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Betwixt the past and the future - 84%

Jophelerx, January 20th, 2012

After Blind Guardian's previous effort, A Twist in the Myth, I think it's safe to say that most peoples' expectations weren't very high for this one. I certainly had no idea what direction they were going to go in at the time. If Twist was a reaction away from the pompous grandiosity of A Night at the Opera, would the next album be a reaction to Twist? Would they continue on in the style of Twist? Would they go back to a style they played on earlier albums? The band hinted long before the album's release that this might be the case, which had fans drooling and masturbating to Battalions of Fear and Imaginations from the Other Side pretty quickly, as I personally can attest to. The question is, did the album really live up to those expectations Blind Guardian created? Well, yes and no.

At the Edge of Time does a good job of fusing the catchy, modern sound of Twist with the speed/power of the Somewhere Far Beyond/Imaginations era; some songs lean more heavily toward one side or the other, and some don't really fall in either field ("Wheel of Time", primarily), but for the most part they are a combination of the two. However, while staying generally within those confines the album still manages to be extremely varied; it has several slow or midpaced songs, as a few fast songs, it has stripped down speed metal and grand orchestral epics. If you've yet to listen to it, strap yourself in and prepare yourself for an unpredictable and exciting ride.

First, the production is a little more metal than it was on the last album, but not much. It's still modern slick, just a little toned down; it's still quite a ways from the production of something like Somewhere Far Beyond, and I think if it was closer to that kind of production, the album would sound a lot better, but it's far from awful, and the songs are more than listenable. In fact, although the riffs are a bit glossy, it works very well for the solos.

The main carryover from Twist is the simplicity of the melodies and the song structures, for the most part. Aside from "Wheel of Time", the songs are fairly simple, much more traditional in structure than in Blind Guardian's earlier albums. Largely absent are the catchy guitar harmonies Blind Guardian perfected over the years; the songs focus on a straightforward melody and stick to it more linearly than usual. That being said, the songs are far from bland or excessively predictable, and the guitar harmonies are still present, just not as much as usual.

Also of note is Hansi's voice on the album - he was 43 here, and it's finally starting to show. Although we didn't hear any sign of wear in his voice on Twist, the vocal tracks were heavily produced, and he didn't really hit all that many high notes, at least not as many as he used to. Here it's clear his voice has significant wear, as he sounds strained throughout nearly the entire album. Still, the strained sound gives his voice an extra rasp that actually contributes to his style if anything, so it doesn't detract from the songs, but it's definitely noticeable.

Now, to the songs themselves. "Sacred Worlds" is a revamp of a song most Blind Guardian fans had heard previously, "Sacred" from the 2008 game Sacred 2. It starts off with a classical-sounding orchestra, but it goes on for over a minute without contributing much of anything musically, until the opening riff comes in. The song as a whole is a slow, dark, cavernous piece, and it's really good. The highlight here is the softer sections of the verses with Hansi's clean vocals, and the outro, both of which are haunting. They remind me of the first clean section of "And Then There Was Silence" where Hansi begins "Welcome to the end..." in a soft, fluttering voice, accompanied by haunting synths. The song closes with another symphonic piece, which is much less excessive than the opening one and works well as the song fades out.

"Tanelorn (Into the Void)", the next song, probably makes you think of "Quest for Tanelorn" from Somewhere Far Beyond, and indeed it's in a similar style. This is probably the song closest to the classic BG speed/power sound, but even so you're immediately aware that this would not really fit in with Somewhere. The higher vocals are thin and processed, showing Hansi is clearly having a problem singing the range he used to, and the riffs are a bit more repetitive than on most of the songs on Somewhere. It's a good song for what it is, but it falls pitifully short of the sort of execution Blind Guardian had in the early 1990's, and the production isn't great for this particular song; it's not one of my favorites.

Following is "Road of No Release", definitely one of the better songs here. It works well with the production, and neither the riffs nor the vocals are particularly demanding. Here they seem to recognize their limitations and work within them; it works brilliantly. The songwriting here is top-notch, and the slow, heavy, but simple melancholy of the guitars and piano are absolutely perfect for it. Hansi's vocals here are mostly clean and/or pretty low, so he doesn't have too many problems. One of the highlights.

"Ride Into Obsession" is another heavily speed/power song, and this one is much better in execution. It's fast and bombastic, a combination Blind Guardian has always done well, and this is no exception. The chorus vocals are well placed, and although some parts feel as though they drag on a bit, for the most part it's excellent. It has added value to me as a fan of The Wheel of Time series, which the song is based on; the lyrics aren't as masterful as the ones on "Wheel of Time" but they're still quite enjoyable to someone familiar with the series. Overall, a nice speedy song, perhaps the best attempt at their older sound here.

"Curse My Name" is the mandatory ballad (or the first of two mandatory ballads, as has been the trend here and in Twist). It's refreshing to hear such a well-executed Celtic-style number here, as this is one department in which Blind Guardian have improved since their older days. Of note are the drum lines, which march and beat along creatively, showing that Frederik Ehmke does indeed have some ingenuity and creative talent, although not nearly to the extent of Thomen Stauch. The ballad is a jovial, almost carefree, well-layered piece; it's one of the best ballads Blind Guardian have ever done. The section at the end with three or four vocal lines on top of each other is probably the highlight here.

Next is "Valkyries" which starts out with a nice acoustic intro reminiscent of nature, then turns into a simple, midpaced power metal number. Of note here is the huge, soaring, almost dreamlike chorus; it is strong enough by itself to feel as though I'm transported to some surreal dream world of valkyries and rainbow bridges and virgins. The rest of the song is decent, but not very memorable.

"Control the Divine" is a dark, aggressive, midpaced song that has a desperate, ominous sound to it. The chorus could be better, but it still works with the song, it's just not as majestic as the one in "Valkyries". It feels a bit too simple at places, like a worse version of something like "Punishment Divine", but it's still a very enjoyable song, and has ideas and a direction all its own.

"War of the Thrones", the album's second ballad, is as good as the first; which is saying something. It starts off with graceful-sounding piano that evokes a feeling of reflective solitude. Although I haven't read A Game of Thrones, on which it's based, the high fantasy lyrics are very enjoyable here, without being too cheesy. The chorus is festive and joyous, and works perfectly with the more somber verses. Though simple, the song does what it does wonderfully; this is one of the best songs here. It simply transports the listener to another world.

Following is "A Voice in the Dark", another dark, speedy number, and much better in execution than "Tanelorn". This one actually might conceivably be at home in Somewhere Far Beyond, were the production and Hansi's vocals a bit different. The riffs here are heavy and merciless; this is the kind of song I think of when I think of power/speed metal. The vocal lines are catchy too, and harmonize well with the riffs, and the whole song does a great job of conveying a feeling of being deep in a cavern somewhere, far away from civilization. This could quite possibly be the best song on the album - at any rate, it's probably the best song for the fan of pre-Nightfall Guardian.

Finally we have the symphonic epic "Wheel of Time", a song with middle-eastern influences and a feeling of pure, manic desperation. This is the most ambitious piece of the album, and it doesn't fail to disappoint. The song builds up throughout, evoking the feeling of something extremely important happening, someone tormented by that event. Assumedly, Rand al'Thor at the last battle against the Dark One; although that had not yet happened in the series as of the release of this song, I'd be hard-pressed to find another scene in the series which matches the vastness, intensity, and torment found in this song. The lyrics work wonderfully with the music, particularly in the section after the violin solo:

The young man said "I will never give up"
The inner war I can hold against it
My mind, my mind
My mind's in darkness

The young man said "I will never give up"
The prophecy, behold it's true
I conquer the flame, to release the insane
I'm crying, I cannot erase
I'm the dragon reborn
And in madness I soon shall prevail!

The ending of the song is a bit bland and anticlimactic, but overall the song is amazing, definitely one of the best here and one of the best from Blind Guardian. Some of my love for the song might be personal feelings, but it's definitely a great piece of metal.

Overall, the songwriting on the album is pretty good, but not great; there are clunkers like "Valkyries" and, to an extent "Control the Divine", and most of the songs are very simple, sometimes but not often to excess. The production works well with the ballads, and perhaps the symphonic songs, but not much else; songs like "Tanelorn" and "Ride into Obsession" definitely suffer significantly from it. Also, the vocals are weak in some places, specifically "Tanelorn" and "Sacred Worlds", as well as some more minor problems in other songs. The album is the sum of its parts, and it, too, is merely good; maybe worth a listen now and then but nothing to worship or masturbate over, unfortunately. This, for me, marks the true beginning of the end for Blind Guardian.