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Solid but bloated and messy - 82%

Jophelerx, June 14th, 2012

The idea of a concept album is great on paper. An entire full-length of songs devoted to a single subject, often following a specific plot, adding more depth to the music than would be possible otherwise, and giving the listener something more to appreciate than just the riffs and the vocals. However, a concept album is an ambitious idea to put into practice, and an attempt to do so will cause even great bands to struggle. Case in point: Queensryche's Operation: Mindcrime. The story was cool, if not fantastic, and their music up to that point had been for the most part pretty solid; however, when they tried for a concept album they ended up putting in ballad after ballad, with a whiny Geoff Tate up front and the guitars merely backing him up. While not as big a failure, Nightfall in Middle-Earth is Blind Guardian's Operation: Mindcrime.

The bonus here is that Hansi Kursch never really sounds whiny, and there aren't quite as many ballads as on O:M. Still, it's not Blind Guardian's strongest moment. For one thing, the production isn't particularly good. Sure, the vocals and leads are up front, but the riffs are often barely audible, which doesn't bode well for the half of the album that actually has testicles. The good news is that Hansi is in top form here; he did sounds a bit forced on Imaginations, and that problem is completely solved on this offering. His voice sounds more restrained, but still powerful, more like he sounded on Somewhere Far Beyond.

Another problem is the interludes. While having a way to connect the songs into a single concept may sound good on paper, it's almost impossible to execute these short ideas in a way that's remotely appealing. Almost all of them are pointless musically, and just detract from the good songs of the album. While a couple are enjoyable in and of themselves, I'm rarely going to want to listen to a 30-second song, so their value is decreased significantly. Good ideas are only as good as what they're used for; so Blind Guardian, the next time you have a good idea, incorporate it into a real song, instead of using it for worthless interludes. The only interlude I really find useful to the album is the introductory "War of Wrath", which features some nice narration that provides a nice backdrop for the album; all of the other interludes might as well not be there as far as I'm concerned when I listen to the album.

The songwriting here varies pretty widely; there are some great songs here, as well as some stinkers, and there are five ballads total. Luckily, Blind Guardian have gotten pretty good at writing ballads, and not all of them suck - though even if they'd all been killer, five ballads do not a metal album make, and having that many definitely doesn't help their cause. "Nightfall" is one of the good ones, with gorgeous multi-tracked vocals and captivating melodies, it's certainly welcome here on the album. The song also has a definite progression in the lyrics, as it tells a bit of the tale of the Silmarillion. It feels like a story song, which here actually works in its favor, with cool lines like "Never trust the northern winds...Never turn your back on friends!" "Thorn" is the other worthwhile ballad, and it's excellent indeed; melancholy, introspective, and progressive in song structure, it's probably the most mature song Blind Guardian had written at the time (2002's A Night at the Opera would obviously change that). The vocal lines are great, the lead melodies are great, and the lyrics are great; possibly this is the best song on the album.

Unfortunately, the other three ballads are pretty bad. If the album had had only the two aforementioned ballads, it would have been much better. "Blood Tears" is probably the worst song on the album; it tries to be melancholy, but just ends up dull as hell, with riffs that go nowhere, lackluster vocal lines, and poorly executed aggression, it would be better to just skip this track. "Noldor (Dead Winter Reigns)" is slightly better, but still pretty poor; there are some decent melodies, but they're vastly overused, carrying on for almost seven minutes what should have lasted more than one. "The Eldar" is actually somewhat decent, with at least an enjoyable vocal performance by Hansi, although the piano playing under him isn't particularly riveting; the song isn't completely worthless.

Now, I might be able to excuse the album for so many ballads if all of the other songs were absolutely killer; unfortunately that's not the case. While there are definitely some good songs, the stinkers are still there; "The Curse of Feanor", for one. The aggressive vocals are good, but the riffs are decent at best, and used a little too long. And while "Time Stands Still (At the Iron Hill)" isn't bad, it's not particularly strong, either, with merely decent melodies and riffs. Also, given that the riffs are pretty buried, the songs tend to focus on the leads; while the heavier part of the album is still pretty solidly in metal territory, it does bring them closer to rock than they've ever come, and that's not a good thing. Luckily, for most of the songs, the leads and vocal lines are pretty strong.

"Into the Storm" is dark and aggressive, and here it actually works, with an absolutely top-notch performance from Hansi and a catchy main riff that the vocal lines build on, increasing their aggression and energy to the chorus. "Mirror Mirror" is good, if a little too focused on synths and vocals, with catchy melodies and a big chorus that's got to leave you with a smile on your face. "When Sorrow Sang" is one of the catchiest things Blind Guardian have ever written, with some groovy riffs and an absolutely fantastic chorus. "A Dark Passage" is good, if not great, with some cool leads that dovetail nicely with the synths; there are some passages that are a little bland, but overall the song does a sufficient job.

The album definitely has some fun moments, some epic moments, and a great overall vocal performance, but the interludes, ballads, and poor songwriting show their true colors often enough, and the song is just extremely inconsistent; decent by most standards, but ultimately a failure for Blind Guardian, possibly their worst release to date.