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The Blind Guardian Twilight Orchestra’s Dark Legacy

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Blind Guardian‘s long-awaited orchestral album finally rears its head. Long ago, this project was announced as a tentative soundtrack to the then-upcoming The Lord of the Rings film trilogy. The production company wound up not siding with the German progressive power metal stalwarts, with reasoning arising that a combination of the group being wet behind the ears for proper soundtrack work combined with wanting to focus first on finishing their yet-to-be-completed followup to Nightfall in Middle-Earth led the parties to part ways. This was roughly 19 years ago now, producing the firmament for a long-gestating orchestral record. The next update came on the heels of their release for their 2003 live album simply titled Live, citing that they were hard at work on orchestral material and planned tentatively for the record to come following their next studio record. This was later confirmed following the release of 2006’s A Twist in the Myth, targeting a 2008 date for the material penned for a proposed The Lord of the Rings orchestral film soundtrack, a date which came and went with nary a word.

The next decade of the project were slow-moving despite being incredibly transparent by the group. They openly stated two facts: first, that the record was being pivoted to an original libretto to free up some red tape and concerns behind the scenes, and second, that it would always take a backseat to their proper studio work and tours, being more a glorified side project. Both of these points followed an important and intriguing caveat however, which was that both acclaimed vocalist Hansi Kürsch and underrated metal guitarist André Olbrich, the creative core of the group, would slot away new songs and tweak material after practically every finished album and tour. The orchestral album, we were assured, was an inevitability, but one with no set date; at a point, jokes began to crop up that perhaps it would be the swansong of the group, septuagenarians paying farewell to their legendary career with a majestic orchestral funeral mass.

This, of course, was thankfully not to be the case. It is not an understatement that while the announcement and eventual delivery of Tool’s Fear Inoculum was the major delayed album of a certain (very large) crowd, the notion that a nearly 20-year wait would finally come to an end being signaled with a brief press release and little coverage felt surreal, impossible. And yet, here we are: an hour-long orchestral operatic work by Blind Guardian, all rock and metal and prog stripped away to bear their pure symphonic vision. It joins similar company as Dream Theater’s The Astonishing from 2016 and Therion’s Beloved Antichrist from 2018. Thankfully for listeners perhaps alarmed by those two formal comparisons, Blind Guardian’s record fairs significantly better.

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It helps that Blind Guardian is well-practiced in orchestral arrangement. While this is their first purely orchestral album, they were one of the major proponents of symphonic accompaniment to power and progressive metal starting as far back as the curious keyboard and acoustic guitar parts for their third studio album Tales from the Twilight Realm, their first proper pivot to progressive metal methodologies. This influence on their work would grow over time. Kürsch eventually committing himself to proper operatic vocal lessons and in turn perhaps the most celebrated voice in heavy metal in the post-Dickinson eras. Their masterpiece Nightfall in Middle-Earth is in half-operatic form, spoken libretto breaking up a deepened operatic approach to progressive power metal. Their followup would indulge in the sense of sonic density and grander harmonic scale we associate with opera, albeit still pointed toward heavy metal; they would even, in time, begin to employ the same orchestra they hired here to perform their score, largely replacing keyboards in a live setting with full orchestral arrangements. This was all done with an eye toward this project somewhere down the line, a sense of detail-driven decision making that pays off in spades on this release. For those unaccustomed to sitting through an hour or more of uninterrupted orchestral work but firmly familiar with this band will find themselves at home; the fact that it’s the same composers writing these swooning, swirling, cresting crescendos of horns and strings as wrote the infinitely anthemic heavy metal of their career is immediately obvious. Twilight Orchestra: Legacy of the Dark Lands is a record that was clearly developed slowly, attentively, by a group that knew well that ambition outpacing ability can only be charming when the stakes are below a certain threshold; above and you get work that is somewhere between annoyingly pretentious and hysterically overwrought.

This is a lesson that Dream Theater notably failed to learn well, a failure that unfortunately casts a long and relatively unaddressed shadow over this record. It would be farcical to assume that there is not a shared audience here between the two records or, barring that, an audience familiar with both. Invoking an album-length straight up opera written and performed by Blind Guardian with an original libretto is not brought under question by their own work but sadly is cast into doubt by recent notable ludicrously overwrought work by that other group. And, truthfully, Blind Guardian does err tonally more to the cinematic end of orchestral work similar to Dream Theater’s work on The Astonishing, producing work that may sound to less-trained ears like pleasingly high-quality showtunes rather than a more discreetly song-oriented opera. As to the second key comparison, Therion’s three-hour long opera Beloved Antichrist was not a critical failure due to a poverty of quality in the material nor a lack of experience; Therion, like Blind Guardian, had spent decades prior learning a progressively deepening skill set regarding orchestras, arrangement, and production of compelling work without the same heavy metal backing their back catalog may have implied would be deployed.

But the lesson Blind Guardian seemed to have learned from that record is one of concision, wisely keeping the proceedings at roughly an hour rather than a bloated and frankly unnecessary three-plus hour runtime. This is not for lack of material to work with; roughly half the material used to craft this libretto was portioned off for the group’s likewise first historical novel penned by German fantasy author Markus Heitz. Instead, it seems another sign of the group’s attentiveness and keen eye for detail.

As for the music, Twilight Orchestra: Legacy of the Dark Lands plays pleasingly like a tradition Blind Guardian studio release. They have primed the listener well for an album like this; their keen sense of melody, staying on the sweet and melodic side in terms of vocal lines and backing them against progressions that would sound like cornball nonsense if they weren’t nailed so perfectly are the traits not only of their metal work but of this too. The work is notably less purely anthemic than their previous work, but this trajectory can be traced in their studio work as well, with their past two studio records erring on the side of richness than immediate heart-conquering group singalongs like nearly every track off of Nightfall in Middle-Earth or its follow-up A Night at the Opera. Legacy of the Dark Lands marks out similar territory to their album tracks, the ones that tend to escape the mind when trying to think of songs that match the kind of intensity clear singles like “Mirror Mirror” or “Fly” might bring to bear but nonetheless thrill and impress whether in the context of the album experience or in a live setting. It is a charming and well-paced record, one that splices its spoken libretto between overwhelming and gorgeous compositions in a manner much like their masterwork Nightfall in Middle-Earth, a parallel that could not be indeliberate given that their previous studio album Behind the Red Mirror happened as well to be a sequel to their previous concept record Imaginations from the Other Side. There is even a brief nod in the libretto to the title of A Twist in the Myth. Blind Guardian have spent the past roughly five years of work tying up loose ends and doing so with great respect both to their legacy and to their audience; they seek not to tarnish their own name nor to waste the time of those that have paid attention to them so long.

While Twilight Orchestra: Legacy of the Dark Lands will likely not seize up the notice of those in the orchestral music world, erring perhaps too much to crowd-pleasing Romantic era arrangements that feel deeply old-fashioned and simple if taken in that context. But for an orchestral album produced by a heavy metal group, one with a career that would have felt woefully incomplete if they called it a day on their vast and beloved career without a record like this to pay direct homage to those compositional ideas in their heads, it is a triumph. It’s a testament to why Blind Guardian are far and away the greatest power metal band of all time and one of the greatest overall metal bands period to boot. The album didn’t need to be able to stand comfortably against the rest of their body of work to feel a satisfying and necessary record for the group to notch on their belt, but they saw fit to make Twilight Orchestra: Legacy of the Dark Lands of the same quality as their unbroken string of great records stretching back to 1995. The fact that the group can weave elements that seem to have for so long totally lost their luster and been condemned to the aesthetic hell of the perpetually corny and cringe-inducing and make absolutely captivating magic that makes you feel like you are a child with a flashlight in hand traipsing through the wood of a local park pretending you are a torch-wielding hero marching on the dim caverns and lava-lit stone of Mordor is transcendent and special, a specialness they have taken great care to retain.

Twilight Orchestra: Legacy of the Dark Lands released last Friday via Nuclear Blast.

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