by Mark Kadzielawa
Blind Guardian is a fantastic German band exploring the world of heavy and melodic music of epic proportions. Their topics, mostly based on fantasy literature invite the listener into the world of vivid imagery and idealism. Blind Guardian employs very specific orchestrations in their songs, and while at it achieves incredibly satisfying balance between the orchestra and a rock band.
Blind Guardian's roots go all the way to 1984. The band formed as Lucifer's Heritage. At that time the band included two core members. Bassist/vocalist Hansi Kursch, and guitar player Andre Olbrich. Guitarist, Marcus Siepen joined the band in 1987, and remained at the post ever since. The band eventually settled on Blind Guardian, and released their debut album, "Battalions Of Fear" in 1988. At the time, a typical speed metal record heavily influenced by Helloween and Iron Maiden. But, the band continued to progress with each release, honing and developing their musical skills, and expanding their horizons. Throughout the years, Blind Guardian, transformed into a highly skilled writers, and original sounding outfit. They created their epic style, and now continue to progress within it. Drummer, Frederik Ehmke, completes the band, joining Blind Guardian for the "A Twist In The Myth" (2006) album.
"At The Edge of Time" is the newest Blind Guardian album. It's a masterpiece of a record, and a great example how a band can function with an orchestra without stepping on each other's toes. "At The Edge of Time" once again re-defines the band stylistically, and assures the public they have no equal in their field.
Guitar player, Andre Olbrich, talks what it was like to assemble "At The Edge of Time," and the long and winding road to get to that point.
How planned was the new album? Even upon one listen you get an impression as if much thinking went into it.
Andre Olbrich: You’re right. It almost sounds like a concepts album, but it isn’t. And we never make up our mind before we start the songwriting. There is no definite direction, we leave everything open, and just let the creativity flow. We think that’s the best concept we can have, otherwise you might be limiting yourself to certain style, which we don’t want to do.
How challenging was the idea of working with the orchestra?
That was really challenging because we try to improve our orchestra skills since we did “Theatre Of Pain” (a track off "Somewhere Far Beyond") in 1992. We wrote that song back then, and that was our first experience we’ve had with an orchestrations. Since then we’ve tried to improve our skills, and I think every song we write with an orchestra in mind, the connection between the heavy metal music and the orchestra gets better. So, songs like “Sacred Worlds” is like our optimum so far for the songwriting skills in that area, including orchestration.
One thing which I find extremely complementary about the orchestration of music is the balance between the band and the orchestra. Neither the band nor the orchestra is playing on top of each other, it’s a very organic balance, and you truly give each other the room to breathe. How long did this take to accomplish?
Yeah, you’re right. It’s not easy thing to do. You need lots of time, and you constantly go over and over those songs. As you said it’s the most important thing to leave the space because if it’s full of rhythm guitars, you will never hear the orchestra. It’s a very sensitive part that do have the balance, and whenever an instrument leads it should have the proper space to lead. You really need to work out the little details on that, otherwise you’ll miss the point. It requires a lot of time. Songs like “Sacred Worlds,” or “Wheel of Time” probably needs like six months of development to be completed. I mean, we don’t work every day on it, but it takes that period of about six months for the song to become complete with a structure like this.
With such epic sounds throughout the new album, is there a story that connects throughout the lyrics at all, or these just loose concepts?
It’s not a concept story, we have different themes for all songs. Hansi is writing mainly about his favorite books. He is always trying to find a story that fits to the motion of the music, and the impact it has. And I think he did very well on the new album.
As far as playing this material live, will the whole album be presented?
I think over the years we will play the whole album because the songs are great to play live. For this tour we will concentrate on five tracks. Which are “Sacred Worlds,” “Wheel of Time,” “This Will Never End,” “Tanelorn,” and “Ride Into Obsession.” Those are the songs we’ve rehearsed, and we plan on playing them. The other songs we will probably play on the next tour.
Was adapting the new material to be performed live easy or challenging? Especially with the orchestral parts being so significant.
It was really hard, and for the first time we tried to work with sound sampling. If we wanted to play "Wheel of Time,” which is one of the most important songs on the album, and we could not afford a real orchestra for the whole tour, so the best thing we could do is to use the sampler. Everything else besides the orchestration is live. We had to find a system which works with a click-track, and makes everything sound tight. We did a European tour, and we tested the system, and it worked fine. The fans were enjoying what we did, and our light engineer is doing the rest, so the song truly gets its magic.
As you listen to the last few Blind Guardian records, how much of the original formula is still there?
There never was anything like a formula when it comes to Blind Guardian. I think the band was changing on each album. We started with a very melodic Helloween/Iron Maiden album titled "Battalions of Fear." Then changed in to a thrash influenced band. We had a lot of thrash riffs. And then we changed into what Blind Guardian is all about now. I think the "Tales" album was the record on which we've found our own style. We started using more melodic riffs, choirs, and all that stuff, then we changed again with "Imaginations From The Other Side." I think with every record we did, there was progression and a lot of experimentation. I could never say which album is the definitive Blind Guardian record. But I think without the progression we've made on records like "A Night In The Opera," or "Twist In The Myth," we could never have done an album like "At The Edge Of Time" because the steps we took in between we needed as musicians. We needed to improve our style, and find the elements to bring you to that level.
Out of the steps you've taken over the years which one do you think you find the most surprising?
I think the biggest step we took was with the "Imaginations From The Other Side" album. We were one of the first bands that found that epic style, and did the mid tempo songs, when every band tries to the fastest band. We went slower and slower. Songs like "Mordred's Song," or "When The Story Ends," was a big step to really break out of this heavy metal image. And when we did "And Then There Was Silence," we felt it was a very important song for the whole orchestration thing. Songs like "Wheel of Time," or "Sacred Worlds" could never be written by us without "And Then There was Silence."
United States was one of the last countries to catch up to what Blind Guardian was doing. How are you doing on the U.S. market?
The problem was always with the record label. We've had a worldwide contract with Virgin Records in Germany. They never released our record in the States. So, we really started here from 2002. And from that starting point it was a real success. It's getting better and better every year. The tours are great, and we did three headlining tours of the states so far. We're really satisfied with our success because we know this is a really hard market to break into. There is lots of awesome bands here, and you probably don't need a German band to come over here, but still we have a following, and we have loyal fans here that waited four years for us to come back and play another tour. They sing the songs with us every night, and everybody knows the lyrics, and everybody is into it. We are really pleased with the situation.
The deluxe version of "At The Edge of Time" came out as a double CD, where did all of this material come from?
We've tried to do something special for our die-hard fans. We had some ideas in the studio. When some songs came out totally different from the original ideas, like with "Curse My Name." We were like, it's so strange because it's like material for two songs, so we decided to do two different versions. The original spirit version, and the produced version to shows the fans what is possible. We did this before in the past, and we like this idea that you can turn around the song completely only with little changes.
Not too long ago, you contributed a song to a movie, is that correct?
Yeah, there was a German director who asked us to provide a song for his movie. It was a fantasy movie. It wasn't that we wrote something especially for the movie, he just chose an existing tracks. Also, we did a song for a computer game named Sacred, and for this we specifically wrote music. We wrote the song especially for the game, and for the attitude it has.
How did you enjoy the experience of having your music heard in the new media?
I loved it. That's something I tried to explain to our record company for the last 20 years. I felt we should be doing joined ventures like this all the time. The interest of the people change. I mean 20 or 30 years ago music was number one entertainment, and now it movies and the video games. So, of course you have to think differently in those times. The music market is going down, but still I want to bring the music to the younger generations, so you have to provide it to the video games, or to the movies. We like the idea, and if the concept of a game or a movie appeals to us, we are willing to be part of it. I'm addicted to computer games myself, so I love the idea of writing music for those games.
What new elements do you introduce to your music in order to stay fresh, and still keep your interest?
That has something to do with your way of living, and how you understand the spirit of time. In the earlier days, we went out every day for drinks with our friends. We partied, and we drew the energy there. Nowadays, it's different kind of things that gets us going. I really like the energy of the band. In the past, the harmony within the band was not very good, but it is now, and it shows. You will see it when you see us play. You'll notice there is something special going on stage, and it's fun for me to play with them. This fact gives me so much creative energy, and it's fun for me to do this, and express myself.