Let’s get an indisputable fact out of the way early: if you don’t occasionally find yourself drifting to the other side to follow the blind somewhere far beyond into the twilight world in order to witness a twisted opera located beyond the red mirror at the edge of time, then rest you quiet; and may no foul creature come anigh you.
In layman’s terms: if you no likey Blind Guardian, you no entry here.
Tucson Lake City, Arizutah’s Judicator is all about their dominant influence from North Rhine-Westphalia (by way of Lothlórien.) The band itself sprouted from a blind garden in Blind Guardian’s backyard and were carefully and efficiently cultivated into suitably vision-impaired junior defenders before eventually being set free into the wild to find their own way. Fly free, young defenders! Fly free! Watch out… OH GOD, WATCH OUT FOR THAT TREE.
To the best of my knowledge, the members of Judicator are not capable of flight sans contraption(s), although their music certainly soars. Nor were they birthed from the dirt behind André Olbrich’s cottage. They did, however, form six years ago at a Blind Guardian show when guitarist Tony Cordisco and vocalist John Yelland met backstage and subsequently decided to put their BG fealty to proper use.
The two-dollar question: how does a band suitably follow a windfall that had the balls to tackle such a critical motif so successfully? Well, first things first: don’t rush it. Considering the fact that it’s been a full three years (almost to the day) since At the Expense of Humanity dropped, I’d say Judicator has that base pretty well covered.
Second, it’s wise as hell to not overly concern oneself with surpassing works in the past—just push them into yesteryear and soldier forward with something equally as candid in execution that also manages to cultivate the responsibility of making listeners’ hearts swell to the point of combustion. Luckily, The Last Emperor achieves such objectives in spades.
The overall Blind Guardian design remains largely unchanged, but where the modern age of BG finds the maestros exploring increasingly complex structures and orchestrations, Judicator epitomizes the more stripped interpretation of the band that stressed The Riff and bursts of speed. In short, more Follow the Blind than Beyond the Red Mirror.
Still, a point of fact very worthy of spotlighting: pull away Yelland’s voice and the band’s penchant for Guardian-styled vocal layering and you’ve got a creature that’s as much Thundersteel-era Riot and Master Control-era Liege Lord as it is anything germinated in the Deutschland speed metal scene of the mid/late 80s. It’s splitting hairs, sure, but there are moments—throughout “Raining Gold,” “Antioch” and “King of Rome,” for example—where the riffing and general blitz on the fretboard is positively lethal in a very thrashy, old-school Agent Steel kind of way. So, yes, aggression is in attendance, but it’s surrounded by a very enthusiastic sense of charming melody.
Where Judicator beats the crap out of so much of their current competition—and buddy, there’s clearly no shortage of modern-age bands reiterating the Guardian formula that’s built atop the Walls of Jericho—is in the WARMTH department. The steady back-and-forth lead-play from Tony and (new guitarist) Michael Sanchez is alluring enough, but the amount of golden choruses and velvety refrains scattered throughout The Last Emperor gives the full encounter a very hospitable, comforting impression that’s all the more vital during an age when humans are constantly slaughtered by negativity from every conceivable angle. Most every song takes at least one moment to wrap the listener in some form of melodious velour, but it’s the extraordinary “The Queen of All Cities” that manages the deed with particular conviction. The song spends the first half galloping in a sort of quintessential Judicator kind of way, but one can’t help but concede to utmost comfort once things mellow at the half-way point and Yelland’s layered vocals get an opportunity to swirl, swaddle and soothe.
That superb voice has become so good and “Kürschy” that some of us in the land of Luckymegotapromo didn’t even realize that Judicator managed to net the true Hansi himself for the song “Spiritual Treason” until the band made the announcement a few days after sending out advance copies. Judicator has finally become blindly guarded enough that even Blind Guardian themselves noticed and graciously sent out a representative to help seal the deal. Suffice to say, if a replacement for Hansi Kürsch is ever needed because he—oh, I don’t know—ends up riding a mysterious roller coaster that magically transports him to a different time and place where he’s suddenly armed with an energy bow and has to deal with a shriveled dungeon master who periodically tries to “help” him find his way back to his own dimension, John Yelland is ready to take up arms. Legs, too…probably.
Oh, and hey, did you get a good look at that album cover? Did you manage to save your game before Peter The Hermit cut your throat in the river because you refused to be baptized? Say goodbye to that +3 pole arm the size of a Cessna wing that you swiped off a Serbian sentryman, I guess. Do you even have to save video games anymore? Marc Whisnant is responsible for the stunning cover artwork for The Last Emperor, and it’s a wonderfully bright and modern interpretation of the album’s comprehensive theme: the First Crusade. In a similar way that Somewhere In Time ended up beating out Mrs. Hinklebottom’s freshman World History class for inspiring folks to further explore Alexander the Great, this record could very well serve as a launching point for encouraging someone to learn more about the Godfrey of Bouillons, Alexios Komnenoses and Porchets of our past, and about how the Turks once forced crusaders to drink donkey blood and urine in order to survive. Oh, the rich, often terrifyingly gruesome history that weaves the tapestry of our past. To wit, BOOYAH—you might just learn something, kid, so buy the damn record.
Heavy metal saves the day again.