You know, it seems the enjoyment I get from listening to some albums and therefore their rating more or less depends on the expectations I have for them. And the expectations are usually proportional to the quality of the band’s previously released material and also to the gap between releases of the band’s studio efforts. Coincidentally, the German veterans of the epic power metal scene Blind Guardian managed to exactly hit the first spot with extremely satisfying and compelling works like Imaginations from the Other Side, Nightfall in Middle-Earth, A Night at the Opera and more recent At the Edge of Time, which all can be considered the band’s classic records; and over the years their releases had all the bigger gaps between it, changing from three years to a stable four-years-gap schedule since 1998, and now they finally broke it (not in the best way) with their new studio release, Beyond the Red Mirror, which took them nearly five years to create. So as you can already guess, my expectations were pretty much through the roof from the beginning, and when I saw the announcement the album is going to be a concept one, they have just skyrocketed.
But first, let me introduce you to the band in case you’re not familiar with them. Blind Guardian is somewhat a unique force on the power metal scene, it was formed in 1984 under the name Lucifer’s Heritage, and then got renamed in 1988, releasing their first album called Battalion of Fear the same year. At the beginning the bards were playing speed metal mostly, but then slowly but surely transformed their style into heavy / power metal with such classic entries as Somewhere Far Beyond and aforementioned Imaginations on the Other Side. The band officially consists of four people: the instantly recognizable frontman Hansi Kürsch with his distinctive way of singing; André Olbrich and Marcus Siepen on lead and rhythm guitars respectively, both also doing backing vocals; and Frederik Ehmke on drums and woodwinds. There are also some session musicians appearing live and also recording some parts in studio, like Michael Schüren and Mattias Ulmer on keys and piano, and the band’s newest session addition Barend Courbois on bass. Beyond the Red Mirror also features two orchestra from Budapest and Prague, and three different choirs, which is even difficult to imagine. How does this even work? See below!
Well, here’s the thing — the additional orchestra and two more choirs aren’t making any difference, in my opinion. Yes, there are orchestrations and prominent choir usage all the way throughout the album, but that could’ve been easily achieved without additional choirs or orchestras. I won’t say it doesn’t work, but it seems a bit of unnecessary. Anyway though, it was a band’s decision and I respect it. However, this album is dense even for Blind Guardian standards, featuring a lot of multilayered, intricate and complex passages literally impossible to remember on the first few listens; and the most difficult songs to grasp are indeed the most pompous, orchestrated numbers. Due to that, I would advice to spin it on some high-end audio system to get the full experience and be able to distinguish every instrument in the mix.
Like almost every Blind Guardian album save for Imaginations, Beyond the Red Mirror has its highs and lows. While the latter may be just a bit more prominent here, I feel I should start with the positive stuff, and don’t get me wrong, there’s still a lot of it! The most awesome moment of the album is the sequence of The Holy Grail and The Throne. The Holy Grail sounds like a callback to the old-fashioned speed metal oriented Blind Guardian, with the sweeping riffs, pounding drums and intense vocal melodies with the distinctive sing-along parts; I bet this song will be a killer in a live setting. The Throne, on the other hand, is the bards’ epic approach in a nutshell, and the best song on the album to boot. Despite being eight minutes long, this song works just brilliantly, with all the parts flowing seamlessly into each other; the choir and orchestra are used perfectly here, adding to all the grandiloquence but not distracting us from the band’s performance, which is fascinating to say the least, especially the way Hansi’s delivering those lines in the chorus. In my opinion, The Throne has easily the best instrumentation and the best vocal melodies on Beyond the Red Mirror, and may rival the best Blind Guardian songs from their earlier works.
Those two tracks aren’t the only good stuff on the album, there are more, of course. The first single, Twilight of the Gods, is a nice concise metal song with some interesting vocal melodies during the verses; Prophecies is more catchy mid-paced tune with the memorable chorus and the positively outstanding ending I really hope to see live someday; it’s funny how those two can possibly be compared with their counterparts on bards’ previous album, namely Tanelorn (Into the Void) and Road of No Release. And don’t forget about the bonus tracks, which are quite incredible too! I’ve bought an earbook and therefore got two additional tunes to the album, namely Distant Memories and Doom. The former is another moderately paced song with the pronounced medieval epic mood, and the latter lives up to its name, bookending the album with the dark gloomy vibe.
Now, my biggest disappointment with this album was the nature of those long epic opener and closer, The Ninth Wave and The Grand Parade. The band’s previous work had the same approach with Sacred Worlds and Wheel of Time, and I loved both of them; this time the same approach just didn’t work. The Ninth Wave started off promising, with the expected and much appreciated majestic pompous vibe, but the way it got juxtaposed with the weird electric sounds and the happy progressive-rock like chorus that, in my opinion, was totally out of place, kind of diminished my enjoyment of the song. The Grand Parade is a full-blown orchestrated Blind Guardian with those lofty passages and nearly classical sections, yet I feel something is missing here to make the song actually exciting.
The other problem of this album for me is the lack of those fascinating choruses. Blind Guardian always had those grand, memorable moments in every song, and they’re mostly missing on this album. Whether this was a conscious decision or an accidental one, I can’t say, and I’m probably biased towards the more accessible band’s approach, but it turns out my favourite tunes here are the ones where I love the chorus dearly; two bonus tracks have exactly that advantage. And in some cases it’s the opposite, like with Sacred Mind, the verses are quite decent and engaging, but when the chorus with that Xanadu stuff hits, I lose all the interest in the tune.
But don’t let this critique dishearten you! For what it’s worth, I still liked this album despite its somewhat sticking out flaws here and there, and don’t forget it’s all just my opinion, and you may find it a new Blind Guardian masterpiece as some people I personally know did. My advice would be the following: if you’re new to this band, start with something more accessible, like Imaginations from the Other Side or if you want more recent album, go with At the Edge of Time; but if you’re a fan of this band, you definitely should check it out, but be patient and give it a few chances. Let the album sink in. This is not something that you will appreciate on the first listen, but with enough patience the album will unfurl in all its glory before you. Still, unfortunately, with the immense strength of Blind Guardian discography this album probably belongs to the lower part of it. You know, thinking about it, it’s like if you somewhat paraphrase that line from The Throne to get “Determination! Determination! Determination! There must be something in the end!”; at the first listen it may seem this album isn’t appealing in any way, but after a few careful, thorough spins it starts to unveil its hidden gems and secrets to the listener. It’s an interesting and somewhat enthralling experience, I think.