BLIND GUARDIAN: A NIGHT AT THE OPERA (2002)
1) Precious Jerusalem; 2) Battlefield; 3) Under The Ice; 4) Sadly Sings Destiny; 5) The Maiden And The Minstrel Knight; 6) Wait For An Answer; 7) The Soulforged; 8) Age Of False Innocence; 9) Punishment Divine; 10) And Then There Was Silence.
Come to think of it, every night with Blind Guardian is like a night at the opera, isn't it? With all that wealth of grand fantasy spectacles they had accumulated by the end of the millennium, the collective repertoire could very well lay claim to its own frickin' Bayreuth Festival. And there is little use in reminding yourself of all the previous people who had used that title, either, be it Queen or the Marx Brothers, because there is no connection whatsoever other than the very idea of a «grand» effect upon the listeners. And if you thought that, perhaps, the Marx Brothers association suggests that Blind Guardian have finally begun to take themselves with a grain of salt and a modicum of self-irony — well, Judas Priest have a classic rock recommendation for you.
Although there is no such serious conceptual unity this time as there was on Nightfall In Middle-Earth, for the most part, the album still revolves around a set topical field — mythology, both pagan and Christian, and, to a lesser extent, history, rather than fantasy (only ʽWait For An Answerʼ, based on Kürsch's own fictional tale, and ʽThe Soulforgedʼ, based on Dragonlance, constitute exceptions). If anything, this helps justify the band's position in preserving the grand-epic style of Nightfall — once again, the emphasis is squarely put on «power» and «pomp» rather than heaviness. When it's all over for the first time, what you are going to remember is not the metal riffs, but the huger-than-life choruses, most of which explicitly remind you of the fact that «chorus» and «choir» are originally the same word after all.
Here is a funny trivia tidbit that is not so much typical of the record as symbolic: the very first track, ʽPrecious Jerusalemʼ (as far as I know, marking the first appearance of JC himself as the protagonist of a Blind Guardian fantasy), contains a transparent musical reference to Jesus Christ Superstar — the "risin' up from the heart of the desert, risin' up for Jerusalem" passage brings to mind both the "when do we ride into Jerusalem?" and "roll on up Jerusalem" melodic phrasings from the Andrew Lloyd Webber opera, even if the rest of the song has nothing to do with Sir Andrew, being instead cast in the usual power metal mold. Still, this obvious link with the old art of «rock opera» is quite telling. No wonder the band's original drummer, Thomas Stauch, quit after the album was completed — even within the Blind Guardian camp, not everybody was satisfied with the way things were turning out.
Still, the balance between keyboards, orchestrations, and choral vocals, on one hand, and heavy riffs and blazing electric guitar solos, on the other, seems quite intelligently handled to me. There are a couple «power ballads» here, like ʽThe Maiden And The Minstrel Knightʼ (how come Blackmore's Night have not covered that one yet?), where the balance predictably tilts towards the «light» instrumentation, but this is justifiable — a ballad is a ballad, after all — and besides, the song has the most memorable chorus on the entire album. In anybody else's hands, the mock-Wagnerian solemnity of the choral "will you still wait for me, will you still cry for me" and Hansi's throat-ripping retort of "come and take my haaaaaand!" would just look ridiculous, but these guys now have such a long history of «going all the way to eleven» that it is hard not to get overwhelmed by the results. (Just play 'em real loud, or else you violate the rules of the game).
On the other hand, songs like ʽUnder The Iceʼ, ʽSadly Sings Destinyʼ, ʽThe Soulforgedʼ, and some others formally preserve the core of the Blind Guardian sound. There is an obligatory chugga-chugga thrashing riff, and a thick, melodic, sometimes multi-tracked, often wah-wah-enhanced lead guitar part that are loud enough in the mix so as not to allow themselves to be drowned out in an ocean of keyboards, strings, or choral vocals. And it's not as if the drummer had anything to complain about on his behalf — the tempos are consistently fast and give him all the usual conditions to exercise the traditional sledgehammering style.
The basic problem is the usual one — monotony. After a short while, as the hilarious quotation from JCS fades into history, the songs inevitably begin blending and melding with each other, and this time around, there are no storytelling links to keep them apart. In small doses, the album is perfectly palatable, but you'd really have to be an iron man to sit through this «night at the opera» in one go and get sixty-seven minute of incessant kicks out of it. (Predicting the possible question, yes, this «opera» is far more melodically monotonous and emotionally single-routed than any good classical opera — among other things, Blind Guardian are totally unfamiliar with the principle of crescendo, which they replace with the principle of «and now... switch on THE POWER!!!!!»).
The worst is saved for last: a fourteen-minute epic (ʽAnd Then There Was Silenceʼ) about the fate of Cassandra, which somehow feels longer than the entire first act of Berlioz's Les Troyens — for all of its numerous melodic changes, nothing truly interesting ever happens throughout the song, and I have no idea whatsoever why it needed to be 14 minutes long in the first place. And instead of a proper bang, it ends in... a fadeout, with a corny synthesizer solo striving for orchestral grandeur? What an embarrassment, really. Without this track, A Night At The Opera could have been poised for at least a minor thumbs up, keeping in mind the unabated energy levels and the cleverness of the instrumental mix and the sheer overwhelming strength of Hansi's vocals. With this track, A Night At The Opera moves dangerously close to a failed experiment — an attempt to outdo themselves in the «grandeur» department without being able to come up with any new substantial trick to successfully complete that attempt.