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Nightfall on Middle Earth is by every standard the most loved, hated, well known, and ultimately the most influential album released by German Speed/Power Metal outfit Blind Guardian. Although composing a lyrical homage to the various works of J.R.R. Tolkein is nothing new either to this band or the entire genre of Metal, the amount of ambition on both the compositional and the production ends of album creation found on here has never been seen before this release, nor will it probably ever truly be realized again. And like many truly towering works of art, it has made Blind Guardian a fair share of friends and enemies.
Previous works by this band were more geared towards the old style of Speed Metal originally pioneered by the Thrash scene and early Power Metal releases such as Helloween’s “Walls of Jericho”. The focus of the first 3 albums was primarily on the guitars and the drums, while the bass was playing support and Hansi’s vocals were geared primarily towards singular melodies. The beginnings of the evolution of the changes found on this release showed themselves on it’s predecessor “Imaginations from the Other Side”, and included a larger keyboard presence, a more harmonic approach to choruses in the vocal department, and a greater emphasis on the atmospheric side of their folk inspired ballads.
Another truly dramatic change in the instrumentation is the increased presence of Andre Olbrich’s harmonic lead riffs, often times nearly co-existing and competing with Hansi’s vocals during the verses. Guitar solo sections on “The Curse of Feanor” and “When Sorrow Sang” come in and out of various parts of the song, sometimes throwing the otherwise straight-forward structure of these songs for a loop. The opening lead tracks found on “Time Stands Still” and “Into the Storm” provides a rich contrapuntal texture to complement Marcus’ bottom end power chord riffs. The solos sections on “Mirror Mirror” and “Thorn” are the most memorable, sounding heavily like Renaissance Madrigals set to electric guitar.
Acoustic instrument presence is also a driving factor of several tracks on here and is obviously a point of contention for old guard purists whom are the primary detractors of this album. “Nightfall” and “Blood Tears” have rather prominent acoustic guitar lines that come in and out of the mix, the latter having an intricate delay effect to give it an otherworldly feel to it. “Eldar” is pretty much a vocally driven song with plenty of gut wrenching screams out of Hansi over a rather somber piano line, somewhat similar to “Black Chamber” off the Somewhere Far Beyond release, but longer and much more musically ambitious.
The structure of this album is also a bit unique, as half of the tracks found on here are brief spoken or musical interludes that fill in plotline between the 11 full length songs. If one were to approach this album as a plain metal release, one would obviously have a hard time feeling the smooth flow from track to track that is on this album. But if you treat it more as a metal opera or a recording of a musical, it is a lot easier to digest. If you are not a fan of Tolkein’s works or the fantasy genre in general and you have this album, questions about your intelligence are to be asked on general principle.
Although one could fill another book describing the massive lyrical and musical content of this work, its impact is a far more pressing matter as it is the most contentious point of its existence. With the exception of Rhapsody’s “Legendary Tales”, which was no where near as musically ambitious as this release, creating long winded concept albums based on fantasy sagas were unheard of amongst the metal genre. In subsequent years, many bands have come up across Europe who picked up on this formula, and thus the Symphonic Power Metal genre became a reality.
Unlike more traditional speed metal, this style of melodic metal includes a wide array of alternative instrumentation, sometimes even challenging the dominance of the guitar riffs. However, in most cases the guitar still carries the role of principle instrument, as is the case on this album. Unlike Rhapsody and the bands following their formula, Blind Guardian is still a guitar driven band, and this album is different only in that there are more instruments behind them. The assertion that this album lacks guitar presence is laughable, and exposes a lack of ability in the listening comprehension of many of its detractors.
Those who are musically eclectic and have no issues with large arrangements complementing the metal style will like this album, particularly those of the Symphonic Power Metal persuasion. Fans of Progressive Metal and Neo-Classically influenced Metal will like this too, although the contrasts between sections are not as blatant as many bands in the former sub-genre. But for those of you who still cling to a sense of rabid parochialism and can’t stand keyboards, I suggest sticking to what you know and coming to terms with the fact that some bands get tired of hammering out the same album 5 or 6 times.