BLIND GUARDIAN: BATTALIONS OF FEAR (1988)
1) Majesty; 2) Guardian Of The Blind; 3) Trial By The Archon; 4) Wizard's Crown; 5) Run For The Night; 6) The Martyr; 7) Battalions Of Fear; 8) By The Gates Of Moria; 9*) Gandalf's Rebirth.
According to genre rules, the debut album by Blind Guardian is neither «thrash metal» nor «power metal», but rather «speed metal», which seems to be lodged somewhere in between the two — metal music played at extreme tempos, but with more emphasis on melodicity and «cleanness» of sound than thrash. Oh well, whatever. The real question is: when all your songs are played at the speed of fifty billion notes per second, is there anything you can do to make any of them stand out? How do you avoid falling into the usual trap — where your whole LP sounds like one extended track with a few seconds of air inserted every now and then?
Well, Battalions Of Fear shows that it can be easily done: you just have to compensate with the vocals, and make sure that every individual track has its own distinctive chorus. If there is one single thing that might make these songs «stick», it is the simple, basic, anthemic bits — "OH, MAJESTY! ", "GUARDIAN, GUARDIAN, GUARDIAN OF THE BLIND!", "HALLOWEEN!", "RUN FOR THE NIGHT! BURN AWAY!", and so on. This is a tactic they may have inherited from Iron Maiden, who are easily the single hugest influence on these guys, but they need it so much more than Iron Maiden, who usually played at slower tempos and could rely on complex riffage and challenging song structures even without a vocal hook.
Unlike Maiden, Blind Guardian do not rely on «guitar weaving»: the two guitarists in the band seem to have their duties delineated quite properly, as Marcus Siepen concentrates on the chugging rhythms and André Olbrich is responsible for all the melodic lead parts. Hansi Kürsch, the frontman, is at this point still combining the double duties of the bass player and the vocalist, though clearly favoring the latter job more than the former — he's got a voice similar to Bathory's Quorthon, «snapping» rather than «barking», without any traces of corny sentimentality, perfectly suited to this type of metal-theater material. Lastly, drummer Thomas Stauch is as good as your average speed metal drummer gets, but there's not a lot to add to that description.
The artistic influences of Blind Guardian are completely clear: first and foremost, they are rabid Tolkien fanaticists (no less than three different songs — four, if you count the bonus track ʽGandalf's Rebirthʼ on the re-issue — are based on Lord Of The Rings), and second, they like all sorts of horror fantasies and occult dabblings, with Stephen King and Aleister Crowley each providing inspiration for one of the tracks. Current events in this here mortal world only concern them as long as their global evilness begins to match fantasy visions — the title track, in particular, is about the horror of SDI, which they probably considered on par with the construction of Morgoth's Thangorodrim or something of the sort. This is a consistent position of theirs, and while their musical style would change significantly over the years, the «vision» would not, so please be warned that it's a little hard to get deep into Blind Guardian without having previously done your Tolkien homework, and yes, that actually means reading the books — all of them.
With the basic formula for this early record sort of set in stone, there is not much mood variation, and the atmosphere generated by the melodies does not always match the lyrics — for instance, ʽMajestyʼ seems to be about the last King of Arnor losing his kingdom to the forces of evil and running for cover, but the melody is neither doom-laden nor tragedy-bound, but, like all the rest, pushes forward with martial brutality and determination. The two things to look out for are the already mentioned chorus hooks — and Olbrich's solo passages, which show an honest desire to become the Paganini of the heavy metal guitar solo, combining technical virtuosity with careful attention to melodic structure. Unfortunately, my own spirit remains somewhat insensitive to this approach, but it is hard not to admire these results at least «formally».
Likewise, the instrumental ʽBy The Gates Of Moriaʼ hardly refers to the Gray Company relaxing in the shade of said gates, but could probably trigger an association with the bloody battle between Orcs and Dwarves that took place there much earlier — and who will now recognize, unless specially informed, that the melody actually quotes Dvořák's ʽFrom The New Worldʼ symphony? Everything is made to serve the same purpose: kick ass, hero-style. One of my favorite tracks is ʽTrial By The Archonʼ: it serves as a brief, concise intro to ʽWizard's Crownʼ, but has a completeness of its own, stating the theme, then consecutively offering the spotlight to the band's riffmeister and the band's lead hero. The theme is suitably ominous, the riffage is more inventive than on the vocal tracks, and the solos are brilliantly constructed, but I can only imagine your average Archon conducting his average trial in this particular manner if he had a schedule of around 300 trials to perform per day, two minutes per each — state the accusation (opening theme), take in the prosecution (riff variations), hear the defense (solos), pronounce final judgement (closing theme), next in line please.
No matter how monotonous this atmosphere is, though, the album as a whole, by metal standards, deserves an unquestionable thumbs up; in fact, its monotonousness may ultimately be its major advantage, since, not having yet established their own personal style, Blind Guardian would probably have achieved little if they tried to walk all over the metal turf — by sticking to this one particular gun, they are at least able to «mine» this speed metal formula all the way down to its logical conclusion. In terms of songs, you'll probably only remember the epic choruses — but in terms of overall cohesiveness, you will probably retain a very precise general impression. And there is no one but J. R. R. Tolkine to blame, I guess, that in the metal world, Battalions Of Fear is altogether so less popular than Slayer's Reign In Blood, even though, for all I know, they are more or less on the same level in the «goal-achieving» department.