Review: Blind Guardian – Beyond the Red Mirror

If Blind Guardian are not by now regarded with the sort of reverence generated by Metallica or Iron Maiden, it is a crime against heavy metal. Formed slightly before I was born, they might be the longest tenured band in existence that still carry extraordinarily high expectations. No one realistically expects a band to stay at the peak of their inspiration for thirty years, but Blind Guardian are the exception. They’ve never shown their age or wavered towards mediocrity. Does Beyond the Red Mirror keeps that tradition running strong?

“Yes” is the short answer. A thousand times “yes”, and only a fool would deny it. But when you’re talking about a band that released the unequivocal greatest power metal album of all time, there is still plenty of room for discussion.

Blind Guardian pulled off a pretty tough transition in 2002. They followed up Nightfall in Middle-Earth (1998), their magnum opus by nearly everyone’s measure, with a relatively significant change in style. A move like that has spelled disaster for many great bands, but when Blind Guardian traded in an edgier, crisper production for smooth and seamless symphonic beauty on A Night at the Opera (2002), it totally worked. Their next two albums continued in that direction, and I never had the slightest cause to question it. While A Twist in the Myth (2006) ranks relatively low in their discography for me, that resulted from what I felt was a bit of lackluster songwriting–not pervasive, but present enough to leave the album somewhat diminished in the shadow of its two groundbreaking predecessors. At the Edge of Time (2010) was a grand return to form, definitively proving that this band would not suffer a slow decline as the years caught up to them.

Beyond the Red Mirror opens up with a lot less steam than “Sacred Worlds” lent to At the Edge of Time. The first track, “The Ninth Wave”, kicks off with a pretty typical epic introduction, complete with a professional choir and orchestra, but it’s the sort of sound that really hinges on what will follow. We’re used to a sort of constant rise from symphonics into metal, but “The Ninth Wave” is far more brooding at the outset. “Underwhelming” might be the right word for any other band, and nothing about the lead in really grabs me, but let’s not forget what band this is. I feel pretty neutral–not negative–about the album until the first chorus kicks off. And when that point is reached–“Sail on till you reach the promised land. We all drown in the fifth dimension. The ninth wave.“–you get this big dump of pent-up anticipation that you never knew you had. The five year wait is over. Beyond the Red Mirror is here, and the chorus carries all the grandeur you knew would be coming. It feels so complete and full, so Blind Guardian to the core, that the introduction isn’t sour in retrospect. Instead, the slow motion into glory lets the album creep into you. One second you’re waiting for something to happen, the next you’re in love, and they don’t have to resort to anything jarring or sudden to create the effect.

“Prophecies”, “At the Edge of Time”, and “Grand Parade” follow this trend of paced execution, keeping you wrapped in the warm vibe that is Blind Guardian’s sound while ebbing and flowing along. Not out of place on A Night at the Opera, these four tracks suit the album’s production well and deliver without any misgivings.

“Miracle Machine” serves as the album’s only ballad, and the other five tracks… they’re pleasantly not what I expected. For all the big name orchestras involved in recording Beyond the Red Mirror, Blind Guardian actually get pretty old-school. “Ashes of Eternity”, for instance, is heavily driven by rhythm guitar, and André Olbrich’s tasty solo near the middle is cast far more in the spotlight than it might have been on previous albums. “The Holy Grail”, “Sacred Mind”, and “Twilight of the Gods” follow a similar pattern, while “The Throne” exists somewhere in between. My initial reaction to these songs was not entirely positive, but they’ve almost all grown on me over time. They make for an interesting perspective on Blind Guardian’s career. Hansi Kürsch’s gorgeous vocals still feel fairly well rooted in the A Night at the Opera sound, but Marcus Siepen and André Olbrich are bringing back a lot of the band’s more classic power metal sound. With Hansi still largely dominating the choruses and rhythm and lead guitar being more focal in between, the songs take on a novel sort of vibe that feels like quintessential Blind Guardian but does not point directly to any one previous era in the band’s illustrious history.

I definitely dig it, yet I don’t feel like Beyond the Red Mirror will leave quite the lasting impact on me that Nightfall in Middle-Earth, A Night at the Opera, and At the Edge of Time did. The problem, aside from the lack of a really stand-out ‘bard’ track–“Miracle Machine” is nice but has none of the sing-along appeal of say, “Curse My Name” or “Skalds and Shadows”–lies in the production. I can’t help but feel like Olbrich and especially Siepen are getting the short end of the stick throughout. Like the three albums before it, Beyond the Red Mirror sacrifices a lot of crispness to encompass the massive volume of vocals and orchestration. That worked really well before, but here I just don’t know. Lead and rhythm guitar alike rang with crystal clarity on Nightfall in Middle-Earth, and that was a major part of what made the album perfect. If guitar is to play a more central role again, it would be nice if I could properly hear it. My one beef with Beyond the Red Mirror is that, while the band continues to evolve in positive ways, their producer may be failing to keep up.

I think that’s a big issue. This album is awesome, but I would love it so much more if they’d filled the symphonic void with louder, crisper guitar. That goes for about half of the tracks. I just sometimes feel like a few modest tweaks would have made them better. I’m looking forward to seeing some quality live videos of these songs pop up on Youtube, because I think a live venue may do them better justice. For now, Beyond the Red Mirror earns entry into my Blind Guardian playlist with ease, but I’ll not be revisiting it quite so often as Nightfall, Night at the Opera, or Edge of Time.

If you want another song to check out, I think “Prophecies” is my favorite. “The Ninth Wave”, “Ashes of Eternity”, and “Grand Parade” come close.

Song of the Day: Valkyries (by Blind Guardian)

In honor of Ragnarök, here’s a blast from the past in celebration.

Through the Shattered Lens

This pick for song of the day marks the fifth time the “Bards” from Germany has made an appearance. This song marks the third track to be chosen from their latest album, At The Edge of Time. To say that I am a fan of Blind Guardian would be just a tad bit of an understatement.

“Valkyries” is the latest song of the day and it’s Blind Guardian at their most progressive metal. As a band they’ve grown from a German speed and thrash metal band then became one of the progenitors of the power metal subgenre. For the past dozen or so years they’ve evolved their sound to incorporate progressive, melodic, symphonic and orchestral stylings to their basic power metal sound.

This song has lead bard Hansi Kürsch writing about Norse mythology, specifically the concept of the Valkyries who fly and roam above the battlefield to take those…

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Song of the Day: Mirror, Mirror (by Blind Guardian)


The latest “Song of the Day” comes courtesy of one of my favorite bands. Anyone who has been following this site and this recurring feature pretty much knows I speak of the awesome epicness of the German power metal band Blind Guardian. The song from their expansive discography I’ve chosen this time around is the song “Mirror, Mirror”.

This song combines two every epic things together: Power Metal + J.R.R. Tolkien’s Silmarillion = epic awesomeness.

The song itself and it’s lyrics tell of Turgon, King of the Noldor and second son of Fingolfin, brother to Fingon, Aredhel and Argon who builds the famed city of Gondolin during the First Age of Middle-Earth. The city was to be a safe haven for Turgon’s people who were in the midst of an age long war against the fallen Valar, Morgoth. It’s a song that tells of Turgon’s decision to build the city with assistance from the Valar and Lord of Water, Ulmo.

It speaks of the long road and desperation of Turgon to try and save the Noldor from the armies of Morgoth. It’s a tragic tale that hints at the ultimate fate of Turgon and Gondolin. A dream that ultimately will end in the ultimate betrayal from within.

I know that there are people who still thinks that metal is all about fast, loud, discordant guitar playing backed up by screaming and guttural sounds that pass off as singing, but Blind Guardian should dismiss such notion. There’s definitely nothing guttural about this song.

Mirror, Mirror

Far, far beyond the island
We dwelt in shades of twilight
Through dread and weary days
Through grief and endless pain

It lies unknown
The land of mine
A hidden gate
To save us from the shadow fall
The lord of water spoke
In the silence
Words of wisdom
I’ve seen the end of all
Be aware the storm gets closer

Mirror Mirror on the wall
True hope lies beyond the coast
You’re a damned kind can’t you see
That the winds will change
Mirror Mirror on the wall
True hope lies beyond the coast
You’re a damned kind can’t you see
That tomorrows bears insanity

Gone’s the wisdom
Of a thousand years
A world in fire and chains and fear
Leads me to a place so far
Deep down it lies my secret vision
I better keep it safe

Shall I leave my friends alone
Hidden in my twilight hall
(I) know the world is lost in fire
Sure there is no way to turn it
Back to the old days
Of bliss and cheerful laughter
We’re lost in barren lands
Caught in the running flames
How shall we leave the lost road
Time’s getting short so follow me
A leader’s task so clearly
To find a path out of the dark

Mirror Mirror on the wall
True hope lies beyond the coast
You’re a damned kind can’t you see
That the winds will change
Mirror Mirror on the wall
True hope lies beyond the coast
You’re a damned kind can’t you see
That the winds will change

Even though
The storm calmed down
The bitter end
Is just a matter of time

Shall we dare the dragon
Merciless he’s poisoning our hearts
Our hearts

How shall we leave the lost road
Time’s getting short so follow me
A leader’s task so clearly
To find a path out of the dark

October Music Series: Смута – Ворон

From the sweeping, epic introduction to the wild guitar solos falling somewhere between power metal and melodic death, Ворон (Voron) is one of those songs that struck me like a brick the very first time I heard it. Смута (Smuta) are yet another band out of Russia, hailing from Rybinsk in Yaroslavl Oblast. I don’t know much about the band, and I’ve been too hopelessly distanced from anything but my (relatively) mainstream folk metal connections to keep up with them lately, but their 2007 debut full-length, Смута Крови (Smuta Krovi), was a surprisingly well-informed album for a band that doesn’t appear to have any connections to the bigger names of the genre.

The death metal vocals are the only consistent factor throughout the album, with musical themes that incorporate Finntroll-esque folk metal, Pagan Reign/Твердь-styled Slavic pagan metal, some power metal and melodic death guitars, and a uniquely tame approach to black metal. It’s got nothing on Falconer’s Armod for perfecting a merger of the myriad metal subgenres, but it’s a worthy effort, and it grants them a unique sound which, with better production and a little more edge, could evolve into something really amazing. They’ve released two albums since Smuta Krovi that I’ve yet to hear, and revisiting the band here has certainly peaked my curiosity.

Voron is definitely the stand-out track of the album, and the intro says it all. It’s the one track in which their lack of an edge can definitely count as a good thing. The brief opening segment is enough to give a solid fantasy essence to a song that really doesn’t fit that bill beyond the thirty second mark, placing it in the odd context of bearing sort of formal, almost royal imagery that you can somehow pull off your best air guitar imitation to.

October Music Series: Tuatha de Danann – The Dance of the Little Ones

“Tuatha Dé Danann” refers to mythological pre-Christian inhabitants of Ireland, and contestedly translates as “peoples of the goddess Danu”. If an entirely appropriate name for an Irish folk metal band, what makes Tuatha de Danann especially odd is that they hail from Varginha, Brazil. The band can, moreover, claim to be one of the earliest-formed acts to perform folk metal, dating back to 1995 (though they quite recently broke up.)

Tuatha de Danann are fundamentally power metal–the definitive metal genre of Central and Southern America (I was in Costa Rica when Iron Maiden played there in 2009 and you’d have thought it was a national holiday). I’ve never been a big power metal enthusiast, so I never had much of a desire to explore Tuatha de Danann’s albums further, but the opening track to Tingaralatingadun, released in 2001, does a delightful (and historically, exceptionally early) job of flawlessly merging power and folk metal in a manner somewhat similar to Elvenking during their finer years. It is a bit more earthy than Elvenking, much to its advantage, and the effect of the constant guitar solo doodling, whistle, and generally airy production creates a lighthearted, mischievous vibe that I would describe as more fantasy than folk–or at least, it invokes a more fairytale superstition of early morning magic. Follow these guys into a cave and you might find a few hundred years have passed on your way back out.

The biggest selling point for me in this song is the tone of the whistle. I cannot sufficiently emphasize my love for whistles. There is no instrument I enjoy more, either to listen to or to play (banjos get a close second, though I’d be kidding myself if I claimed I could play one). “The Dance of the Little Ones” is especially successful in generating a sort of ‘through the fog’ whistle tone which I’ve heard employed by such diverse musicians as Belarusian folk band Stary Olsa (Стары Ольса) and Japanese video game composer Miki Higashino, and which I desperately wish I knew how to reproduce.