BLIND GUARDIAN: NIGHTFALL IN MIDDLE-EARTH (1998)
1) War Of Wrath; 2) Into The Storm; 3) Lammoth; 4) Nightfall; 5) The Minstrel; 6) The Curse Of Feanor; 7) Captured; 8) Blood Tears; 9) Mirror Mirror; 10) Face The Truth; 11) Noldor; 12) Battle Of Sudden Flame; 13) Time Stands Still; 14) The Dark Elf; 15) Thorn; 16) The Eldar; 17) Nom The Wise; 18) When Sorrow Sang; 19) Out On The Water; 20) The Steadfast; 21) A Dark Passage; 22) Final Chapter (Thus Ends...); 23) Harvest Of Sorrow.
Okay, brace yourself: a concept album based on nothing less than a complete (well, actually, nearly complete) version of J. R. R. Tolkien's The Silmarillion — as the chief protectors of the Professor's legacy, Blind Guardian accept nothing less than completeness and perfection. You can look at this as a soundtrack to an imaginary movie, or the score to a non-existent musical, but whatever it is, not since the days of Bo Hansson and his Music Inspired By The Lord Of The Rings has the Professor received such a royal treatment — and this one is almost twice as long as Bo's work, and it isn't merely inspired by the novel, it is a musical re-telling of the novel.
Two British actors were hired to provide the (mercifully brief) narration parts, including actual bits of impersonation of the novel's most colorful hero (Morgoth, of course, for whom Blind Guardian have a special predilection). These are packed into brief spoken links, usually accompanied with movie-like sound effects, introducing the various songs or simply separating them, and all the songs are highly specific, relating to different events over the course of the First Age, from Morgoth's flight with the Silmarils and right down to the utter defeat of the forces of good by the forces of evil (although, funny enough, all of this is framed by the introductory track as Morgoth reminiscing of his history while standing on the verge of final defeat).
Fans of Blind Guardian usually stand divided over the record, which is no surprise — there are those who love these fanatical Germans for their obsession with fantasy worlds, and then there are those who just love them for all the monster riffs and virtuoso solos and general blood-pumping skills. For that second group, Nightfall will be a disappointment: not only does all the spoken material detract from the music, but the music itself is much less «heavy» than it used to be, now placing at least as much emphasis on stately choral harmonies and ornate mock-classical synthesizer flourishes as on heavy guitar phrasing and «brutal» vocal parts. As a symbol of this transition, Kürsch even relinquishes his position as regular bass player for the band: Oliver Holzwarth, while not officially a regular new member of Blind Guardian, joins as his regular session replacement both for studio recordings and live performances.
Personally, I am not quite sure what to think. To be sure, the whole experience smells of cheese, but so does the band in general, and is it even at all possible to make a rock opera based on The Silmarillion that would smell of something else? It would most likely take somebody of a Wagnerian caliber to achieve the task, and even then it is one thing to put your own personal stamp on a thousand year old mythological tradition, and quite another one to put it on a «simulacre», no matter how high quality. What really bugs me, though, is that if we actually want to put Tolkien to music, Nightfall In Middle-Earth is very far from my personal ideal vision of it. I am not at all sure what that vision is, but it definitely is not Blind Guardian vision.
First and foremost, Blind Guardian are really a power metal band. They are at their best when audializing battle scenes — violence, brutality, clashing swords, stampeding Oliphaunts, whatever. Consequently, the best realized tracks here are the militaristic ones: ʽTime Stands Still (At The Iron Hill)ʼ, for instance, is a rousing, gripping epic that does convey the spirit of personal combat of an elf warrior against the Lord of Darkness pretty well. Even better is the track that begins it all: ʽInto The Stormʼ, starting the Silmarillion tale from the moment where the bad guys initiate their conquest of Beleriand, fleeing from the light into the dark — no special build-ups or atmospheric introductions, just a straightforward plunge into aggressive frenzy that could illustrate everything that includes speed, fire, and devastation, from the flight of Morgoth and Ungoliant to the Four Horsemen.
On the other hand, as they get into more psychological details (ʽThe Curse Of Feanorʼ) or into lyrical matters (ʽWhen Sorrow Sangʼ), the limitations of Blind Guardian become obvious: once again, they use exactly the same approach for everything. Eventually, you just lose sense of what is going on — where are the good guys and the bad guys (Kürsch uses pretty much the same vocal style for the Dark Lord Morgoth and the Elven Lord Fëanor, and no, this is not due to an artistic decision to blur the lines between good and evil, which would agree with Tolkien's own storyline, but simply due to the singer's limitations), where are the battles and the peaceful interludes, where are the triumphs and the sufferings. Everything is neutralized.
And this is where the complaints of the «metal camp» fans can be heard, too: the music generally loses much of its «kick-ass» quality, without necessarily compensating for this from the «beauty» angle, because the band is not very good at incorporating medieval folk motives and exquisite baroque synthesizer passages. Their chief musical talent had always been Olbrich, and now he is almost like a bit player in a symphonic ocean, and not a terrifically inspiring at that. Even within a polyphonic production, you'd like to hear individual voices, but there is not a lot of them here. Try and go straight for ʽThe Eldarʼ, one of the few songs on the album to feature a different approach — a mournful piano ballad (with guest star Michael Schüren at the grand piano), where Hansi goes from soft, tragic falsetto to raging scream and back. If the song shakes you to the core, count yourself an altogether well-rounded, properly initiated Blind Guardian fan; but to me, there is too much melodrama, too little in the way of truly interesting melody.
All said, though, ambition alone... no, well, ambition alone probably wouldn't cut it, but ambition coupled with Blind Guardian's pedigree, experience, and professionalism make Nightfall In Middle-Earth a curious artefact. Curious success? Curious failure? That is up to you to decide, but my current opinion — as a Tolkien soundtrack, this is a failure, but as a Tolkien-inspired self-standing musical fantasy, it definitely has its moments. At the very least, as is the standard case for Blind Guardian, nearly each track has its own catchy chorus, so let that be one final argument for a stable thumbs up. I sure wish they'd hire some other guy to impersonate Morgoth, though. Wasn't Christopher Lee a more-than-obvious choice? Or does he dislike Blind Guardian because they're Krauts or something?