Once more, a period of massive anticipation subsides for the latest effort from Germany's most visible metal export and one of power metal's royalty, and the product rolls out into hobbit holes, LARPs and out across gaming grids the world-wide. Another cycle of interesting literary subjects has been gathered for discussion, and the band have kept their fans in on the recording process, samples, and probably even the dietary supplements when recording their 9th full-length effort, At the Edge of Time. The band is so transparent and builds hype so well for each new release that I'm surprised we haven't been forced to suffer through a Hansi Kursch reality TV show in the months before each new release.
Judging from the single teaser, "A Voice in the Dark", my expectations were not sky high for this effort, as the two songs there felt like simply more of the same that the band had been rattling out forever, only lacking that certain explosive, memorable ingredient they'd perfected though the 90s in their rise to power. But the samples on their site held out some hope, and now that I've gotten to tear through the album a number of times, I can honestly say that the remainder of this material makes up for the few, forgettable pieces. It was probably foremost on the fans' mind whether or not Blind Guardian would be pushing to an even more poppy level than they did with their previous A Twist in the Myth, or regressing to their far more inspirational past, and I would offer that this represents a mix of these directions. There are no outright, cutesy rockers like "Another Stranger Me" or "Fly" (which were not bad), but several segments that feel close enough; and the straight speed metal raving doffed throughout this album recall the days of Somewhere Far Beyond and Imaginations from the Other Side, with a studio gloss every bit as modern and layered as their former 21st century arrangements.
It's off to a damn fine start with the symphonic suite that heralds "Sacred Worlds", which is an extended version of the song "Sacred" that was used in the computer game Sacred 2: Fallen Angel. In all, this rendition is over 9 minutes in length, but the orchestration truly helps flesh out the track, and if you can wipe your mind of goblins and trolls dancing and head banging to a computer generated cast of Hansi and crew, you are subjected to a reasonable measure of emotional power. "Tanelorn (Into the Void)" returns to the world of Michael Moorcock's Elric saga, a sequel or sorts to "The Quest for Tanelorn" from Somewhere Far Beyond, both lyrically and stylistically, for this is sheer speed/power metal with some excellent vocal arrangements that don't ignore the Queen-like rapport the band had developed in the past decade or so. "Road of No Release" centers on a Peter S. Beagle story, who you might know better as the author of The Last Unicorn. It's one of the most proggish pieces on the album, and could have easily appeared on the previous record, but not the most enticing here, despite a quality burning lead segment with some vocals cascading across it.
Next, "Ride Into Obsession" explodes into the realm of Robert Jordan's haughty and far too worded Wheel of Time saga, doing great justice to the meandering narrative, with a fairly catchy chorus sequence and a nice lead sequence as payoff to the storming aggression that the band have once again found themselves attached to. "Curse My Name" is another of the band's 'bard-like' pieces', slowly developing and steeped in flutes and windy, soaring background vocals. Like many similar tracks throughout the band's career, this would normally represent a sappy and unnecessary lull from their true strength (the metal), but the percussive climaxes here at least give something for the ears to latch upon. "Valkyries" might tease itself as yet another ballad, but soon matures into a multi-tiered, melodic prog piece that was one of my favorites on the album, a fitting enough tribute to the mythological, beautiful entities. Like "Curse My Name", "Control Divine" is based on John Milton, but this time his famous Paradise Lost. The various shifts in tempo and surges of melody do well to capture the desperation of the epic poem, but one wonders if this subject would have been served better by one of Blind Guardian's 8+ minute compositions instead of stuck into a shorter length.
We've already heard the next pair of songs from the single leading up to this album. Both "War of the Thrones" and "A Voice in the Dark" represent George R.R. Martin's sprawling, unfinished political fantasy epic A Song of Ice and Fire. The former is a calmly thriving ballad that blows into some soothing, sailing vocal passages, and I feel like the version presented here is superior to that of the single. "A Voice in the Dark" is probably the least interesting of the metal tunes here, with really only one catchy bit in the bridge riff. It conjures up Somewhere Far Beyond in style, but not execution. "Wheel of Time" revisits the Robert Jordan novels, a nearly 9 minute piece with plenty of savage orchestration and glistening melody to resonate through a long series of listens. This has some of the best individual licks on the record, so its almost a shame its tucked into the finale, but then, like any good stage performance, its indeed climactic.
At the Edge of Time is overall a pretty good record, though far from the best the band have produced in their 20+ years of existence. The musicianship is stunning, Hansi's vocals still honed and sharp, and the writing good enough to support longer and shorter tracks. Not everything here is gold. There were moments in "War of the Thrones", "Road of No Release" and "Curse My Name" in which I felt I was nodding off, and "A Voice in the Dark" is simply average at best, but you've still got about 45 minutes minimum of excellent writing that will hook onto your psyche and have you back, feeding for more until the inevitable follow-up. I truly believe that if the band is going to devote chunks of the album to specific writers or fantasy series, that perhaps the Germans should strive for another pure concept album like their finest, Nightfall in Middle-Earth. It just seems clunky to my mind having pairs of songs devoted to George R.R. Martin or Robert Jordan, it'd be nice for them to go all out. By this point I don't feel the band have much ground to cover musically. Everything here is old hat, a classy retread of former works, with perhaps the exception of clearer orchestration, so a singular lyrical focus is one area in which they might keep us enthralled for another decade or beyond.
Verdict: Win [8/10] (it is more than a game)