Sunday, November 15, 2015

Louder Than The Band - Blind Guardian in Concert

I only started listening to Power Metal about 10 years ago, but I have been fortunate enough to see several of my favourite bands over the past few years: Dragonforce, Tyr, Sonata Arctica, and as of last night, Germany's Blind Guardian.

Not very well known in North America, Blind Guardian has been around since the mid-80s, with three members of the current band going back to 1988, which I would normally consider pretty good for a rock outfit.

On the other hand, their opening act, Grave Digger, are currently in their 35th year, and another German band that inspired BG at the start, Helloween, is also still kicking, so maybe Ponce De Leon should have gone to Finland instead? I dunno.

I had purchased Blind Guardian's latest album, Beyond the Red Mirror, back in March of this year, and although it took a while to grow on me, I came to really appreciate the complex orchestration and choral elements that made this collection of tracks sound truly epic.

When I heard Blind Guardian was coming to town, I pitched them to my friends as follows:

"Okay, imagine that Marillion and Queen had a baby, and that baby grew up listening to Slayer and Iron Maiden, and learning the classics in school while playing D&D and reading all the appendices to Lord of the Rings; that's Blind Guardian."

The opening act, Grave Digger, are still hard at it three-and-a-half decades later, but they never really grabbed us. Listening to them was a bit nostalgic in some ways, taking us back the Pepsi Power Hour on MuchMusic, but the band has simply not kept pace with the times, playing familiar but resonant power chords.

There was nothing wrong with their sound, and some of us thought it was cool that their keyboardist dressed in black robes and a skull mask, like their trademark Reaper character. And considering the band was formed when I was in Junior High School, the fact that their lead singer can still perform in leather trousers is also kind of impressive.

Blind Guardian took the stage at Union Hall a little after 10:00, accompanied by the taped intro from their new album's opening track, The Ninth Wave. A dramatic and adventurous track with one of the band's signature sing-along choruses, it was an energetic way to open the show.

Unufortunately the Union Hall (formerly Goose Looney's and Thunderdome) is not the most sonically forgiving venue; in fact, I would say it has the worst sound of any site in Edmonton that is not actively engaged in industrial fabrication. To be fair, I don't really have the kind of ear that can tell how much is the venue and what might be due to the guy on the sound board, and I had earplugs in to save my hearing as well.

On the other hand though, when someone in the mosh pit holds up a two-foot wide sign that says "SO SORRY YOU HAD TO PLAY UNION HALL", well. It is never a good sign, is it? Whatever the reason, the sound never sounded crisp enough to me, with both the keyboards and the lead vocalist getting washed out at times.

Now, part of the reason I had trouble hearing Hansi Kursch's notes and growls is because the incredibly lively crowd sang along to the chorus on pretty much every damn song. From cuts off the newest album like Twilight of the Gods to concert staples like Valhalla, and a lot of tracks in between that I wish I had been more familiar with.

After the raucous sing alongs, my favourite element of the evening was the drummer, Frederik Ehmke, who climber on stage with no shirt and balanced power and precision throughout the show, and looked like he had a great time doing it to boot. I think that if you shaved Animal from the Muppets, you might end up with a smaller version of Ehmke, which is only a good thing.

All in all, it was a great show, maybe just shy of two hours, with an engaged crowd made all the more lively when Kursch told them they would be recording the show for a future live album. Hopefully my assessment of the acoustics is off enough to perhaps hear one of the songs on a CD one day!

We all had a good time, even the lads unfamiliar with the band, including Jack's dad, Jim, who came up from Calgary for a visit and the show. Thanks to streaming music services, most of them had a chance to sample some of the band's tracks prior to the concert.

I have more than enough black t-shirts, so I almost resisted the mercy table, but when I saw a how cool Jim's long-sleeve version was, it was a sure sale as soon as I found out they came in 3XL.

With a possible new live album on the way, as well as a Dwarf-themed project that has been gestating for something like 8 years, I was grateful for a chance to hear Blind Guardian live for the first time, especially with a great group like I went with. Hopefully they will return before too long.

In the meantime, I can console myself with the knowledge that the next concert I go to will be in a much better venue, when we see Delain and Sonata Arctica open up for the seminal power metal band Nightwish at the Winspear in March!

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