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Blind Guardian are one of those bands with a style so unique as to be inimitable. You'll never find someone covering a song of theirs that does the original justice; their music is indelibly tied to a sound only they can provide. Conversely, their grasp of character makes them uniquely predisposed towards performing great covers of their own. It's not just the voice of Hansi Kürsch that really makes their covers truly 'work', nor is it Andre Olbrich's distinctively playful guitar work or even the band's heady rhythm section. A fine part of what makes them so successful with covers is the fact that they choose songs that are perfectly suited to highlighting aspects of themselves that are already present in their own music, even if it's not obvious on paper. The Forgotten Tales has several of these gems and much more. When all the lights go down and I'm looking for something just a bit different from their usual fare, this compilation encompasses their best-loved odds and ends, and shouldn't be dismissed as the sort of 'hardcore fans only' fare that releases of this sort usually amount to.
The Forgotten Tales was released a year after Imaginations from the Other Side was unveiled to the world; as such, I think it allows us to glance into a different side of the band in the midst of their creative peak. For an album essentially cut between curious covers and alternative renditions of existing songs, this release feels remarkably well-sculpted. Although I couldn't quite see myself recommending the album to someone who wasn't already enamoured with any one of their full-lengths, it is really to Blind Guardian's credit that much of the material here is memorable in its own right. A few of the alt versions are potentially even superior to their original counterparts.
It is strange to think that a couple of the cuts here were among my first experiences of Blind Guardian. I remember seeing the video of their "Mr. Sandman" cover and having a good laugh over the heavy metal spookification of an innocent pop standard. Their Beach Boys covers of "Surfin' USA" and "Barbara Ann" (originally by The Regents) are just as silly, but every bit as fun. After the comic dust settles however, it's actually impressive that Blind Guardian managed to take classics from another genre and make them their own. Covering Mike Oldfield's "To France", they make the song their own in such a way that it sounds like they penned it themselves. Hansi Kürsch is gifted with a unique voice that could make Mariah Carey covers potentially enjoyable to listen to, but the entire band inject themselves into these songs. They have substance and thought behind them; call them curiosities if you will, but these covers deserve more than to be tossed away after a single listen.
The alternate versions are even more interesting to me. It's as if Blind Guardian are covering themselves; the essence of each song remains intact, but each carries a different mood. In most cases (their more elaborate arrangement of "Black Chamber" notwithstanding) this entails the song getting softer, but not 'unplugged' as it were. The orchestral and folky instrumentation that tends to get sidelined in their full-length material takes centrestage on these versions, and it sounds just as thoughtfully arranged as something you might hear on one of their more substantial releases.
Compared to a lot of the money grabbing shitstreaks that usually pass for fan comps, The Forgotten Tales is pretty incredible. It doesn't leave anywhere near the mark of Imaginations from the Other Side or another of their full-lengths, but it does dare to be listened to and enjoyed as much. Put simply, this is a collection of well-crafted outcasts; few of them would have rightly fit on a real album, but placed together they're pretty endearing, and should be experienced by anyone who calls themselves more than a casual fan of the band.
There are two sorts of artist compilations available in the musical industry: the first category consists of simple efforts to fleece the musical fan of a particular band or artist by reprinting material on a new disc (perhaps remastered, perhaps not) with new artwork, and shelling it out for an industry standard retail price; and the latter is an actual love letter from an artist, generally a collection of live or demo material, unreleased songs or a gathering of B-sides, which ultimately could save the band some money from having to import rare singles and such. The Forgotten Tales falls into the latter camp, as it's mostly a collection of cover songs and alternate versions of previously released tracks.
While a few of these tracks are actual gems, I'm going to argue here that most of this release is poppycock; you could skip it entirely and be none the worse for wear. First, Blind Guardian are huge fans of classic rock, as well as the obvious hard rock influences of the 70s that partially inspired their sound. When it comes to their covers of "Mr. Sandman" (The Chordettes), "Surfin' USA" (The Beach Boys), and "Barbara Ann/Long Tall Sally (again the Beach Boys), I could really live without. It's not that Blind Guardian sound horrible or awkward performing them, they function as silly curiosities for a single listen, and then become too corny beyond that. You're not going to find some sod queueing up "Mr. Sandman" on his iPoD: "Guys, you've got to hear this shit, it's an amazing and totally unique spin on an old classic!" And if you do know that guy, please end his suffering and do the world a favor.
Far better are the covers which seem to make a lot more sense. "The Wizard" works because Uriah Heep is a kickass band and undoubtedly a huge influence on the Germans. Queen's "Spread Your Wings" fits the band quite well, and this is one of the better covers you will find of those gathered here. But the real surprise is the cover of Mike Oldfield's "To France", given the full lavish Blind Guardian treatment with powerful chords, leads and excellent Hansi vocals. This one was good enough to include with an album (as opposed to "Barbara Ann"). In addition, if you plan on purchasing this compilation, grab the 2007 remaster/re-release because it includes their covers of Judas Priest's "Beyond the Realms of Death" and Dio's "Don't Talk to Strangers", the latter of which I enjoy more than the original.
Also in this collection are a series of alternate versions/takes on some of Blind Guardian's popular tracks. "Bright Eyes" and "Mordred's Song" are given acoustic treatments, and while they pale in comparison to their heavier counterparts, they're decent to play for the girlfriend, who is going to think you're a dork either way for listening to this band unless she's really cool to begin with. "A Past and Future Secret" doesn't really belong here, you've already heard the track in all its glory on Imaginations from the Other Side which dropped a week before this. The orchestral takes on "Lord of the Rings" and "Black Chamber" are quite good, and the closing orchestral/instrumental version of "Theatre of Pain" is hands down the best thing you will hear on The Forgotten Tales.
So, this release is not quite a fleecing of the band's fans. Although much of the material is reprinted here from the band's singles, you might end up spending less money on The Forgotten Tales than those...though some of them include demo tracks and the like. The only tracks here I found worth my time were the orchestral takes and the covers of Uriah Heep, Queen and Mike Oldfield, but I'm not sure that selection qualifies a purchase. If you're the diehard type of power metal n00b whose universe begins and ends with Blind Guardian, Dragonforce, Symphony X and HammeFfall, then you probably own this already and do not care. Otherwise, weigh the value of having the few worthwhile curiosities before plopping your cash down on it.
Highlights: Theatre of Pain (orchestral instrumental), Black Chamber (orchestral), Lord of the Rings (orchestral), The Wizard, To France, Spread Your Wings