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What Might Have Been … - 74%

lonerider, September 14th, 2007

First things first: Blind Guardian’s Nightfall in Middle-Earth is a good album. Nothing more, nothing less. But is it the perfect power metal album, as some reviewers on this site have claimed? I don’t think so. Even as a “symphonic” metal album, if that’s what the band was actually aiming for, it is still far from perfect.

After playing pretty much pure speed metal on their first two records, with plenty of borrowings from influential forerunners Helloween, Blind Guardian initially began incorporating progressive or, as it were, symphonic elements into their music on their third album, Tales from the Twilight World, which was still basically speed metal, only with exceptionally opulent choruses. On subsequent releases, their progressive leanings became more and more obvious, reaching a preliminary climax with Nightfall in Middle Earth. Now, I’m not going to discuss whether they were right in taking that direction, or whether they should have stuck with conventional speed/power metal instead. The point is that if Blind Guardian were trying to evolve into a progressive/melodic power metal band, they had already completed that development with Imaginations from the Other Side. Nightfall in Middle-Earth, on the other hand, pushes the agenda a little too far, almost transgressing the borders of the dreaded realm of flower metal. Of course, they would eventually go even further with A Night at the Opera, but that’s a different story.

So what exactly are the shortcomings dragging this album down? There are basically two of them going hand in hand with each other, namely bad production and over-ambitious arrangements. When I say over-ambitious, I don’t mean the short spoken-word interludes separating the proper songs. Since Nightfall in Middle-Earth is supposed to be a concept album, these are perfectly justified—and besides, lasting only about thirty seconds each, they are short enough to not disrupt the flow of the music.

No, what I mean is all the pompous pseudo-symphonic bombast that just goes completely over the top here. At times, it seems like the actual songs are suffocated by countless layers of keyboards, bells and chimes, whistles, flutes and choirs. While mighty choruses and choirs have been one of Blind Guardian’s trademarks since Tales from the Twilight World, they are so overbearing here that it sometimes sounds like they dragged the entire Red Army Choir into the recording studio. Listening to Nightfall in Middle-Earth, it becomes clear once again that less sometimes is more. I understand that the songs on this record naturally call for a certain pathos, a certain bombast, but, and I may be repeating myself here, this is just a little too much.

To make matters worse, the production accentuates the symphonic elements while neglecting some of the other instruments, particularly the rhythm guitar, which is way too low in the mix and gets buried frequently beneath all the added ballast. And even in the far too few instances when you can clearly hear the rhythm guitar, it doesn’t nearly have enough crunch, sounding paper-thin and muffled instead—definitely not what metal guitars are supposed to sound like.

In view of all these shortcomings, it has to be considered a minor miracle that Nightfall in Middle-Earth still manages to be a fairly good album. That says a lot about the quality of the songs, which include some of the best Blind Guardian have ever written. The powerful “Into the Storm”, “Nightfall” with its amazing chorus, the heavy “The Curse of Feanor”, the fast “Mirror Mirror”, which is probably the best of the bunch, and “When Sorrow Sang”, with its more basic speed metal approach, are definite highlights, blending intricate guitar leads, some nice vocals by Hansi Kürsch, insanely catchy choruses and just enough fast passages into very good songs, songs that could have been absolute classics if not for the weak production and excess pomp draining them of their energy. Even with better production, however, some of the songs on Nightfall in Middle-Earth would still be quite flowery, particularly “Thorn”, “The Eldar” and “A Dark Passage”, which sound like the band tried a little too hard to emulate the mighty Queen.

In the end, Nightfall in Middle-Earth is a potentially great album spoiled by poor production and over-the-top arrangements. There are times when I really enjoy listening to it, but that’s only when I’m in the right mood, and I usually give it only one spin before I get fed up with it again. Somehow, this record is the equivalent to an excessively rich, fatty meal: It’s great to have one once in a while, but you wouldn’t want to eat it every day. Blind Guardian simply tried too hard here, turning what could have been their crowning achievement into something that’s merely good. What might have been indeed …