For Hansi Kürsch, lead singer of Germany's Blind Guardian, there's no Justin Hawkins flash, no DragonForce pub chants, no hipster-pandering irony. If he's going to sing about faeries and orcs, he's going to do so and mean every damned outlandish lyric.
A while back, "The Rules of Power Metal" lists were circulating via email and on message boards, and among such hilarious lines that lampooned the overtly flamboyant metal subgenre ("If you are European, use as many archaic English words in your lyrics as you can. Obfuscation is epic!"), one particular line stuck out -- not because it's funny...well, it is kind of funny, but despite its slight exaggeration, its essential truth is undeniable: "Singers aren't allowed balls unless they are Hansi, because he is God."
Lead singer for German stars Blind Guardian, Hansi Kürsch boasts a set of power-metal pipes that many singers would give ihre hoden for, a howl that can leap octaves, yet at the same time sound robust enough to avoid the common "gay" stereotype that haters give the sound. And whatever hokum he's spewing, whether it's a full rock opera based on Tolkien's The Silmarillion, a tale of mythology, minstrel-style folk numbers, or overblown, 15-minute compositions that fly in every direction at once, you're forced to buy into it. There's no Justin Hawkins flash, no DragonForce pub chants, no hipster-pandering irony. If he's going to sing about faeries and orcs, he's going to do so and mean every damned outlandish lyric.
Ahab, The Call of the Wretched Sea (Napalm)
Yeah, Mastodon did the Moby Dick thing two years ago, but this German funeral doom trio takes the concept in another direction entirely, slowing things down to a patience-testing crawl, riffs crashing like tidal waves, the bass groaning like a wooden hull, Daniel Droste's growl bellowing like an icy Atlantic wind. Massive, foreboding, bleakly beautiful, and absolutely riveting.
Insomnium, Above the Weeping World (Candlelight)
Like countless other bands, this Finnish quartet faithfully follows in the footsteps of In Flames, Dark Tranquility, and At the Gates — but Insomnium knows what it's doing. We've heard all this before, but it's done with such flair, the guitar harmonies enhanced by a brooding undercurrent, as on the brilliant "At the Gates of Sleep", that we can let the song's rather unfortunate title slide.
Light This City, Facing the Thousand (Prosthetic)
More Scandinavian thrash than Bay Area thrash, the San Francisco band pull off a surprisingly effective Arch Enemy imitation, led by the crisp, melodic lead guitars of Brian Forbes and Steve Hoffman. While the razor-throated Laura Nichol lacks the dynamics of Angela Gossow, her lyrics are substantially better than her German counterpart, quoting Tennyson one minute and waxing political the next.
SpiRitual, Pulse (Sensory Dark)
Dubbed "ethno metal", this side project by Darkseed vocalist Stefan Hertrich follows the examples set by Soulfly and Orphaned Land, blending world music with metal, and for the most part it works well, a mish-mash of gorgeous female-sung Indian vocals, Native American wind instruments, and Colombian percussion over a solid goth-metal backdrop, making a potentially pretentious project sound classier than many would expect.
White Willow, Signal to Noise (The Laser's Edge)
Modeled after the Gathering, the Norwegian band straddles cutting-edge metal and artsy progressive rock with spellbinding ease, simultaneously sounding eclectic and accessible. Singer Trude Eidtang brings sweetness to the lilting "Joyride" and the e-bow dominated "Splinters", while the instrumentals "Ghosts" and "Chrome Dawn" dive headlong into King Crimson territory. Perfect for the adventurous-minded listener.
"Life couldn't be better," Kürsch says cheerily on the phone from his hotel room in New York City, and why wouldn't he be? His band's eighth studio album, A Twist in the Myth, is about to be released amidst a massive wave of hype, the pre-orders on Germany's Amazon site alone have made it the site's top seller, North American fans are drooling at the thought of the band's long-awaited North American tour, and the band has just been confirmed as one of the headline acts at the monstrous annual Wacken Open Air festival in Germany next summer.
Germany has always been a major exporter of melodic heavy metal, starting with the Scorpions in the '70s and Accept in the early '80s, and along with fellow countrymen Helloween, Blind Guardian is one of the progenitors of the classic power metal sound. Twenty-one years after the band's inception, it remains one of the most daring, innovative bands in the genre, not to mention one of Europe's most popular metal acts. Influential albums such as '90's Tales From the Twilight World and 1995's Imaginations From the Other Side laid the groundwork for the band's signature sound of tight riffs, double-time tempos, Celtic flourishes, literature-referencing lyrics, and anthemic vocals, but it wasn't until 1998's watershed concept album Nightfall on Middle-Earth that the world started to notice this band, conveniently right when they were just starting to truly come into their own.
If Nightfall was the apex of the band's frilly brand of Tolkien metal, 2002's A Night at the Opera was easily the most ostentatious album of the band's esteemed career, crammed with so many prog rock twists and layers of vocal tracks that it was like a musical version of Monty Python's Mr. Creosote: one more waffer-thin overdub could result in a musical vomitorium of catastrophic proportions, but miraculously, the whole bloated mess managed to hold together. In the wake of such an overwhelming dose of power-metal bombast, the one question that remained was just how the hell Blind Guardian could follow up such a piece of work that was either loved or loathed by fans and critics. According to Kürsch, writing and recording the new album was rather easy, as the band knew exactly which direction it was going to head in next.
"It was relatively stress-free, because of the goals we have had for our new album," says Kürsch. "It was a consideration that A Night at the Opera was just the beginning of a new style and direction that we were taking, so there is still a lot to discover in that direction, and a lot to advance. We have made a good start with A Night at the Opera, I would say, but we felt there was a lot to improve, and I think we, for the most part, have been very successful."
In a wise move, A Twist in the Myth opts to simplify things considerably, and the end result is every bit as surprising as A Night at the Opera, but for completely different reasons. The songs are more compact, focused more on delivering the classic Blind Guardian sound with stronger emphasis on accessible songwriting, instead of emptily showcasing the band's technical prowess. Songs like "This Will Never End" and "Lionheart" mark a return to the intensity of the band's early years; "Carry the Blessed Home" and "Skalds and Shadows" are additions to the band's growing collection of "bardic" ballads, while "Otherland" and the rousing "The Edge" incorporate a more modern edge without sacrificing the band's progressive influences, which according to Kürsch, was the band's goal.
"I think that's a pretty good description of how I feel about it, because many people say it goes back to Imaginations From the Other Side, but that's only one part of it," he explains. "It also keeps the progression of A Night at the Opera even though the songs are far easier to comprehend in many ways. I believe that it is a perfect blend, and that we built to that and the introduction of that new style. When we did Nightfall on Middle-Earth we felt like we couldn't go further in that direction anymore in general, because it described so many things with just that one album, so there was the necessity to come up with something new. Since we have established that with A Night at the Opera, this one was a very easygoing album, and I believe for the people it should be a far more enjoyable album, just because the songs deliver the classical Blind Guardian attitude with some more tricky elements."
The "tricky elements" Kürsch speaks of are most evident on the polarizing single "Fly", which was released earlier this year, and had many fans worldwide screaming bloody murder. Part industrial metal, part '70s-era Styx, "Fly" daringly tones down the flashy riffs in favor of Fear Factory-inspired chords, synth programming, and Frederik Ehmke's samba-inspired drum beats, as Kürsch sings empowering lyrics inspired by the film Finding Neverland. "We released 'Fly' as a single to make a statement," he says. "It was done to make clear that there will be a development. Of course, we have been prepared for controversy amongst the fans, but the majority seems to really appreciate the song, and seems to discover what we feel for the song and how we ourselves look at the song. It's one of the best songs we've ever written, and a good amount of the audience [thinks so] as well. It certainly contains some of the most different elements in terms of regular Blind Guardian music."
Of course, dealing with the outcry of those fans who want the band to stick to the old sound comes with the job, something Kürsch readily accepts. "I think we would consider it to be a failure of having too much of a 'copy' feeling to an album. That would be a real shame. We even risk losing fans. It is important to keep the qualities and the roots of a band, no doubt about that, but it's also very important to go further and find new dimensions. It confuses you sometimes if you listen to the majority of people who would really like you to be stuck in the past, but if you observe it a little closer, you find out that the majority really appreciates that Blind Guardian has never done something like that. Of course, there are directions which they sometimes may not agree with, but for the most part they usually can follow it."
If there's one track on A Twist in the Myth that has the potential to break new commercial ground for the band, it's the swaggering rocker "Another Stranger Me". Instead of drawing from literature, Kürsch has some fun with psychodrama, toying with the idea of multiple personalities, all underscored by Ehmke's groove-oriented drumming and the simple yet memorable riffs by Andre Olbrich and Marcus Siepen, not to mention some of Kürsch's most relentlessly catchy vocal melodies since "Bright Eyes" a decade ago. "'Another Stranger Me' was written very early in the songwriting period, and was the first song which got away from anything we had done before," states Kursch. "It has such a rockish attitude, which we could really recognize, but we did not feel skeptical about it, so it was obvious for us it would be a very important song. Right at the moment, we have done a video for it, which shows how important the song is for us.
"I think the reaction will be even better because it is more aggressive and straightforward, but of course it will confuse a lot of people at the same time," he says, laughing. "The only chance to survive long-term, from our point of view, is bringing in these elements and trying out what suits you best, and to do what makes you feel good."
Make no mistake, the literary influence remains strong in Kürsch's songwriting. "Carry the Blessed Home" is inspired by Stephen King's The Dark Tower saga, "This Will Never End" draws from Walter Moers's German novel Wilde Reise dursch die Nacht (translated as Savage Journey Through the Night), and "The Edge" is based on the letters of St. Paul. Of particular note is the moody "Otherland", based on Tad Williams's cyberpunk novel of the same name, of which Kürsch is a huge fan. "I see it as cyberspace and fantasy, and you need to have some music which delivers that as well, and that's quite a delicate mixture, so I was very happy with the song itself. It seemed to really fit with what I had in mind musically. But you can tell so many other things with the story, it would be a shame not to use it again. It's one of the best science fiction/fantasy novels ever written, I think. I believe I will use it in the future again as the inspiration for a lyric."
That more imaginative fantasy element, as opposed to the more political and introspective lyric writing that pervades much of today's metal music, has long been Blind Guardian's calling card, and in Kürsch's opinion, goes perfectly not with just his band's sound, but heavy metal in general. "It's such a perfect combination with the music, the music describes so many things, it's so imaginative, so it absolutely makes sense to follow that direction," he says. "Of course, there are exceptions in bands which have other lyrics that work as well, but for most of them it's the best thing to do."
The creative license Kursch employs as a songwriter is reflected in the album's title. "[A Twist in the Myth] is inspired by the music and the lyrics," he explains. "If you listen to the music, you will easily come to the wrong conclusions, and you listen to a song and consider it an old fashioned song, you will be proved wrong the next moment when it switches the attitude completely. The same is going on in the lyrics, there are several topics which are known by the listener, like Ulysses for example, who is the main protagonist in 'Lionheart', but I've just switched the plot, so the plot doesn’t really fit to what the story usually tells. I thought all this could be described by the title A Twist in the Myth."
These days, both power metal and melodic metal are on the rise in North America, with young bands bringing old-school sounds to teenaged audiences, who are starting to catch on in a big way. Killswitch Engage, Avenged Sevenfold, and Trivium are just a few of the metalcore bands successfully using soaring vocals and melodic guitar harmonies, while DragonForce and Cellador are bringing classic power metal back to the forefront. The upswing of the old school sound is not lost on Kursch, who is enthused by all the new bands, and firmly believes the timing of Blind Guardian's return couldn't be better.
"I have strong faith," he states. "Due to our major record company which we had in the '90s, we of course ignored the US, and it was [Iced Earth guitarist] Jon Schaffer who brought it to my attention that there is a strong fanbase for metal in the US. In the mid-'90s, it was just a very small minority of people, so no one really recognized it over in Europe. When we started breaking through here, in the late '90s, it seemed that something was going on and still growing, so I'm very positive that this will have a positive effect on Blind Guardian as well, and we're willing to come over and find out.
"It's so great to hear that so many young people are into that music, it could be like the generation that made metal so exciting in the '90s in Europe."