Review by Xephyr for Blind Guardian - Nightfall in Middle-Earth (1998)
The Guardian's King
The prince gazed out at the charred landscape, not a blade of grass to diversify the rolling hills. "Hath been years, my friend, and I still find ye here," said the old bard as he grasped the prince's shoulder. "Reminiscing of our grand journey?" The prince sighed, his eyes fixated on the horizon. "I've changed, haven't I?" said the prince in a monotone, low voice. The old bard dropped his hand from the prince's shoulder and joined him on the balcony overlooking the wasteland. "Nay, we are indeed not the spry young gaggle anymore," murmured the bard. "But those days are behind you, much as many more days are behind me." The prince finally averted his gaze to eye the old bard to his side. "Don't you long for them, though?" The bard quietly chuckled much in the way he did in the tavern many, many years ago. "There are journeys of all kinds, my friend, you know this," said the bard. "All journeys are not equal," the prince said shortly, and the bard acknowledged him with a smile. "Ye shall make a mighty fine king," said the bard gently, and the prince's stare immediately shot back to the horizon. "We've conquered much. Strolled through the gilded halls. Fought the hoards. Sat atop the throne. I doubt the life of a king will ever suit me. I plan to write of our adventure then look for others, my friend," said the prince in the same monotone voice. The bard cracked another smile and grasped his friend's shoulder again. "Our journey shall make a fine tale, my prince." A slight smile finally escaped the prince's emotionless face as he wrapped his arm around his friend's shoulders. "Not just a tale. A swan song."
Blind Guardian had a legendary run in the 90's, beginning with the rough around the edges Tales From the Twilight World, evolving into the experimental and aggressive Somewhere Far Beyond, and culminating with the epic Imaginations From the Other Side. These three albums showcased Power Metal's ability to create blisteringly heavy and fast riffs while still maintaining a fun and fantastical atmosphere with incredible vocals, guitar passages, and overall great songwriting. Blind Guardian weren't finished though, since Imaginations From the Other Side showed a transition to a fuller and more epic sound with less and less Speed Metal influence. They wanted to follow up their epic sounding 1995 album with something bigger, with more fantasy influences, an actual plot of sorts, and have it be just as heavy and compelling as their previous works. Nightfall In Middle-Earth was Blind Guardian's attempt to go bigger in all of these categories and while succeeding in some, they left a bit of what made them phenomenal behind.
It's no secret that a lot of Power Metal bands are fantasy fans, with most of their music being centered around epic journeys with dragons and magical swords or some sort of intergalactic hijinks. Blind Guardian are massive proponents of these themes, with many of their previous songs and albums containing many, many explicit references to the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, but they never went all the way with any sort of storytelling aspect or concept album. Nightfall in Middle-Earth, as the title itself suggests, is Blind Guardian's attempt to finally go the extra mile and introduce a full story into one of their albums complete with many small plot-centric interludes and a sort of cohesive story. Thankfully they break the mold from the very beginning, giving the listener a story centered on an evil villain king rather than the over-utilized chosen hero of destiny. It gives the album a darker and more twisted feel, which fits Blind Guardian's overall style much better than the alternative, not to mention the album claims the evil king does end up taking over during the conclusion. Each of the short interludes after most of the full length songs are rather dark, giving a bit more insight on the evil king's rise to power as he makes his way across the lands. Some are certainly better than others, with "The Minstrel" and "Out On the Water" being two of the most out of place, but it's a very interesting concept to use that's still pretty unique to this day. It gets confusing when one of the interludes leads into an intro within the next song, like the transition between "Lammoth" and "Nightfall" as well as between "Face the Truth" and "Noldor (Dead Winter Reigns)", but most of the transitions end up hitting their mark well enough.
Nightfall In Middle-Earth tries its hardest to one-up Imaginations From the Other Side in terms of bombast, adding even more choirs, more orchestra, and an overall more theatrical performance from vocalist Hansi Kürsch. Kürsch has always been the cornerstone of Blind Guardian's music, with his distinct and powerful Power Metal voice able to tackle all kinds of different ranges and styles. Thanks to Nightfall In Middle-Earth's slower tempos and more progressive tendencies, Kürsch's cleaner style gets more time to shine in tracks like "Thorn" and "The Eldar", a style which was normally only shown in the shorter ballad pieces in previous albums. "The Curse of Feanor" and "Mirror Mirror" show that Kürsch still has the aggression in his voice as well, making this album his most varied and impressive performance to date. Sadly in order to highlight the vocals the rest of the band takes a bit too much of a backseat, with the guitar and drums being pushed back further in the mix, which marks the shift into a less accented but more cohesive production style. Kürsch's vocals and choirs are very much the focal point of most of these songs and thankfully Blind Guardian's lyricism and vocal songwriting continued to improve as to eliminate most of the awkward and overly simple lines the band had in previous albums.
Nightfall In Middle-Earth was certainly Blind Guardian's most ambitious project to date with wanting to combine more epic orchestral and story-telling elements, so it's not surprising that something had to suffer in order to move forward. Somewhere Far Beyond and Imaginations From the Other Side garnered their monumental sounds from speed, a bit of aggression, and very intelligently written parts that accented one another in ways that gave the tracks this torridly heavy feeling. Nightfall In Middle-Earth tries to gain this same grand sound by adding more moving parts, whether it's more choir, more orchestra, or more synth effects in the background, and while it does create a full and huge sound, it never strikes me in the same way that their two previous albums did. The guitar and drum rhythms are a bit more muddied together and while Kürsch sounds fantastic, the rest of the band sounds like it's just going through the motions sometimes and it's harder to pick out the cool little flourishes that were all over Imaginations From the Other Side. "Mirror Mirror", "Time Stands Still (At The Iron Hill)", and "When Sorrow Sang" are still great standouts from the instrumental side of Blind Guardian as they attempt to bring that energy and tight performance they're known for, but the album as a whole lacks a lot of the impact the band had before.
This is easily the most different and diverse album from Blind Guardian's 90's run and although the changes that they made to their sound to facilitate the new fantasy story elements were necessary, I think it was a slight step down in quality. Nightfall In Middle-Earth is a perfect example of classic power metal that can strive to be epic but not completely overblown like much of today's Power Metal, with Twilight Force being one of the few bands to have any sort of monumental success in my opinion. Once a certain threshold of cheesiness is passed there's no going back, and thankfully Nightfall In Middle-Earth is very good at not really getting close to that line. Some of the interludes and lyrics are still pretty silly, but the darker themes and Kürsch's delivery keeps the album in the "cool Tolkien references" side of Power Metal. However the music itself is a bit less memorable and while the album functions amazingly as a cohesive whole, standout moments are few and far between. The choruses of "Nightfall", "Mirror Mirror", and some of the well done interlude voices are infectious, but much of the album starts to bleed together after a while. Everything that made Blind Guardian great is still here, it's just diluted and a bit simplified in order to make room for their grand fantasy vision.
I think this was a fantastic album for classic Blind Guardian to go out on, since A Night at the Opera and A Twist in the Myth would begin to compound on some of the slight problems that were present in this album. They returned to form in 2010's At the Edge of Time but proceeded to stray farther from what originally made them great in 2015's Beyond the Red Mirror. Tales From the Twilight World, Somewhere Far Beyond, and Imaginations From the Other Side really helped to lay the groundwork for Blind Guardian to attempt their swan song concept album, and for all intents and purposes they nailed it. The story isn't exactly coherent, some of the interludes are worthless or strange, and the band feels a little tired and less accented, but the full package is still utterly fantastic. The songwriting is complex and interesting, Kürsch absolutely kills the vocal performance, and they finally got to fully indulge in their fantasy worshiping tenancies. Nightfall In Middle-Earth is still a Power Metal classic in my book, and while it's a shame that Blind Guardian couldn't keep up with the sort of quality they had in the 90's, it's awesome that they were able to create a truly epic sounding album while not falling into the traps that so many other Power Metal bands fall into.