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While listening to Blind Guardian's first opus, “Battalions of Fear”, I can't help but feel extremely surprised how a band like them could change so much over the years. In the beginning, their music was dominated by the furious riffing and by the fast drumming, all their songs were very thrashy and Hansi really sounded great with his raw vocal approach. The band released one or two more speed metal records, until “Somewhere Far Beyond”. Well, while this album still had lots of fast and aggressive songs, it also contained many new elements, the most important of them was the inclusion of choirs and also of some vocal layers. The choruses sounded much more 'epic' and grandiose and, obviously, the band began to put more emphasis on them. “Imaginations from the Other Side” contained less instrumental parts and much more layers and classical-influenced arrangements and then... “Nightfall in Middle-Earth” was released. This album really showed and confirmed that BG was no longer the speed metal act of old: the music is much more midpaced and less aggressive and there is an incredible amount of vocal layers and keyboard sounds to be found on almost every song of this piece.
While I really love all those arrangements, there's a problem caused by them: the lack of power of the guitars. The production clearly highlights the keyboards and the vocals and, during most of the times, we can't hear that well the riffs. “Into the Storm”, track number two, would sound much much better if the guitars were a tad louder: the tune is very fast and somewhat aggressive but the riffs are, unfortunately, buried in the mix, which, obviously, doesn't benefit the song at all. Another problem regarding the production: the double bass pedals are almost inaudible which is a shame, since the drumming is very very good on this record. Stauch is a pretty competent drummer and he shows that on this album: he really shows his versatility on songs like “Noldor (Dead Winter Reigns)” or “A Dark Passage”. On one moment he's playing soft beats, on the other one he is hitting his double bass pedals furiously, on the other one he's just smashing the cymbals... Yeah, his performance is that varied.
And this variety brings me to another important characteristic of this album: the strange structure many songs contain. Blind Guardian never were a progressive band... well, they certainly released some intricate and complex songs on some of their older records, “Majesty”, out of their debut, for example. The title track of “Somewhere Far Beyond” is another example, “Follow the Blind” another one. But this time, almost every song is fairly complex: there's, again, an incredible emphasis on the vocals. On some songs, Hansi is literally 'always' singing (there are almost 7856335 pages of lyrics on the booklet... go figure), which, sometimes, is a pain in the ass since I really love instrumental sections and there are none to be found on some of the tunes of “Nightfall in Middle-Earth”.
But don't get me wrong there are some really awesome instrumental passages to be found on some of the other tracks of this album. The middle section of “Mirror Mirror” is a perfect example; the song contains some of the best solos this german act ever crafted, all of them very melodic and extremely catchy, which is, in my books, a plus. Its chorus is fantastic too, the same thing going for the intro. Hansi's vocals are also perfect on this song: every fan of BG knows that he is among the most skilled metal singers, but his performance here is even better than what I've expected. While he sometimes sounds very raw, he also sings very melodically throughout the record, “The Eldar”, a little piano-driven piece, is a clear example.
Another important characteristic of “Nightfall in Middle-Earth” is the literally HUGE amount of songs it contains. For every tune there is an interlude and while I don't really like interludes that much, I've got to say that they work fairly well on this piece. Interludes like the creepy “Captured”, the opener “War of Wrath” or the closer “Final Chapter” are essential for us to better comprehend the whole concept. Still, it's a bit hard to follow the story if you haven't read the “Silmarillion”, one of Tolkien's best works. There are some interludes that are a tad on the useless side though; “Lammoth”, which is a really short tune filled with a long scream, and “The Minstrel” are examples.
As for the actual 'songs', there are lots of winners to be found here. All the tracks are very solid and the whole record is very consistent thanks to them. It's really hard to have so many good songs on just one album but, somehow, Blind Guardian did it with this opus. “Into the Storm” wins the prize for the fastest track of the album. “Nightfall” contains a godly chorus and lots of different movements; still, the song flows very smoothly. One of the best songs this band ever penned, no doubts about it. “Mirror Mirror” is another clear highlight and “Noldor”, maybe the most complex song of the album, is another one. Almost every song contains different movements and lots of melodic riffs, catchy keyboard lines and varied vocals. Fortunately, there are no fillers present on “Nightfall in Middle-Earth”. Closing the (long) list of highlights is “The Eldar”: think a longer and darker “Black Chamber” and you'll have an idea of how this song sounds like.
I've listened to this album for almost two years and it still remains interesting and don't bores me at all. I could speak about this piece for years and years, there are lots of things to discover about “Nightfall in Middle-Earth” and so I recommend the album to every one out there who likes power/heavy/speed metal. While Blind Guardian released tons of other good albums (their debut, “Somewhere Far Beyond”), this record probably is my favourite one. The only two problems I have with this album is the production, which doesn't highlight the guitar work that much, and the presence of too many interludes, since they, after repeated listens, harm the whole listening experience. Still, this album is simply awesome and one of my favourite metal records ever released. And well, if you read the “Silmarillion” you'll enjoy this piece even more, I assure you!
Best Moments of the CD:
-the transition between “War of Wrath” and “Into the Storm”.
-the choruses of “Time Stands Still at the Iron Hill”, “The Eldar” and “Nightfall”.
-the solo and intro of “Mirror Mirror”.
-the outro of “A Dark Passage”.