FANTASY METAL VETERANS TRADE DISTORTED GUITARS FOR THEIR OWN TWILIGHT ORCHESTRA
Written by Ana Krunic
Modern power metal has always seemed like a bit of an odd stepchild in the extended family tree of metal sub-genres. The familiar topical mainstays of death, misanthropy and the like can be found but far more seldom, often replaced by heroic sagas both from fantasy and history as well as tales of camaraderie and a good helping of love-struck ballads. In some cases, even unabashedly silly (Helloween, anyone?) Few though, have maintained the global popularity that Blind Guardian has managed to keep up for the last two decades of their thirty years in existence. Known for combining speed metal guitars, layered choral vocals and for being heavy on the Tolkien mythos, if there were a big four of power metal they would definitely be on the list.
Blind Guardian has used orchestral elements in their music before, weaved into their work. But in these past twenty years, there has been a lot of talk about one huge endeavour for the band - a fully orchestral, stand-alone album. And just a few months ago, the announcement for Legacy of the Dark Lands was finally made. Even though the songs have none of the physical elements of the metal Blind Guardian, they feel very comfortably Blind Guardian.
“Going back to Nightfall in Middle Earth, we never felt alien when working on this stuff,” says vocalist and songwriter Hansi Kürsch. “For us it was always very natural jumping in. Of course, we need to be in the classical mood, but other than that it didn’t differ too much from what we usually do. And of course, we finish a song when we feel that it entertains us. For the heavy Blind Guardian stuff as well as this. I never doubted that people who were into Nightfall on Middle Earth would have a problem listening to music without the band. Of course it feels strange, maybe, in the beginning, but if you don’t pay too much attention I would say it’s typical Blind Guardian music.”
Even with so many years of experience writing and recording music, setting upon the task of recording with an orchestra comes with a lot of unforeseen hurdles.
“In the beginning when we started recording, the first thing we didn’t have in mind was how difficult it would be to find an orchestra that could perform the stuff in the way you intended,” says Kürsch. “It was the first thing that was quite surprising, and it took a while. We tried out two orchestras before we finally found the Prague Philharmonic on our third attempt. The first two were done in vain, and the same can be said about finding someone who could transpose our digital orchestra arrangements into scores. Doing things in the way we’re doing them means that you need to find someone who understands the philosophy and the spirit of Blind Guardian, so that our original intention would not be distorted. Since we were working with digital orchestral libraries when we were doing this, that had a decent, not typically classical sound but very typical Blind Guardian, we needed the sound to not deny our roots.”
“Another obstacle was for me as a vocalist, to sing to a completely recorded orchestra,” he continues. “The orchestra was recorded in Prague, at the Rudolfinum, which means that it was literally one organic musical performance, all done at the same time. And obviously the room was part of the performance so that all had a sometimes disturbing effect on my performances because I’m not used to it. When working with a metal band, I can choose whatever I want to hear. But here, I had that full-blown orchestra and I couldn’t say, ‘the horns are annoying me, just get rid of it, let’s do it just to the violins and some percussion instead’, so for this particular album, I had to live with the performance of the whole orchestra. That was sometimes for the better, and sometimes for the worse.”
“The dynamics were another problem. I had expected it, but not as drastically. An orchestra goes from very quiet to very loud, and I had to follow that. Of course, it was designed that way so I was prepared but not for every one of these dynamic chances. They sometimes turned out a little different than I would have had it in mind, then the trouble really started because I had to adjust my dynamics, especially when talking about high-pitched dynamics for the vocals, it’s really difficult to be quiet unless I go for falsetto. Usually I do the high-pitched stuff with my full-blown voice. The orchestra were having the same problems, because some of the stuff was arranged and composed in a quite odd way for an orchestra. When trumpets are playing high notes, they have the same issue. They cannot play them quietly. When we had a quiet part of the music, the horns and the trumpets stood out and we just had to cope with it.”
After all these kinks were ironed out, and their work began to come into fruition, all the troubles of this massive undertaking seemed to be worth it. “It was amazing,” says Kürsch. “You have to imagine, we went to Prague after these two failures we had before, and we had a good feeling. The orchestra was suggested by people we really rely on and work with. We got to that concert hall, the Rudolfinum and got our exclusive performance from the orchestra which was quite an amazing experience. But at first, as was the case with each and every session we’ve had before, when they start playing a song like ‘War Feeds War’, it sounds like crap in the beginning. And you’re just like, ‘oh man, this is leading us nowhere, this is going to be another failure,” but within the first thirty minutes after the conductor explains the score to the musicians, they read the score in a completely different way, and within those thirty minutes the performance becomes brilliant. And so, to experience that drastic, quick progression, is once in a lifetime.”
The amount of effort that went into Legacy of the Dark Lands is impressive, even more impressive when you learn that the album has a prequel novel that the band collaborated on with German fantasy author Markus Heitz entitled, of course, The Dark Lands. Set during the Thirty Years’ War fought in Central Europe in the 1600s, the book sets the stage for the story told on the album.
“It was an adventure. Markus relates the story of Aenlin Kane who is supposed to be the daughter of Solomon Kane [a character from Robert E. Howard’s fantasy universe], as a prequel to what we are doing on the album. He introduces a set of characters who play an important role on the album. We are telling the story of a guy called Nicolas, who is a mercenary in the Thirty Years’ War, and he carries a mysterious secret with him. He is living life in oblivion, he doesn’t know what’s wrong with him, he just feels that something is not right. We reveal what that secret is on The Legacy of the Dark Lands. It will turn out that Nicolas is the first horseman of the apocalypse, trying to avoid the apocalypse, and getting in conflict with his three brothers. And this needs to be solved, obviously, on the record so that’s where we went.”
“We didn’t feel there was going to be another opportunity for this,” he says. “We needed a conceptual piece which was not developed yet, and we needed a concept that would pay tribute to the music that we’ve written over the last 23 years, music that spoke a clear language. This needed to be captured. On the other hand, apart from having that frame described by Markus to me, I needed a free hand to pay tribute to the music and to the demands of the music. So I was bringing things back to Markus whenever I needed something, let’s say there was a particular scene - he had to work that into his concept as well. So that was particularly exciting for me.”
“Whatever creates images in the mind of the listener is precious. I personally think the music itself would create soundtrack-like mental images. I’ve spoken to people who have told me that some of the stuff reminds them thematically of Harry Potter, others have said Star Wars and others Lord of the Rings. That says something about the quality of the melodies on this album. Having that rounded out by the original story certainly makes it a special treat.“
Even with all this on the go, Blind Guardian is not slouching on material from the band itself. While there are plans for live performances with the orchestra, their next metal album has taken a front seat to that. “I would assume that we may do a few orchestral showcases in late 2021, that’s going to take a while,” says Kürsch. “That has to do with the fact that we are very far with the songwriting for the next Blind Guardian album. We would love to start the production for that album in the beginning of 2020. Then, ideally finish it by the fall and take it on tour as the regular Blind Guardian lineup, but that gives us time to prepare for the quite demanding setup a live orchestral performance would require.”
'Legacy of the Dark Lands' limited edition box set is available at Nuclear Blast Records shop!