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Sometimes you have good, enjoyable metal albums that are actually quite lacking in the musical talent/virtuosity department, such as several early 80s extreme metal albums (Venom, Possessed, Death, Celtic Frost in their Morbid Tales era, et cetera forever). And then you have albums like Blind Guardian's much lauded Nightfall in Middle Earth, which is obviously the work of a group of exceptionally talented and respected musicians who have quite a lot of weight in the metal scene. Not a note is out of place, nor a vocal line out of key. Every song here is executed with razor-sharp intensity, but Blind Guardian have missed one fatal piece of the puzzle in the making of this album - and that is the ability to captivate the listener and create memorable, lasting and powerful songs. No band will ever make a good album by simply putting on a flashy show without soul or substance, and Blind Guardian is no different.
But really, come on, it's Blind Guardian. They made a few of my favorite power metal albums before cranking this out; big, epic, pounding slabs of steel that could keep one headbanging and singing along all afternoon without wear or tire. Somewhere Far Beyond and Imaginations from the Other Side are still some of my favorite metal records, packed with instant classics like "Another Holy War", "Time What Is Time" and "Ashes to Ashes", amongst legions of others. And then we got this album; a slow, majestic, medievally influenced piece with 22 tracks and much more "atmosphere" than anyone had ever seen from Blind Guardian. It was either innovate or stagnate for them, as something like Blind Guardian's old musical style doesn't last forever. Sure, they could've just kept repeating their formula of classy, stylish solos and balls-to-the-wall riffage along with Hansi's grandiose, bellowing voice and a healthy dose of Tolkien-esque fantasy sprinkled heavily over the lyrical department, but how long would it have lasted? Blind Guardian needed to change their sound a bit, and Nightfall is the result of that. It's an ambitious, challenging album that really doesn't sound like anything the band had done before, and it doesn't sound much like anything they've done since, either. I don't hate this album, since it's obviously not a bad piece of work and the band has put a lot into it, but it really doesn't do much for me.
The production here isn't the best. Technically it might be good, but the guitar tone is really weak for a Blind Guardian album, really neutering any muscle the band might've had on the faster tracks here. Instead, these tracks rely more on Hansi's multi-tracked vocals, which are more souped up and flashy than your dad's new car when he's trying to be "hip." Hansi has a great voice, and he has always layered his choruses, but this is just too much. This is especially evident on the opener "Into the Storm", which would be a fucking awesome song if it were recorded five or six years before this album came out, but it wasn't, so here it is layered with tons of orchestrations and keyboards and choir-esque vocal effects over that galloping speed metal riff. It just doesn't work. Hansi's vocal overdubbing has gotten almost unbearable at times here, leaving me cold and dead toward the whole deal, and the rest of the band is not much better when it comes to restraining themselves. This album is like a layered cake, piled with tons and tons of different types of frostings and sprinkles and assorted something-or-other's. Sometimes you don't really need a bunch of fancy layers on your cake, though, as a simple chocolate cake is possibly even more gratifying than the deluxe, super-layered cake that is being advertised for a larger sum of money. There are several songs here such as "The Curse of Feanor", "Noldor", "When Sorrow Sang" and especially the rushed, half-baked closing track "A Dark Passage" that are unfocused and not catchy at all due to the messy, cluttered song arrangements and general fuckery on display here. Disappointing from such a veteran band.
The interludes here are pointless, and serve no purpose other than to further the story being told here, which is apparently a recounting of Tolkien's Similarion. The concept is definitely a plus for fans of Tolkien, but I've never bothered to read into the lyrics, preferring just to listen to the music. Unfortunately, the concept crosses the boundaries of the lyrics and begins to influence the music as well. I mentioned before that there are 22 songs on this album, and half of them are interlude pieces that do nothing but tell a story. Most of them are barely even half a minute long, and none of them are long enough to actually be memorable. It doesn't take much away from the listening experience, but if the band had cut out all of these interludes and shortened the track listing down a bit, the album would be much better. It doesn't hurt my ears or make me wish death upon the band members, no...but it does make me ask what the point is. Blind Guardian got really pretentious here, and I don't know about you, but I don't really care about how artsy a band is, especially not when the band in question puts out a heavily flawed album such as this one.
This isn't worthless, however, as there are a few very good cuts here. "Thorn" is probably the best; a sort of ballad with some excellent orchestrations drenched with a sorrowful, regretful air that really shows what this album should've been. It's an epic song, and the soft, romantic keys layered over it remind one of Savatage's symphonic period. The song sounds like something you'd here in a gospel church or something, and while that might not sound good, the song soars to the stratosphere, boasting tremendous power and heartfelt emotion, two aspects of which most of the rest of this album is severely lacking. "Blood Tears" is in the same mold, though slightly weaker. "Time Stands Still" is epic (yes, again) and stomping, with a firebomb chorus that reminds of the previous album (also something which the rest of the album lacks). It'd be quite a kickass song if not for the weak guitar sound. "Mirror Mirror" is fast and catchy, with one of the better choruses on the album, and it's yet again quite reminiscent of the old Blind Guardian days. And "The Eldar" is a quiet, rather soothing piano ballad, this album's answer to "The Bard's Song: In the Forest" and "A Past and Future Secret." It's a good song, one of the few that displays solid and well-thought-out songwriting on this disc. When the good songs on a 22 track album can be counted on one hand, you know something is wrong.