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Blind Guardian – Beyond the Red Mirror

Blind Guardian is one of the greatest power metal bands of all time, and Beyond the Red Mirror is their best album in a very long time. Still, I can’t shake a nagging doubt: Is it my job to convince you?

If so, then I might start by telling you how Beyond the Red Mirror stanches the worrying decline that Blind Guardian has been in for the past few albums. I might also make some bold claims, such as:

Beyond the Red Mirror is an early dark-horse candidate for album of 2015 (although it has some seriously stout competition in the form of Visigoth’s magnificent The Revenant King).

Beyond the Red Mirror is easily Blind Guardian’s best album since Nightfall in Middle-Earth, and perhaps even since Imaginations from the Other Side.

Beyond the Red Mirror might be the best power metal album since Pharaoh’s Bury the Light.

But, would any of that sway you? You see, for all its bombast and, well, power, the war of words and opinions over power metal has been immobilized in the muddy trenches for nearly as long as Yngwie has been harvesting poodles in a quest to make his hair immortal.

The real question I’m trying to grapple with is, What’s the best way to approach writing favorably about power metal? It seems that these are the three angles one is most likely to encounter:

1. The “YES!!!!!!”
– In which a writer insists – far too strenuously – that power metal is quite clearly the best thing ever and provides a dissertation on why you are a failure of a human if you happen to think differently. This approach has the benefit of passion on its side, but actually comes from a place of worry and inadequacy.
2. The “Yes, but…” (Mea Culpa version)

– In which a writer grudgingly admits that power metal is silly, embarrassing, goofy and probably terrible, but tentatively suggests a few reasons why you might want to try–only if you feel like it!–listening to it anyway. This approach has the (dubious) benefit of roping in a few irony-thirsty jagweeds, but little else. Pursuing an apologetics for power metal is a perversion of its joy.

3. The “Yes, but…” (Pocket Protector version)
– In which a writer speaks only to a highly specialized audience already inculcated to the wonders of power metal (as in, “Yes, but *pushes glasses up nose* don’t you think the third arpeggio in the second solo break borders a little too much on the neoclassical at the expense of the classical romantic?”). This approach is for people who have really strong opinions about Dark Moor versus Fairyland and can rank Rhapsody (Of Fire) albums in reverse order of how many elves are killed–as such, it has a certain appeal, but it’s ultimately a hermetic tactic that only contributes to power metal’s ongoing ghettoization.

Each of these approaches is a failure of sorts. I want you to listen to power metal not because I’m some crazed power metal missionary, but because – like all other kinds of metal – there is ridiculously good power metal out there. To be frank, there’s also a lot of terrible power metal out there, but that’s also true of any style – sweet reed-chomping Moses knows that if I have to sit through another 45 minutes of ostensibly hateful blackened sludge/doom, I might just eat a half-ton of car batteries and shit myself to Jupiter. Because hey, gross generalization alert and all, but still: terrible power metal has much more to recommend it than terrible versions of other metal.

But Blind Guardian is the order of the day, so please stop distracting me with your horrible opinions. After the band hit its absolute nadir with 2006’s dreadful Twist in the Myth, 2010’s At the Edge of Time was an improvement, but still a woefully lackluster effort. One might even have been forgiven for imagining that the best days of these elder states-menschen were behind them. Miraculously, Beyond the Red Mirror breathes such life into these bones that it’s almost difficult to reconcile the dullness of the band’s recent output with the immediacy and vitality here.

One of the most interesting developments is the prominence of programmed electronic beats. This hardly means that Blind Guardian is trying to bring a bit of Ibiza to Wacken; instead, the synthetic percussion is overlaid on the live drumming in a way that enhances both. Similarly, Beyond the Red Mirror manages a somewhat bizarre feat in that it captures Blind Guardian both embracing their most over-the-top, Nightwish-leaning symphonic tendencies AND looking defiantly backward by firing these songs with the kind of carpal tunnel-inducing speed/thrash riffing that ought to kick you squarely in the ass if you ever forgot that Blind Guardian first screamed to life as a blistering speed metal band. (The ending to “Sacred Mind” is borderline Follow the Blind-caliber.)

Career narratives and unfairly spurned genre discussions aside, the ten songs on Beyond the Red Mirror are quite simply some of the absolute finest songs Blind Guardian has written in at least 15 years, and contain some of the hugest choruses you could hope to find in power metal ca. 2015. Everything is as widescreen and grandiose as ever, but the sounds are more cleanly subordinated to the songs. Even more impressive, though, is that the album remains strong throughout its entire hour-plus length, even strengthening in the second half.

But do you know the damnedest thing about all this? Blind Guardian makes this sound easy. I can’t even begin to imagine the complexity involved in writing and recording music this involved and layered, and yet in the listening, none of that effort shows. Leather-lunged choirs sing in golden triumph about all manner of ridiculous things, and the rhythm guitars are throttled taut and dry, but in all the excitement, these are songs that gleam with beautiful detail: from the unstoppable climax of “Prophecies” to the speed-obsessed chromatic pre-chorus of “Ashes of Eternity,” and from the impossible-to-stop-singing chorus of “Twilight of the Gods” to “At the Edge of Time,” which feints as though it’s going full ballad, but soon turns into a stuttering, galloping victory march.

Elsewhere, the pre-chorus of album MVP “The Throne” lifts a four-note vocal run straight from Rainbow’s “Stargazer,” and the chorus – honest to Dio – inspires nearly the same slack-jawed wonder as RJD & Blackmore’s finest hour. This is not praise I mete lightly, but the song has caused so much clenched-fist grimacing, reckless air-guitaring, and shower-caterwauling at the line “WE MUST CONFESS WE ARE LIARS!” that it must be reckoned on par with the all-time greats.

I hope Blind Guardian continues making music for a long time, but if they were to quit anytime soon, “Grand Parade” would be one hell of a note to go out on, and a fine way to spite the sincerity-barren with love. Yes, the chord progressions and guitar lead are maudlin and somewhat predictable, but the song’s nearly ten-minute breadth spools out an entire universe of sound that makes yours truly feel like the tiniest speck of dust in existence and the breath of life that animates everything.

With all that said, I still can’t pretend that this will appeal to everyone. However, I would also respectfully submit that a large part of the general antipathy to power metal among certain segments of the metal-listening public is a result of, to be frank, bullshit concerns about image management.

Drape it in irony if you must – pretend the whole thing is a song playing over the closing credits of a movie about speedboats – but there is a power in this power metal that comes not from playing fast and fierce and fine, but from coaxing a stream of otherwise unuttered emotions from the dourest of hearts and exploding them into technicolor mosaics. Power metal can show you a better version of yourself because it knows the masks you wear to conceal the fact that, sometimes, you feel small, and sad, and scared.

Power metal cannot fix you, but it just might help you fix yourself.

—Dan Lawrence

Beyond the Red Mirror is available today via Nuclear Blast. Follow Blind Guardian on Facebook.

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