Sometimes, a review represents a battle between the writer and the band/album. Other times, it is between a writer and himself. At other times still, it becomes a three-way dance. The latter only works in the wrestling ring; in every other avenue, it is destined to be either disappointing or a total clusterfuck.
Take this instance, for example. I started in on Beyond the Red Mirror with the best intentions. It floored me at the first listen and continued to do so through multiple spins. This is an album so grand, I thought, that I must do it proper justice. So I took my time to keep listening and really absorb the album before putting the proverbial pen to paper. When I finally did, my first step was naturally to tie it to my previous review, where I had name-checked it. Then something strange happened.
I lost my way.
There I was with this amazing record playing in my ears and no idea to convey that. My childlike joy had become middle-aged critique. I started to question my ability to string words together. Meanwhile, the entire world was already talking about Blind Guardian’s latest triumph and my biggest concern was not looking like a douche. The album started to taunt me, flashing its glory at every turn. I started to resent it for being so damn good. It didn’t help that I kept altering the listening experience by bringing the various bonus tracks into play. So I decided to step away for a few days. Aided in part by a health scare, a few days soon became a few weeks, and I was still no closer to knowing what to do.
When that happens, all you can do grab yourself by the short and curlies and demand results.
So here we are. Pardon any high-pitched tones.
Many of the descriptors used above – “grand”, “triumph”, “glory” – are perfectly applicable. It is easily their greatest, most complete work in over a decade (some have said A Night at the Opera; I tend to say Nightfall in Middle-Earth). It is a work so fantastic, it required the incorporation of three worldwide choirs and two 90-piece orchestras – take that, Rhapsody of Fire.
Like any good concept album, most of the tracks are perfectly capable of standing on their own, but must be played in sequence to achieve the full effect. The chanting overture of “The Ninth Wave” explodes into full theatrical bombast, which leads into “Twilight of the Gods”, where the stage for the story to follow is set as only Blind Guardian can.
The next act kicks off with “Prophecies”, even if the closing crescendo indicates that it actually ends one. This is about where the real action begins, as the protagonist actually goes where the album title indicates. Now, I get a little mindfucked with “At The Edge of Time”, being the title of their last album and all, but clearly there is no relation to the journey spoken of here. It feels like the antagonist’s side of the story gets some airtime with “Ashes of Eternity” telling what is happening…uhhh…not beyond the red mirror…
You know, I’m not gonna lie…I’ve historically been terrible at following the stories behind concept albums, at least the finer points. So I’m gonna skip that for a bit. Suffice to say, “The Holy Grail”, “The Throne”, and “Sacred Mind” are all varying degrees of good, moving the story along and creating all kinds of visions of all kinds of astrophysical wonderment. The only real interruption of tone comes via the quiet, piano-and-vocal “Miracle Machine”, which best I can tell finds our protagonists in their darkest hour and looking to the gods for…well, you know.
I feel confident in that assessment as the proper album closer “Grand Parade” is such a stunning, jaw-dropping dénouement of confrontation, battle, victory, and ultimately celebration…just wow. What a final act. Getting back to theatrical terminology, you can envision the stage finale: bright lights, huge chorus, and full orchestration. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if all three choruses and both orchestras were in on this one. Just amazing.
Oh, and those pesky bonus tracks – “Distant Memories” on the digibook and “Doom” on the ‘earbook’ – are sort of like deleted scenes. They’re fine and all, but you can see why they weren’t included in the theatrical release: they merely lengthen the story without adding much to it. “Doom”, in particular, feels like a tacked-on afterthought with its placement at the end of the track list.
So here I am, 750 words later and still not feeling like I’ve done this album justice. Such is the ups-and-downs of music journalism. They can’t all be zingers, I guess. Sometimes, an album just turns you into a total fanboy incapable of rational thought. Yeah. I’m gonna go with that. You are hereby strongly recommended and highly encouraged to turn off your critical thinking mechanisms, let Blind Guardian take you Beyond the Red Mirror, and simply bask in its musical glory.