What qualifies an album for this feature? Its name hints that it has something to do with chronology, with old albums to which we return. And that’s definitely a part of it but, for me at least, it’s more about the grandeur of an album and its importance for the genre in which it was released. In that regard at least, there are few albums more deserving of the feature than Nightfall In Middle Earth. While the Blind Guardian albums which preceded it had already established a lot of the modern power metal sound, Nightfall in Middle Earth still represents one of the peaks of the band’s style. It is one of their most complete albums, blending the heavier, thrash influenced sounds of their earlier career with the polish and dexterity of their latter career. It was also the first Blind Guardian album distributed in the US, leading to Blind Guardian’s subsequent international success and massive career. It’s also just a damn fine album, filled with memorable moments.
And yes, also filled with a million Tolkien references, immortalized by perhaps too many transitional tracks which expand on the scene on which the following track is about. But putting those aside, as indeed I have, deleting them from my computer so I never have to skip them again (I know them all by heart anyway), what Nightfall does with its Tolkien references is a huge part of why this album is admirable. You see, Blind Guardian do a lot more than simple reference, taking segments from The Silmarillion and copying them one by one. Instead, the band offer their own interpretation, both in which parts to display (like the almost complete absence of Men or the focus on the Noldor) and how to display them (like the editing of Feanor’s speech or the focus on “Day shall come again”, only a part of the closing moments of The Silmarillion proper, here given almost a solitary, summary role). This makes Nightfall more than just homage, elevating it to the realms of reinterpretation and analysis.
Back to the music at hand, Nightfall quite simply represents a high point for power metal, a high point which has a lot to do with one Hansi Kürsch. Nightfall sees Hansi at a near perfect sweet spot in his career; by 1998 he had grown out a lot of the less mature trappings of his voice which sometimes marred earlier releases (especially the debut and the second album) but had not yet started to lose his edge, as happens naturally to most vocalists. The result is an extremely powerful and full timbre to his voice, handling mysterious whispers, ethereal choirs, melodic lines and high pitched screams with equal skill.
The title track is an amazing example of this; through out it Hansi has to carry both the more melodic verses, influenced as they are by medieval ballads, and the power metal infused choruses, where his voice has to be huge and powerful. Beyond those, choirs mark the ending of the track, forcing Hansi to turn his voice into an even more beguiling scale to fit them. But “Nightfall” also showcases how the band work beautifully alongside Hansi, filling in the roles around him and picking up more than their fair share of slack. Listen to the drums for example and their expert use of cymbals on the transitions between the verse of the chorus or the simply excellent bridge closer to the end of the track, blending beautifully with Hansi’s intonation to life the entire passage higher.
That last bit is perhaps the secret of Nightfall; it can be heard clearly just one track over, on “The Curse of Feanor”. Sure, the track has the signature breakneck, galloping riffs for which the band and the genre are famous for but the real hero of the track are the transitions to the chorus and what the guitars do on the chorus itself. Everything is geared to communicate the feeling of epic proportions which the story demands; the guitar wails just underneath Hansi’s vocals, while the drums underpin the whole thing with crashing cymbals. The end result is that everything feels bigger than it would otherwise, all parts of the band operating together to make sure that the emotion in Hansi’s vocals and the lyrics shine through.
And shine through they do. Nightfall is filled with these amazing moments, like Feanor’s refusal on “Nolder: Dead Winter Reigns” or Morgoth’s oath of vengeance and triumph on “A Dark Passage” or Maedhros’ mournful cries of pain on “Blood Tears”. That latter track is, in general, a great example of why this album just works; everything on it, from the creeping guitars and choir combos on the opening moments, through the incredible first scream from Hansi, to the incredible culmination of the track, is engineered to make you feel what the track is about.
That’s a lot of what power metal doesn’t get and Blind Guardian always have: show, don’t tell. Don’t tell me that the hero defeats evil, show me. I listen to power metal for the same reason I read fantasy, to feel bigger than myself, to dream of a world where things are simpler, where right and wrong live on, in eternal battle, where my emotions are justified and there’s hope for triumph. A lot of power metal wants to make me feel these things but dallies too long on writing super intricate solos (note that while this album definitely has impressive guitar playing, none of the solos on it are quite technical enough to be called “shred”) or just plain singing about those emotions. Blind Guardian, on Nightfall and elsewhere, understand that they are storytellers and use all the tools at their disposal as a band to paint the picture they’d like me to experience. And for that, and for how well it accomplishes it, Nightfall in Middle Earth will, for me, forever be the pinnacle of what power metal is capable of.