity”. Perhaps it is because these songs are bookended by two of the better tracks on the record, but they just don’t seem to have those big choruses that the other songs do. On an album already so over the top, the band probably could have benefitted from dropping these two tracks. Nevertheless, they aren’t out of place on the record, they just aren’t as good as the rest of it. Another possible moment of contention for some would be “Miracle Machine”. This is the only ballad on the album, and this means it lacks the riffs and speed of the rest of the record. With that said, it is incredibly well executed, and its placement on the record is perfect, as it gives you a short break before the incredible ending.

Overall, the 5-year wait for “Beyond the Red Mirror” was worth it. As someone who hasn’t enjoyed Blind Guardian’s recent output as much as their early stuff, this is quite a pleasant surprise. In fact, it takes things I often dislike (progressive music, long albums, and excessive symphonics) and makes every single one of them work. The band isn’t going to sound like they used to, but that isn’t a bad thing. Instead, it’s part of what makes them so good. I’ve never heard a record quite like “Beyond The Red Mirror” before, and I don’t anticipate anyone else creating something similar any time soon.

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"The Ninth Wave"
"Twilight of the Gods"
"The Holy Grail"
"The Throne"
"Grand Parade"

Final Rating
4.7/5 or 94%. 

Written by Scott

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