Monday, February 4, 2013

Blind Guardian - Nightfall in Middle Earth (1998)

It came as quite a surprise to me that I only own one Blind Guardian CD. Seriously? Why have I not got more by this epic fantasy-esque power metal band?* Maybe it is because, whilst I am a big fan of the genre and the atmosphere of their music, I am not *quite* so fond of Hansi Kursch's voice, which is a little too raw and razor-edged for me.

This album is, you might realise, inspired by the works of JRR Tolkien. Other albums have drawn inspiration from George RR Martin, Michael Moorcock and Robert Jordan. Yes, geeks make the best metal. This band formed in Germany in 1984 as Lucifer's Heritage, later changing part of their line-up and their name, in 1987 to become the band we know today.

Whilst larger based around the guitars and drums of Speed metal, this album also marks the first where they started to incorporate classical instruments and arrangements in their melodies - and to great improvement of power. They also make use of folk tunes and instruments to enhance the fantastical nature of their music.

The track listing for this CD - 22 tracks - looks very impressive, but somewhat less so when you realise that a significant proportion of them are less than a minute in duration and a mainly bits of dialogue between the tracks. This makes the album work better as a coherant whole, instead of my usual habit of dumping it on my computer playlist and setting it to random. Thus I imagine I shall learn a lot from my dissection of this album track-by-track.

This CD is based on the Silmarillion. Which I haven't read. So, I am afraid that this track dissection may not be quite as informative as you might like. Also, with 11 of the tracks being short excerpts (taken from the actual book), I shall not be devoting a single paragraph to every track.

First, however, let us examine the fine packaging. For, the cover is richly illustrated by Andreas Marschell and decpits a dark lord (Morgoth) sitting atop a throne, surrounded by goblins (or orcs?) whist a ghostly elf (Luthien) dances before him and a smallish wof snarls at her. It certainly captures the dark fantasy vibes well, however. Inside, the lyrics, plus five passages that relate to the general plot of the album.

If you are curious - Wikipedia has the full track/plot dissection:

Appropriately, the album opens with a battle - a "War of Wrath" - and a defeat. This ominous intro leads us into the rather aggressive (and slightly demanding) "Into the Storm"..
"Give it to me, I must have it. Precious treasure. I deserve it."
 The screaming demonic vocals of "Lammoth" bring us into the rather more melodic "Nightfall", in which Hansi's voice is really rather sweet. This changes quickly into a raspy scream, but is worth enjoying while it lasts.

What rather bugs me with the lyric sheet is the insistence on placing a space before the contraction apostrophes - "hope 's..."  My inner editor does not like it.

Some of the lyrics are kind of funny:
"Like sorrowful seaguls [sic] they sang..."
The chorus is easily the best bit of this song.

The little folk ditty, "The Minstrel" is like (very brief) music to my ears, until we are hit by the fury that is "The Curse of Feanor", with its angry vocals and aggressive pounding rhythms, rolling into the frenzied, frantic verses and into the (somewhat) melodic chorus.

Then, someone is "Captured" and tortured by the Darklord (I presume, he certainly has an evil laugh). Being welcomed into the realm of darkness and despair, "Blood Tears" will be cried as "we are both condemned to live". And I find another typo on hte lyric sheet. Tsk tsk!

"Mirror Mirror" has a slightly celebratorious feel - as a hidden city is constructed, to protect those within from the destruction outside the island sanctuary. It is a very powerful, defiant track.

A more melancholic excerpt - in which it is time to "Face the Truth" before heading into the dark and desperate track that is "Noldor (Dead Winter Reigns)". There are some nice, melodic passages in this song but it is all flavoured with a hopelessness and death.
"Noldor, blood is on your hands. Tears unnumbered. You will shet [sic?] and dwell in pain"
 Another lovely little ditty, "The Battle of Sudden Flame" brings a little light and majesty into the album before being defeated by the almighty "Time Stands Still (at the iron hill)". I am always amused by how the Germans (and also the Swedes) pronounce the "R" ir "iron". This is a song about a battle - and this is relfected in the furious melodies, battling against the layered vocals with changing tempos and soaring choruses.

"The Dark Elf" is a menacing, but haunting, little narrative, as the seed of evil is grown. This leads into the rather beautiful "Thorn", which is actually a song of betrayal. There are some lovely folk-inspired melodies in here, evoking visions of a soldier forcing his way through a writhing, wild thicket.

Slower piano notes bring us into the haunted "The Eldar". Here Hansi's golden-throated vocals are back in force. They give a voice to an ancient Elf king, giving his final farewell to his subjects. As he becomes closer to death, he becomes more frenzied, and his subjects lend their chorus to his final cries, calming him enough to complete his song of doom.
So far it is my favourite song on this album.

"Nom the Wise" is mourned in a short passage probably taken directly from the book.

"When Sorrow Sang" would be more appropriately named "when sorrow screamed" for it is a song of fury and rage, anger at the loss of a loved one to the fangs of evil.
Rather ironical when he is screaming lyrics like:
"When sorrow sang softly and sweet"
A beautiful and classical piece, with a choir of singing voices takes the lost "Out on the Water", their last sanctuary. It delivers us into "The Steadfast", in which the evil villain (Morgoth) delivers a rather menancing threat to a half-mad captive, before celebrating his apparent victory in "A Dark Passage". It is a song of triumph and a small dose of gloating.

"And thus ends the Fifth battle, by the treachery of man, the field is lost..."

This is a powerful album, as intense and multi-layered as the books that inspired it. The melodies and rhythms, the changing tempos and general epic feel have created a truly majestic album. Alas, whilst I can appreciate the sheer intensity and power, I do find that Hansi's voice grates on me after a while. Although I do really love his ballads.

For sheer impressive scale and dramatic effect, I am going to rate this an 8/10.

* Actually, that's kinda a lie - I only own one CD, but I do have some on cassette tape. I even have the capability to play them now. Maybe when I'm done reviewing my CDs, I'll shift onto my cassette collection.

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