There’s absolutely no denying the legacy or importance of Blind Guardian in the annals of heavy metal history. This is a band that has been around since 1986, first hitting the landscape with ripping speed metal – German-style – and naturally evolving into one of the most seminal power metal bands by the early 90s (and beyond). Their intricate, epic approach to power metal would become the template for the European style going forward – tight metal riffs enrobed by huge symphonic scores and enhanced by the oh-so-incredible vocals of Hansi Kürsch, and they remain legends in their field.
The band have been working on an orchestral album sans all the metal dressing since 1996, going back to it as and when time and inspiration allowed, and building the music brick-by-melodic-brick like sonic sculptors. Twenty-three years later, the sprawling epic that is ‘Legacy Of The Dark Lands’ is finally completed and unleashed upon the rabid, overly-eager Blind Guardian fanbase, but was it worth the wait?
First off, this is not a metal album in the traditional sense. The Prague Philharmonic Orchestra provide all the music, Kürsch all the sung vocals, and the narrative by folks that have worked with the band before on 1998’s classic ‘Nightfall In Middle-Earth’ album – there is not a single drop of heavy metal in this goblet, outside of the atmosphere. At 75 minutes, it is very much an audio film or, at the very least, a monster soundtrack to a film that has never been made, and it follows a concept saga based in and around the chaos of the Thirty Years’ War. The story is a direct sequel to Markus Heitz’ ‘Die Dunklen Lande’ novel, a bestseller in the fantasy realm, and the author was heavily involved in both the concept and ‘script’ during the making of the record. With this backdrop, the orchestra is there in full force – bombastic and mighty, ecstatic and heroic – yet both tender and mournful when the story calls for it. The production is one of the best heard from the modern Nuclear Blast stable and this is imperative with such a vast sonic undertaking as this – without this meticulous engineering and mastering, there is no way that the full effect of the sound and story could be conveyed with such confidence and heart.
Spoken-word characters on symphonic metal albums quite often tend to be extremely cheesy and unbelievable, but there is a richness and honesty in the work that Douglas Fielding and Normal Eshley have done here; so much so that it ranks up there with performances from epic films like The Lord Of The Rings and Game Of Thrones. With their lines adding the meat to the bones, the listener finds themselves hanging on every word, each monologue and dialogue leading us to and from each grand scene with genuine heart and grit.
And that brings us to Mr Kürsch, the Deutsche air raid siren (all apologies to Bruce Dickinson). Even with all the accolades over the years, he is still one of the most underrated and overlooked singers in heavy metal history, and a consummate artist and musician. His vocal work on this album goes above and beyond anything he has attempted to accomplish before, doing three different takes for each song, from a straightforward power metal attack to a very specific classical approach. Within that, he went through reams of lyrics to suit the final vocal and ensure that both the message and the delivery worked as a harmonious whole. The final product is breathtaking in scope, the voice infused with a rich timbre that can roar out of the speakers and soar to the clouds, and then float effortlessly down to the gentlest and most tender of moments. In a perfect world, the man would be winning awards for his performance here, but it’s kind of nice to keep him all to our metal selves.
With all of this in mind, will it speak to the Blind Guardian fans? On many levels, absolutely – this is essentially the album that the band was born to make, and it works on such a sublime epic soundtrack level that most of the fans eagerly enjoy anyway. But for some, the lack of the pounding thunder of guitars, bass, and drums might be an enormous elephant in the room, a detraction so prominent that will cause the record to become a lesser entity in their eyes. Either way, few could argue that Blind Guardian have produced a work so rich and splendid, and with a vision so out of the usual metal box, that they deserve every accolade possible. It is an absolute gem.