BLIND GUARDIAN: SOMEWHERE FAR BEYOND (1992)
1) Time What Is Time; 2) Journey Through The Dark; 3) Black Chamber; 4) Theatre Of Pain; 5) The Quest For Tanelorn; 6) Ashes To Ashes; 7) The Bard's Song: In The Forest; 8) The Bard's Song: The Hobbit; 9) The Piper's Calling; 10) Somewhere Far Beyond.
Not a lot of progression happened in between this album and the previous one: rather, the band just seems so happy with their perfected formula that they try it out one more time, just to see if it all really comes naturally to them now. There is a little more acoustic guitar (in fact, the album opens with an acoustic intro, which is why I remembered), a little more keyboards and additional instruments (including a whole swarm of bagpipes on ʽThe Piper's Callingʼ), but really, these are all just minor nuances: the core of the formula stays sanctified for now.
Under such circumstances, it only makes sense to talk about individually striking songs if they are present, and this is a little more complicated than before — after several listens, only two of them seem to naturally stick around. The ultimate highlight of the album, and one of Blind Guardian's greatest ever songs, is ʽAshes To Ashesʼ — ironically, the only song on the album to commemorate a real event rather than reflect some literary fantasy, namely, the passing of Hansi Kürsch's father. Blind Guardian's major know-how now is all about ensuring a blazing transition from speedy verse to anthemic chorus, and ʽAshes To Ashesʼ totally satisfies: as the group cuts down the maniacal tempo and enters with the solemn "ashes to ashes, dust to dust..." requiem bit, the hand of doom does materialize in the mind — and Kürsch's decisive conclusion of "time... isn't here to stay!" might be one of the single fiercest accappella power metal lines sung in the history of the genre. At the very least, when it comes to power metal, I have yet to hear a more impressive ode to the mercilessness of time in this style.
Other than ʽAshes To Ashesʼ, one more spot where this approach (ride your flash metal train at the speed of light, then smash it right into the solid wall of a stately martial chorus) works very well is ʽThe Quest For Tanelornʼ: lyrically, the song is based on some usual nonsense from Michael Moorcock, but «physically», the transition is pretty mind-blowing, as the band almost ends up transforming itself into Yes for a few bars, before heading back to the surface and continuing the mad mad ride. Unfortunately, the anthemic chorus feels sort of underdeveloped — the line "on our quest for Tanelorn..." is sung with such epic gusto that you almost feel a bit cheated when, several bars later, they just resume the chugga-chugga as if it were all just a dream. Still, the trick works, there's no denying it.
Arrangement-wise, the most bombastic piece on the album is ʽTheatre Of Painʼ, based on Poul Anderson's The Merman's Children — taken at a significantly slower tempo than usual, drenched in orchestra-substituting synthesizers, going through several complex sections and providing Kürsch with a suitable background to properly display all his theatrical capacities: I am still not sure of whether to laugh at the hysterical pathos of "Now I'm gone... and it seems that LIFE HAD NEVER EXISTED!..." or to bow down to its sheer energy, since, after all, I have never sworn allegiance to operatic metal delivery, but then again, this guy really does bring the dial all the way over to eleven, which at least makes this a better proposition than, say, Queensryche.
On the other hand, regular speed monsters such as ʽJourney Through The Darkʼ and the title track fail to do much for me except confirm that I am, indeed, listening to yet another Blind Guardian album. More interesting is the two-part experiment of ʽThe Bardʼ, where the first part is an acoustic round-the-campfire anthem and the second part is a bombastic metal rocker and they are essentially set to the same melody — the experiment has not only earned the band their nickname (ʽThe Bardsʼ), but its second part is probably the heaviest song ever recorded about a hobbit. Still, as a purely musical piece, it is no great shakes, really.
If you get the expanded CD edition of the album, you do get an additional highlight — a magnificently sung cover of Queen's ʽSpread Your Wingsʼ, one of those power ballads that I've always liked, because it evokes a genuine feeling of power (and freedom) rather than a fake imitation, and the band offers a very tasteful «metallization» with Kürsch at his very best, adding a bit of guttural roar to the arrogant snappiness he takes over from Freddie's delivery. In fact, sacrilegious as it may seem, I would hardly have anything against Blind Guardian including covers on their original LPs, mixing them with their own compositions (something like that would be forthcoming on The Forgotten Tales, but that one's a compilation of a dubious nature, so it doesn't really count) — they have a good nose for catchy material that they can adapt for their own purposes, and the fact that they even did ʽBarbara Annʼ shows that they can be... flexible?
Upon careful consideration, I do give the album a thumbs up. Its passable material is nevertheless energetic and listenable, and its highlights, like ʽAshes To Ashesʼ, deserve to be enshrined in the great metal treasury. That said, I have no idea what some people mean when they speak of the band's «great leap forward» — to use a suitable metal analogy, I'd say this is their Piece Of Mind coming right after their Number Of The Beast: a respectable, but not particularly amazing or surprising follow-up to a classic in the same style.