BLIND GUARDIAN: FOLLOW THE BLIND (1989)
1) Inquisition; 2) Banish From Sanctuary; 3) Damned For All Time; 4) Follow The Blind; 5) Hall Of The Ring; 6) Fast To Madness; 7) Beyond The Ice; 8) Valhalla; 9) Don't Break The Circle*; 10) Barbara Ann.
Not exactly a «sophomore slump» here — more like a temporary turn in a questionable direction. Like its predecessor, Follow The Blind is bona fide «speed metal», but distinctly less melodic than Battalions Of Fear: consistently wilder tempos, not as many catchy choruses, and, saddest of all, downgrading of Olbrich's guitar playing to rather generic shredding on most of the tracks. Apparently, the band members had developed a temporary fetish for thrash metal, and this is reflected in the extra aggression at the cost of melodicity.
In situations like these, it is often the case that the first couple of tracks will look like the best ones on the album, and the rest will simply bore the listener to death, regardless of the compositional particularities of the songs. Indeed, ʽBanish From Sanctuaryʼ is so emblematic of the entire record that you are not missing much of anything if you limit your listening experience to this one song. Faster than ʽMajestyʼ, two guitars rattling away at machine-gun speed, Herr Stauch pounding away on his cylinders with robotic precision, and, amazingly, a vocalist that can actually sing at this insane tempo rather than just growl. Great, marvelously precise sound — problem is, apart from perhaps the vocal melody of the chorus, I can hardly tell it apart from ʽDamned For All Timeʼ or, in fact, the absolute majority of the songs that follow.
The epic-length title track, with its acoustic intro and outro, presence of slower sections, complex structure and a slightly more interesting set of solos than usual, is the album's central point of focus, but with its lack of truly piercing riffage, seems more like a tentative Metallica imitation than an attempt to find and/or preserve their own face. Metallica influence may also be reflected in the name of the album's major instrumental composition (ʽBeyond The Iceʼ, bringing to mind ʽTrapped Under Iceʼ), but on the whole, it just sounds like one more excuse to perform some exercises in casual shredding.
Other than ʽBanished From Sanctuaryʼ, the only song here to have lingered on in the band's setlist was ʽValhallaʼ, either because you simply don't lose a song title like that, or because it's got the most seductively sing-along-ish chorus on the entire album: "VALHALLA! Deliverance, why've you ever forgotten me?", repeat ad infinitum until Thor and Odin are finally forced to expedite a return letter with some legal explanation of why they have ever forgotten you. There's also a special bridge section with Kai Hansen, of Helloween and Gamma Ray fame, contributing guest vocals that culminate with his famous high-pitched screeching at the end (but I must say I far prefer Kürsch's «roaring» approach on the live versions instead). It's a decent track, but hardly all that different from ʽHall Of The Ringʼ or ʽFast To Madnessʼ, in terms of composition or energy. Maybe it's a little more Blind Guardian-esque than the oh so Iron Maiden-esque ʽMadnessʼ or the oh so Slayer-esque ʽHall Of The Ringʼ, but who could really tell?
Perhaps the true spark of greatness that is placed in this record is the completely unpredictable finale — a minute-and-a-half-long rendition of ʽBarbara Annʼ with a bit of ʽLong Tall Sallyʼ thrown in, on which the band's producer Kalle Trapp sings lead vocals and plays guitar. This is just a musical joke, but arguably an indispensable one after fourty minutes of incessant, monotonous thrashing. In fact, I sure wish there'd have been more of them — a minute-long interlude of good old surf-rock or rockabilly done heavy metal style in between all the jackhammering might have worked wonders on the senses. As it is, the lack of diversity, multiplied by this decisive «speed over melody» approach, will certainly limit the audience of Follow The Blind to the hardcore public. I remain fully impressed by the band's technical ability to pull it all off without a hitch, but, in the light of their future successes, this one seems to belong to their «diligently earning their credentials / raising their qualification» phase — a stop-gap effort, in other words, never really going any place special.