Long sabbaticals beget stronger sorcery.
Though often referred to affectionately as “Iced Guardian” by their fans, no doubt in acknowledgement to the iconic bands from which its two masterminds hail, Demons & Wizards is a project that has proven a force unto itself. Drawing upon the more primordial thrash and speed metal elements of Blind Guardian and Iced Earth, all the while still exhibiting a melodic grandeur and propensity for atmospheric sorrow, this fold of twin titans would unleash a respectable pair of studio albums spanning the late 90s up until 2005 that bridged the gap between the similar yet highly distinct bands. However, the past 15 years has seen this project all but fall by the wayside as the intense touring and studio obligations of guitarist Jon Schaffer and front man Hansi Kursch’s principle projects have taken precedence. Then again, 2020 is already proving to be a year of surprises, and those longing for a worthy successor to “Touched By The Crimson King” would do well to take notice.
Naturally the recent advent of a successful American tour that culminated in an electrifying performance at PowerProg USA would presuppose a new studio album, but the simply dubbed “III” goes well beyond filling the closing slot of a musical trilogy. This is an album that does more than simply revisit the swift gallops and triumphant choirs of yesteryear; it expands upon an already epic template and erects a mighty Gothic cathedral of sound that almost makes the preceding albums appear Romanesque by comparison. Much of this owes to a more eclectic stylistic foundation that runs parallel to the stylistic developments that have occurred in Schaffer’s and Kursch’s musical endeavors since the mid-2000s, incorporating a greater level of symphonic bombast and a more expansive array of folksy acoustic elements, alongside a few moments of old school hard rock. Then again, one would be remiss not to note the fancier display of guitar showmanship, owing to the input of Iced Earth shredder Jake Dreyer and longtime associate of Schaffer and engineering extraordinaire Jim Morris.
The heightened level of ambition on display couldn’t be more obvious, as from this album’s very inception the scale of things blurs the lines between Blind Guardian’s recent output and the more drawn out moments of Manowar. The aptly named opener “Diabolic” could be best described as a more melancholy and gradualist sequel to debut album opener “Heaven Denies”, drawing heavily upon a dark atmospheric aesthetic with an array of clean and acoustic guitar elements and an eerie keyboard and vocal backdrop, then gradually developing into a swift, speed thrashing melee. Clocking in at just over 8 minutes in length, it also introduces itself as the longest anthem out of the Demons & Wizards repertoire yet, though only the third longest on this album. It’s even longer cousins “Timeless Spirit” and “Children Of Cain” go in a bit more of a dreary, folksy power ballad direction a bit more in line with “Fiddler On The Green”, layering on the acoustic guitar magic as only Schaffer can deliver and even finds him dabbling with the mandolin a bit on the latter.
While the trio of long-winded forays into Iron Maiden-like epic exploits could be described as the crowning musical achievements of this album, they are naturally not alone. Driving riff machines in more of an easy to digest package such as “Wolves In Winter” and “Dark Side Of Her Majesty” showcase the duality of Kursch’s massive choir of voices (alongside an array of backup vocalists) and Schaffer’s precision thrash riffing quite effectively, while the slightly longer and German speed metal-infused crusher “Split” pounds the pavement like a ton of anvils, rivaling the most intense offerings heard on either of the two previous albums. On the less expected side of the equation is a mid-paced, rock-oriented anthem in “Invincible” that occasionally reminds of 70s Alice Cooper, albeit if said icon’s sound was painted over with a massive layer of voices comparable to Queen and loaded with shred-happy solos. But the biggest surprise is definitely the retro-70’s leaning groove machine “Midas Disease”, an admitted tribute to the late Malcolm Young that perfectly melds old school AC/DC with the signature Kursch and Schaffer sound.
Call it an unpopular opinion, but this album represents the best that has come out of either the Blind Guardian or Iced Earth camp in several years, and just manages to edge out “Touched By The Crimson King” to be this band’s best offering to date. About the only real flaw that dogs these songs to any extent is that Schaffer and the production crew played it a bit safe in the mixing department and came out with a final product that sounds a bit too closely aligned with early 2000s recording practices. Nevertheless, every moving part within this cohesive whole sounds like it has been given a much needed adrenaline shot, with Hansi in particular providing a youthful vocal assault that’s about on par with what he brought to “Nightfall On Middle Earth”. It should come as no surprise given the display of raw energy and power that typified the tour that preceded this album and closed out the 2010s, and yours truly remains hopeful that another string of American appearances featuring select songs from this LP are soon to come.
Released by: Century Media Records
Released Date: February 21th, 2020
Genre: Heavy Metal
- Hansi Kürsch / Lead and backing vocals
- Jon Schaffer / Rhythm and lead guitars, bass guitar, 6- and 12-string acoustic guitars, mandolin, keyboards, backing vocals
Guest musicians on “III”:
- Brent Smedley / Drums
- Jim Morris / Additional guitars, backing vocals
- Jake Dreyer / Additional guitars
- Ruben Drake / Bass
- Thomas Hackman, Olaf Senkbeil, John Jaycee Cuipers, Zakery Alexander, Jeff Brant, Todd Plant, Jerome Mazza – Backing vocals
- PA’dam chamber choir / Classical choir
3. Wolves In Winter
4. Final Warning
5. Timeless Spirit
6. Dark Side Of Her Majesty
7. Midas Disease
8. New Dawn
9. Universal Truth
11. Children Of Cain
One of power metal’s most iconic and all but forgotten duos re-emerge from a 15 year studio hiatus to conjure some more impact-based splendor as only an alliance of America and Germany can deliver