An older legacy rises anew.
Nothing tests the mettle of a musical movement like adversity, and following a massive crash in popular interest in the early 1990s and the ascendance of grunge, heavy metal had all but become a four-letter word among the general public. But an age of catastrophe can and often does become an age of heroes, and one of the central hubs of the underground resistance would be the nation of Germany, where many already established acts would make bold evolutionary strides and provide a massive pushback against the early rumors of metal’s demise. Alongside power metal stalwarts that included the likes of Gamma Ray, Helloween, Running Wild and Grave Digger; Westphalia-born speed metal titans Blind Guardian would spearhead the melodic side of this revolution during the dark days of the 1990s, unleashing a volley of stellar LPs that would breathe new life into a seemingly passé sub-genre, with fourth studio album and 1992 smash “Somewhere Far Beyond” often being cited as a key turning point in the midst of its adopted style’s obituaries being penned by mainline music media.
Then again, success can often prove a stumbling block, and the winds of change were beginning to blow with the onset of the new millennium. Following a crushing one-two punch of rapid fire melodic majesty in the forms of the epic part-time thrashing “Goliath” of 1995 “Imaginations From The Other Side” (produced by Flemming Rasmussen of Metallica-fame no less) and the gargantuan conceptual nod to J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Silmarillion dubbed “Nightfall In Middle-Earth,” unbridled triumph would step aside in favor of experimentation. To be fair, there has yet to be a bad album under the Blind Guardian name, but with 2002’s “A Night At The Opera” came a very different era for the band, as noted by former drummer Thomen Stauch following the recording of the album and his subsequent departure from the band, as well as by longtime co-engineer Piet Sielck (Iron Savior). The successive string of albums that would round out the 2000s and the 2010s would largely stick to this heightened degree of orchestral pomp and circumstance, coming to its apex with 2019’s exclusively symphonic “Twilight Orchestra: Legacy Of The Dark Lands,” a highly impressive compositional feat to be sure, but also one that left many asking “where did the metal go?”.
But the beginning of a new decade has a way of ushering in a paradigm shift, and 2022 has brought one massive return to the good old days for fans of the classic era of this band in “The God Machine.” Like a nostalgic writer drawing inspiration from a review of the works of his youth, the same outfit that kept the metal end up when it was no longer fashionable has turned the stylistic clock back roughly 27 years and delivered a stripped down, riff-centered metallic gauntlet to the gut of any naysayers that wrote this quartet off as old and tired. The lofty, Queen-inspired choirs and forceful shouts of helmsman Hansi Kursch are as vibrant as ever, showering every song with a brilliant conversation of melodic statements that goes heavy, but not overboard on the overdubs and also sees some stellar guest backing vocal work by such noted artists as Marcela Bovio, Marjan Welman, John Cuijpers and a couple other familiar names. The thunderous battery provided by drummer Frederik Ehmke in a manner highly reminiscent of his predecessor Thomen Stauch, and the fierce riff work of guitarist Marcus Siepen prove no less integral in shaping the arrangement, while the heavily harmonized and singing solo work of Andre Olbrich on the six-string often stand toe to toe with the massive vocal arrangements.
To be clear, “The God Machine” does not stand as a total rehash of the characteristic sound that graced “Imaginations From The Other Side,” but it approximates it quite effectively at every facet and rivals it in overall quality. Credit should naturally be given to the brilliant production work by Charlie Bauerfeind and the rest of the studio crew, whom have realized a pummeling 2022 successor to the masterful sound Rasmussen accomplished back in 1995, but what really seals the deal here is the solid songwriting and flawless performances that the band has put forth. Biting, quasi-thrashing speeders with a soaring melodic edge such as the exhilarating opener “Deliver Us From Evil”, and the similarly styled and fierce yet more compact crushers “Violent Shadows” and “Blood Of The Elves” spare no expense in the aggression department, but also retain a fairly elaborate scheme of vocal and guitar gymnastics, along with some nuanced atmospheric keyboard elements to keep things interesting. A parallel stylistic story is told with a slightly more menacing tone on “Damnation”, which brilliantly blends some of the more dissonant parts of this outfit’s pre-1992 speed metal roots with the more epic approach that would follow as the 90s progressed.
Naturally no Blind Guardian opus, even one reaching back to the band’s earlier days, would be complete without a healthy collection of longer and more elaborate excursions into epic storytelling in a fantasy context. Drawing inspiration from Neil Gaiman’s similarly named work, “Secrets Of The American Gods” brings a more symphonic and progressive twist into the equation that recalls the classic charms of their aforementioned 1995 smash LP’s title song, while the spacey vibes and chugging groves of “Life Beyond The Spheres” matches its Sci-Fi steeped subject matter that it depicts almost to a fault. A more menacing take on drawn out side of the storytelling coin that plays a bit more consistently into this album’s speed metal proclivities is accomplished in “Architects Of Doom”, which also features one of the most impressive shred displays out of Olbrich found here. Even when venturing into token ballad territory, the album’s sense of darkness is maintained on the lighter “Let It Be No More” by forsaking the band’s frequent affinity for folksy interludes for something a bit more modern and harrowing. The closing foray “Destiny” functions as a high engaging epilogue; avoiding the highly kinetic fervor of some of the earlier songs, but sealing things on a highly complex and progressive note, with Olbrich’s guitar work again being a highlight.
To state the obvious, this is the best thing to hit the shelves under the Blind Guardian moniker since “Nightfall In Middle-Earth,” and for those that preferred the less keyboard-steeped sound the preceded said 1998 masterwork, the sonic flavor of “The God Machine” is heavily tilted towards what preceded it. It embodies all of the best elements of a throwback, yet when it is fully comprehended, functions more as a true continuation and road not taken scenario where one could picture this album standing in the place of “A Night At The Opera,” or one of the albums that immediately followed it. Those craving thrash-adjacent speed metal with plenty of vertebrae-destroying riffs and beats will have more than their fill, as will those who like their music loaded with fantastical lyrics when noting the heavy influence that the works of Patrick Rothfuss, Brandon Sanderson and even “Battlestar Galactica” had on these songs. It’s a magnum opus born of real world conviction in the recent aftermath of the pandemic and some difficult life events for the musicians involved, as well as that of the otherworldly, and no fan of the genre will want to miss it.
Released By: Nuclear Blast Records
Release Date: September 2nd, 2022
Genre: Power Metal
Order “The God Machine” here.
“The God Machine” Track-listing:
1. Deliver Us From Evil (5:22)
2. Damnation (5:21)
3. Secrets Of The American Gods (7:29)
4. Violent Shadows (4:18)
5. Life Beyond The Spheres (6:03)
6. Architects Of Doom (6:21)
7. Let It Be No More (4:49)
8. Blood Of The Elves (4:38)
9. Destiny (6:47)
BLIND GUARDIAN are:
- Hansi Kursch / Lead vocals
- Andre Olbrich / Guitars, background vocals
- Marcus Siepen / Guitars, background vocals
- Johan van Stratum / Bass
- Frederik Ehmke / Drums, percussion, bagpipes
Following a couple decades of progressive experimentation and increasing symphonic largess, German speed metal icons Blind Guardian take a stylistic step back to their heavier roots and offer up their most intense opus since the close of the 1990s