[22 September 2010]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Any of metal’s myriad subgenres is perfectly enjoyable if the music is written capably and performed with passion, but it seems power metal is the one style that’s toughest to perfect. The music walks such a thin, precipitous line between garish fun and complete self-parody that it’s easy for a band to slip into the latter category. As of late, especially, top-notch power metal releases have been few and far between. This past year, we’ve been privy to a startling number of misfires by such bands as Rhapsody of Fire, Avantasia, Gamma Ray, and most disappointingly, the perpetually devolving progenitors Helloween. Power metal was never a “cool” genre to begin with, but with the quality of so many bands slipping, it’s enough to make you wonder if the sound has finally played itself out completely.
As Helloween continues to sound more like an embarrassment with each new release, it’s up to its fellow German peer Blind Guardian to fly that power metal flag proudly: Not only does Blind Guardian do so on its ninth studio album, but the group comes along and shows everyone just how it’s done. Brimming with Wagnerian orchestral flourishes, Queen-inspired vocals, staccato riffs, and thrash-infused beats, the ten fantasy tales on At the Edge of Time are delivered with verve, and most importantly, a completely straight face. There’s no winking at the audience here; either you buy into it or you don’t. If you choose the former, however, you’re in for a real treat, as Blind Guardian has strode on the well-worn power metal stage and classed the joint up with a sweeping, epic—in every sense of the overused word—piece of work. When these guys are on, no one can top them, and this record sees them in full command of their craft yet again.
2005’s very good A Twist in the Myth was a rousing return to form after 2002’s wildly unfocused A Night at the Opera, and, although it’s unlikely the band will ever top 1998’s classic Nightfall in Middle Earth, the new album works to all the band’s strengths especially well. Founding members Hansi Kürsch and guitarist Andre Olbrich have stepped up with ten tracks that don’t exactly break new ground for Blind Guardian, rather showcasing every aspect of the band’s versatile sound. In fact, the streamlined, hard rock sound of A Twist in the Myth singles “Fly” and “Another Stranger Me” has been done away with, as the band focuses more on grandiosity than accessibility, which will only thrill power metal sticklers even more.
Granted, when Blind Guardian is in full frilly mode, it can be a very tough pill to swallow at first, like when Kürsch and Olbrich throw literally everything at the listener on opener “Sacred Worlds”, nine minutes of frenzied, up-tempo riffage along with orchestration so gaudy you’d think Michael Kamen had risen from the dead. As always, though, it’s Kürsch who makes it sound so convincing in the end. Possessing a commanding tenor voice that fits perfectly between Yes’s Jon Anderson and Styx’s Lawrence Gowan, he’s an unusually expressive singer in a genre that too often uses operatic singing as a crutch; no matter how busy “Sacred Worlds” gets, his presence makes it all palatable. He plays the role of storyteller brilliantly, and he’s got our rapt attention.
Thankfully, the rest of the album settles down after that flamboyant start. The comparatively stripped-down “Tanelorn (Into the Void)” centers on some scorching tandem riffing by Olbrich and Marcus Siepen, a wonderful return to the band’s heavier side. The keyboard-driven “Road of No Release” gallops along at a stately, controlled pace. “Curse My Name” dives headlong into medieval melodies and arrangements, while the blistering speed metal of the superb “A Voice in the Dark” hearkens back to the band’s earlier incarnation.
A departure from the band’s famous preoccupation with all things Tolkien, At the Edge of Time is all over the map as far as lyrical inspirations go, with Kürsch drawing from John Milton, Michael Moorcock, and George R. R. Martin, and that lack of a cohesive storyline suits this particular album perfectly. It’s a bit of a mish-mash of sounds, right down to the Middle Eastern influence that dominates the closing track “Wheel of Time”, but Kürsch and his bandmates create it with absolute expertise, never for a second letting the album spiral out of control. As an added bonus, the lavish artwork by Felipe Machado Franco is something to behold, especially on the glossy deluxe Digipak version. While other power metal bands these days might compel listeners to roll their eyes or even chuckle, Blind Guardian has come along and outclassed its peers in one fell swoop.