Concert Review: Blind Guardian plays The Danforth
There are always dangers in revisiting your old favourites. I hadn’t seen Blind Guardian in almost a decade, not since their 2006 A Twist in the Myth album tour. The German power metal group was my favourite band during my formative years, but I was a different person now, living in a different city with different friends, different tastes and—crucially—different hair. I also hadn’t enjoyed their most recent album, Beyond the Red Mirror, as much as I’d anticipated. Was the album blander, or was the magic gone? A part of me was worried that it just wouldn’t be the same.
I don’t know why I ever doubted them.
When we stepped into the Danforth, the crowd was near to bursting with tension. It wasn’t the collective craziness of an anonymous arena concert—the Danforth is small, almost intimate, and the crowd was older and largely sober. They certainly hadn’t been fired up by the eminently skippable opening act. This was not a crowd that was there for any old metal show. They knew who they were waiting for. The energy and the tension was familial, not frenzied—we weren’t waiting to lose ourselves, but to find something.
When lead vocalist Hansi Kürsch’s voice broke out over the crowd, the answering roar was one of relief as much as excitement. We were finally there.
Blind Guardian opened with their Red Mirror orchestral powerhouse, “The Ninth Wave,” pared down from the complexity of the album version into a more manageable stage iteration—then they quickly slid back into the harsh pounding of a much simpler, much older song, “Banish from Sanctuary,” all the way back from 1989’s Follow the Blind. It tells you something about this band that their fans still know all the words. Then they switched gears yet again into the (comparatively) sedate “Nightfall,” the iconic track from the concept album that is invariably every fan’s favourite, Nightfall in Middle-Earth.
By the time they jumped into “Nightfall,” they’d given the crowd a perfect encapsulation of what this show was going to be. When your discography stretches back to the early eighties, setlists are always contentious. This show was a marriage of their rougher, pre-Nightfall classics and the highly-produced blockbusters of their two most recent albums, with a good sampling of Nightfall itself to even out the gaps. The extreme stylistic differences between the albums evaporated onstage, as the almost fussy “bigness” of Beyond the Red Mirror and At the Edge of Time was made raw again. Hansi’s voice was left strong and tough, with only André Olbrich for backup, rather than a chorus or overlapping vocal tracks. Most importantly, though, by taking us back in time to Follow the Blind so early in the show, they foreshadowed what was to come.
Missing from this concert was A Twist in the Myth (with the exception of the single, “Fly”),perhaps reflecting the fact that while it’s a solid album (and honestly one of my favourites, because that tour solidified my love for the band) it is, in hindsight, a stylistic dead end. Beyond the Red Mirror and At the Edge of Time both returned to the overproduced bombast that the band had experimented with in 2002’s A Night at the Opera, fine-tuned it, and borrowed only sparingly from Twist.
After “Fly,” it was return to form with the current-era heavy-hitters “Tanelorn” and “Prophecies.” While I was sad that A Night at the Opera’s fourteen-minute operatic had been scuttled, the band’s confident decision to follow with three songs from 1990’s Tales from the Twilight World was a comforting return to the simple rhythms of their earlier work.
The technical prowess of the band is amazing. While guitarists André Olbrich and Marcus Siepen are not nearly as showy as members of bands like Dragonforce or Hammerfall, they do complex and often subtle work that sets Blind Guardian above other power metal bands. Blind Guardian’s compositions feature shifts and idiosyncrasies that make their sound unique, and incorporate progressions far more interesting than the usual “the same again but louder” approach to raising the energy in a room.
In concert, their competency and maturity shows. Sometimes it seems that metal is a young man’s game, but Hansi, André and Marcus are forty-nine, forty-eight, and forty-seven, respectively, and what young blood they have resides in drummer Frederick Ehmke, thirty-seven. Often the trappings of metal—the spikes, the makeup, et cetera—combine to make the whole thing feel like bad theatre, but not so with Blind Guardian. Perhaps realizing that it was thinning, Hansi cut his hair—the staple of a metal rocker’s look—and cropping it hasn’t affected his ability to command the energy of a room. All four men are fathers, and wore regular clothes on stage (Ehmke’s shirtlessness excepted), leaving you with the sense that they’re committed to their craft, not their look. I’ve grown up in the decade since last we’ve met, but so have they.
It’s also worth noting the good grace of a man who looked out at a crowd that was a mere fraction of what the band usually plays to in Germany and growled with a sly smile, “You’re not working hard enough, Toronto!” This was a crowd that was working hard—Blind Guardian is sung to, not listened to, and the audience is as much a part of the music as the band.
The band’s transition into a progressive power metal band heavily focused on layered vocals and orchestration wasn’t an easy one—it cost them drummer Thomas Stauch in 2005—but the band’s raison d’ être has always been the lyrics. While they have experimented stylistically over the years, the narrative core of their work bridges the gaps between albums. The clever narrative is where Blind Guardian sets themselves apart, and nowhere is it more obvious than in concert.
There is a self-referential quality to their work, as Hansi takes on the character of a bard telling stories by a campfire as much as a performer playing to a crowd, recalling folkloric traditions rather than theatrical metal fantasies. It’s participatory and inclusive in a way that other shows are not, and it all came to a head at the encore. After priming us with the Red Mirror/Edge of Time one-two punch of “Sacred Worlds” and “Twilight of the Gods,” Blind Guardian ended with Follow the Blind’s blood-pumping “Valhalla.” Traditionally the chanting goes on as long as the audience will let it, with Hansi and Thomas only occasionally pitching in with vocals and drums to test if the crowd’s ready to shut up yet. It took us a while.
Show over, encore over, they left the stage, and the cheering rose in volume. We knew better than that. It wouldn’t be a Blind Guardian show without “The Bard’s Song.”
If you asked me what my favourite Blind Guardian song is, I’d be overwhelmed by choice, but if there’s any song that cuts to the essence of what Blind Guardian is about, it’s “The Bard’s Song.” Folkloric to the heart, it invites their listeners to understand that every subsequent song is part of a larger story. Through listening, the audience becomes part of the telling. Their only acoustic piece of the night, it’s a simple melody, almost lullaby-like, but it gained a primal sorrow as the entire audience hall howled it out, holding that one last melancholy note as long as they could.
Finally, emotionally exhausted, the crowd was ready for one final piece, and the band ended with the structurally perfect “Mirror Mirror” from Nightfall. This song has as everything that Blind Guardian does well—a bold, brash beginning, a rousing chorus, unexpected variations, high-energy but also weirdly sad.
Blind Guardian’s Toronto experience was technically superb, a careful balance of old favourites and new ballads, and raw and wild in a way I wasn’t sure either of us were capable of anymore.