Blind Guardian – At the Edge of Time

Over their lengthy history, the German metal juggernaut Blind Guardian has progressed through speed metal, power metal, and progressive-power, with a notable symphonic overtone. Because of this, fans fall into three loose groups, each ardently arguing that their view is superior. 1.) Those who love the old-school ‘80s speedy/thrashy albums, through Imaginations From the Other Side or so. 2.) Those who love Nightfall in Middle Earth and consider it the pinnacle of the band’s career. 3.) Those who love A Night at the Opera and the later albums, the ones with more orchestrations and progressive-metal vibes and less of the speed metal assault.

To get my views out-of-the-way… Nightfall is the best album of their career, and one of the best albums in metal history, and anyone who says otherwise is some kind of basement-dwelling Mongoloid failing to troll properly. At the same time, I was introduced shortly after Night at the Opera was released, and consider it my favorite, even though it is loaded with flaws (the first half of the album is cloned filler… but good cloned filler). I’ve also got a growing appreciation for the first two albums from the late ‘80s, when ‘80s speed metal was still ‘80s speed metal and didn’t need a “back-to-the-eighties power metal” genre attempting to recapture the old glory of ’80s speed metal. Honestly, I don’t see the point in all the infighting, probably because I like the hateful, hateful Night at the Opera as well as the old stuff newer fans usually fail to acknowledge.

And this July saw the release of their newest album, the ninth for the self-proclaimed bards: At the Edge of Time.

Blind Guardian – At the Edge of Time
Progressive Power Metal
Running Time: 63:58
Release: 30 July 2010
Label: Nuclear Blast
Price: $15.98 ($18.98 for the 2-disc special edition digipack)

Since Nightfall, Blind Guardian’s work has become even more hotly debatable by fans. A Night at the Opera was partly a throwback to old-school artsy rockers Queen and Genesis, both inspirations for the band. The album blended a stronger, experimental prog feel with heavy bombast, and felt inconsistent in terms of structure and feel. Because of this, many consider it a letdown, or at least mildly disappointing, probably because it was such a radical departure from Nightfall. Songs were either innovative or chaotic, depending on your view, and besides Battlefield the first half of the album is a bit carbon-copy.

Next was A Twist in the Myth, another hot-button issue for Guardian fans. The album continued Opera’s strong songwriting and innovative song structures on most tracks, such as Fly and its mirror image Dead Sound of Misery, and the strong rocker Another Stranger Me. But fell flat in other areas, and still suffered from what many considered the ill-effects and prog taint left over from Opera. Overall, it had enough to please every Guardian fanatic out there, while not enough to make it another more than a solid, well-rounded album.

The question is where does Edge of Time fall, considering Blind Guardian’s tendency to build off the feel of the previous album.

The answer: two words. Epic. Bombast.

  1. Sacred Worlds. This would be the theme song to Sacred 2, the CRPG, with some added orchestral bits, mostly for the intro/outro. It sets the stage for the rest of the album, and is pretty clear about this album’s tone: epic bombastic-ness, heavy orchestrations, the meat and potatoes for symphonic metal. Despite its nine-minute-plus length, the song is strong, thanks to a memorable chorus and a surprisingly tight structure. It’s no And Then There Was Silence, but what it lacks in finesse it makes up for in bombast. It could easily be on the trailer for a major film, given the quality orchestrations.
  2. Tanelorn (Into the Void). Yet another song based on Moorcock’s Eternal Champion, this one’s a straightforward stand-up-and-shout rocker, almost dirge-like in the delivery of the chorus. This is one of the best throwbacks to the band’s ‘80s offerings, an aggressive, thrashy track the likes of which haven’t appear on Guardian albums in a while. Between the pounding drums and gallop of the guitars, we get a look at what Blind Guardian would sound like if they’d stuck it out on the thrash/speed metal wagon. I’m rather a big fan of this one.
  3. Road of No Release. Based on an obscure book (The Innkeeper’s Song) written by Peter Beagle, the guy who wrote The Last Unicorn, this track starts off slow, gaining momentum as the orchestrations kick in. It’s a fresher sound for Guardian, a mid-tempo rocker coasting between mournful and aggressive. It ends up being a bit too forgettable for me, which is a shame, since it is a decent track, well-rounded even if it needed a little something to kick it up. It needs more spins for it to truly sink in, and just can’t stand up to the awesome of the first two tracks.
  4. Ride Into Obsession. The first song on the disc based on the Wheel of Time series, this one starts off quick and doesn’t let up, strong, up-tempo, with a blazing guitar assault. This is another one for those who like the more aggressive style of Blind Guardian, but despite catchy riffs and the retro vibe, it doesn’t carry as far as it could. While it scratches the itch for a fast rocker, it feels a bit too much like filler to make it really shine. “Utilitarian Rocker” fits it like a glove.
  5. Curse My Name. Not quite a ballad, but close enough. This is a very light track, emphasizing orchestral/symphonic qualities over blasting sonic assaults, and includes folky things like flutes and violins in lieu of guitars. This sells it surprisingly well: the music is catchy, and the overdubs work wonders with the slow symphonic vibe. I’m not even sure it qualifies as “metal” because it lacks the heavy guitar riffs, but it remains one of the strongest, hardest songs on the album…pretty good for such a slow, mellow song. (“Slow” and “Mellow” comparatively speaking, that is.) This is another song that would fit great in a movie score, for the end credits or something. It’s based on The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates by John Milton, of all things. Totally badass, give it a listen; it’s probably their best “ballad” track since The Maiden and The Minstrel Knight.
  6. Valkyries. Speaking of “utilitarian rocker.” Valkyries lacks the speed and aggressiveness of… well, most of the rest of the album, but isn’t quite mellow or mid-tempo enough to earn those descriptors. Points of the track, heading into and matching the chorus, are almost angelic chord progressions, attempting to rise or uplift the focus towards the titular Valkyries I guess. (If you haven’t noticed by now, the word “titular” rocks.) The ending also slowly fades out, making it somewhat of an odd song: a lighter rocker that packs a bit of a punch in the middle. It’s not good enough to take precedent over most of the rest of the album; overall it’s just bland. Actually, it makes me like Road of No Release a bit more.
  7. Control the Divine. Another mid-tempo song. It happens to be completely well-rounded, meaning if well-rounded mediocrity is what you’re into, you’ll love this song. The song has a lot of energy which just doesn’t transfer to the listener, leaving it empty filler. One of the few that still doesn’t hook me after repeated listens, it’s even more dull than the previous track. The focus is back to Milton; it’s based off Paradise Lost.
  8. War of the Thrones (Piano Version). Probably one of the best intros on the album, a piano opener which reminds me a lot of The Eldar from Nightfall. However, it goes downhill from there. How? The song’s about the Song of Ice and Fire novels by George R.R. Martin, the best damn fantasy series period. (It’s well-written, and has an intricate, interwoven plot; being well-written alone sets it head and shoulders above the entire fantasy genre.) The series is generally a downer: it’s notable because Martin takes the standard writer advice and kills his darlings, in this case his characters, like they’re some particularly invasive species of weeds. The song is a highly uplifting ballad, despite its down-tempo piano sections, with another lifting chorus chanting on for the war of the thrones!!!1! In short, it doesn’t fit: making Martin into a pseudo-ballad was the biggest disappointment of the album. The track is somewhat catchy, but it’s loving inane, relying more on the chorus than on depth or structure. Sigh.
  9. A Voice in the Dark. We’ve gone too long without a strong rocker, and it’s time to cut the slower ballad sections with a hard edge. Speaking of throwbacks to the older Guardian eras, this one is one of the best: it has a strong but creative structure, backed with some great technical proficiency and a slick set of lyrics. In short, the track flows together beautifully. It’s catchy, strong, with a melodic enough chorus that I can see plenty of crowds singing it at concerts. At least we get one good Martin-based track on the album.
  10. Wheel of Time. Ending the album, this has an amazing blend of orchestrations: between it and Sacred Worlds, the band proves it can properly make its signature sound blend well with symphonic/orchestral metal. This track is a blitzing assault of metal prowess backed by impressive orchestral arrangements: it gets orchestral when needed, and keeps a blazing-fast tempo while keeping its orchestral chops in line. Even the slowdown in the middle is great, giving some interesting structure to a song which is already stronger than half the tracks on the CD. This is a fine way to end the album, much as it was a fine way to begin it: with overblown, epic pomp and circumstance. While Wheel of Time might not fit as well on a film score, that’s because it’s much stronger on the metal front.

Probably the main thing to take away from this album is its consistency: even jumping from Sacred Worlds’ symphonic bombast to Tanelorn’s speed assault, the album flows well together, something that Opera and Myth stumbled over at points. On the downside, those albums, and Nightfall, build their strength off of a slew of memorable songs, with their own strengths and structures; multiple memorable songs rather than one album which flowed beautifully. As Edge of Time shows, it can be a blessing and a curse.

At the Edge of Time is a solid album, about half of it the amazing output expected by Blind Guardian, and half blistering mediocrity that’s slowly filling up more and more of their albums. At this point in their life, Blind Guardian seems to have fallen into a rut: there’s a lot of technical prowess on this album. It proves they can pull off some sold symphonic metal with heavy orchestrations. It shows they haven’t lost their speed metal groove in the long, dark days since Somewhere Far Beyond. The resulting album has some strong offerings, but a slew of tracks that feel like the band’s just going through the motions and phoning it in: maybe Valkyries and Control the Divine will grow on me later, but right now they’re filler. And not even catchy filler, like tracks off the two previous albums, just pure crap filler that fulfills everything required to be a Blind Guardian song except “sound good.”

At the end of the day, the album will please Blind Guardian fans and power metal fans in general. It hits all the expectations you’d have of a new Guardian album, and as mentioned above, has a finely crafted feel as a whole. It’s only when you start inspecting the individual pieces do you realize that there were ~16 minutes of track between Curse My Name and A Voice in the Dark that you previously couldn’t account for, and that War of Thrones is one of the worst songs in the Blind Guardian library.

Bonus Review! The $18.98 SE digipack!

With the option to pick up a 2-disc edition, I put my aside loathing of digipacks (those crazy Euros and their digis) and forked over for the special edition. It features eight new tracks, if you count a twenty-minute documentary and the Sacred video as tracks. These tracks include:

  1. Sacred Worlds (pre-production): It still sounds damn good, even before the orchestrations are involved. There’s not a huge amount of difference unless you listen to them back to back, and this version is about two minutes shorter.
  2. Wheel of Time (orchestral version): Now it sounds like a film score, because there’s nothing here but the orchestra and choir. Even more bombastic and epic, though without lyrics it’s not as catchy…but damn if it doesn’t come close. It’s a great track, even if it doesn’t have the same replay value as the standard version.
  3. You’re the Voice (radio edit): This one is an odd change of pace, starting with its electronic introduction. It also features more of raw, non-overdubbed singing, which makes it feel more realistic despite its bizarre arrangements and instruments. It’s catchy, even though it’s nothing like the standard Guardian output…which is probably why it intrigues me. It’s just a John Farham cover, and like all their covers, Guardian goes to town with it.
  4. Following this are demos to Tanelorn, Curse My Name, and A Voice in the Dark; at least the band knew what songs were best, and added demo versions to placate fans. Having these is an interesting comparison to the originals; for the most part, they still rock the hell out, and remain the best tracks on the disc. The Curse My Name demo is pre-orchestration, just acoustic guitars, and is much weaker because of it; it’s a lot closer to Skalds and Shadows off Twist in the Myth, or the staple Bard’s Song, meaning we’ve already seen this done to death by the band. I’m glad they went crazy-innovative with folk on the full version to set it apart, since the song is much stronger because of it.

All told, this adds another thirty-five minutes and change of listening time to the album, though the tracks lack a lot of re-playability found in, say, completed non-demo tracks found on an album. Of course, I could be wrong; surely there is someone out there who enjoys listening to all seven versions of Harvest of Sorrow constantly (eight if you count the version on Live).

The digi also came with a code for accessing special online incentives, which turned out to be wallpapers and another demo. Not that I’d know, because my code doesn’t work; I never heard back from Nuclear Blast customer service so I gave up on that one. Given that the promised “online support” has been next to nothing, and the songs are just “different” (slightly-less-cool) versions of ones you already have,I can’t really recommend the bonus disc digi, unless you’re a huge Guardian fan who loves to collect demos and covers and other random shit. (In which case, you’ve probably already bought it and can formulate your own damn opinions.)

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