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This album blows my mind. Doubtless, it will be considered the greatest Power Metal album of its decade for years to come. Let's begin with the segues, which are generally considered the "weak" part of the album. I admit that I like to skip to the face-melting as much as the next guy, so I'm not always into the segues. However, they actually serve an important purpose for the album as a whole because they allow each song to establish its own identity. Each segue cleans your musical "palate," which quickens the progression between songs, keeping the album fresh and innovative.
This leads me to the album's primary strength: its compositional innovation and variety. Each song's riffs are unmistakable, and harmony is used brilliantly throughout. Mood is established using just about every tool at a metal band's disposal. Small differences in key between songs set very strong moods for their own songs, making the whole album something of an emotional roller-coaster, which is absolutely essential to narrating such an epic story as "The Silmarillion." Down-tuning is also used skillfully and selectively to achieve this purpose, so while some parts sound very crisp and high-pitched, others sound noticeably deeper and more distorted. Of course, this is Blind Guardian, so the album tends to lean toward the former. The mind-blowing speed of many of the songs stands out because of the segues and ballads which anchor the album.
Furthermore, the introduction of sounds not integral to metal, particularly chimes, while used extensively, never comes close to overshadowing the metal here. Thus, it doesn't fall into the "Rhapsody" trap as I like to call it; this album can by no means be considered pussy metal. In fact, unorthodox instruments are used to excellent effect, supporting the metal, not subverting it. The album's orchestral influences are hardly noticeable if you’re not listening for them, but definitely contribute to the incredibly textured sound.
Of course, all these achievements wouldn't be possible without incredible technical proficiency on the part of the band. In every aspect of their performance, Blind Guardian sets a new standard for technical ability. The performances by Hansi, Thomen, and the guests on the album are all awesome, but the guitars are the most impressive, if only because of their prominence. The frequent guitar solos tend to overshadow the rest of the ensemble, but whenever the guitar backs off a bit the rest of the band keeps your attention. It’s at these moments when you notice the harmony. The timing is also excellent, as the frequent changes in speed illustrate.
The only criticism I had for this album, even temporarily, was about the production. At first, it sounded like the production was weak on the guitars. However, this was easily remedied by turning up the volume. I soon discovered that the mix was not the problem; rather, the whole album seems to be a little quieter than normal. I only mention it because it seems to be a common complaint. Rest assured, once you turn up the volume, the guitars will sound as fast and raw as you could possibly desire. So turn it up to 11 and enjoy.