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Blind Guardian

Four and a half years after the magnificent ’At The Edge Of Time’ living legend Blind Guardian has just released the best album of 2015 with ‘Beyond The Red Mirror’. I dare already saying that there will not be any record released this year that will top this. With ’Twilight Of The Gods’ the band already showed a small portion of what was to come, and the track already promised that the new album would be different. And indeed, the end result is a typical Blind Guardian album, and yet a massive, highly theatrical, bombastic and most progressive work by the German legend so far. Yours truly had no choice and had to go head to head with vocalist, Hansi Kürsch, who tells us all about the new masterpiece.

By: Nima | Archive under heavy / power metal

How have you been, Hansi? It’s been a while since we last talked; about three years ago (for the ’Memories Of A Time To Come’ compilation album)…
Yes, it’s been a while, but all is good. But you know, once we start working on a new album, we are completely out of the picture. And also this time we took our time and could work in peace, but enjoyed life at the same time, haha.

But now finally the new album is released (at the time this interview is online, that is), and there is a lot I want to ask, but at the same time I have no idea what to ask, haha. It’s the same feeling and “problem” I had when I first heard the ‘A Night At The Opera’ album back in the day: it’s definitely Blind Guardian, but I have to get used to it. It took me about thirty listens until I could finally write something about it, and to me ‘Beyond The Red Mirror’ was quite a difficult album at first… but the more I listen to it, the more I fall in love with it and the more amazed I get. This is definitely a Blind Guardian album, with all the trademarks, but it’s also a little bit different. It took you guys four and half years to deliver this album. What did you have in mind for ‘Beyond The Red Mirror’ when you started working on it?
Thank you very much! Well, when I started I was hoping for an easy album, to be honest, haha. So, mission accomplished, haha. No but seriously, I had a conversation with Charlie (Bauerfeind, producer since the ‘Nightfall In Middle-Earth’ album – Nima), and we were philosophising about the how and what if situations, but in the end you have to deal with the ideas that come along. And obviously it took a while until we had cleared our minds after touring for the ‘At The Edge Of Time’ album, because that was a very interesting and successful album.

So, I would say that for at least the first six months of the real songwriting process we were trying to find a direction and new outputs. And whenever you are in such a situation you basically have to go with what comes up first, haha. And what came up first was the song ‘Ashes Of Eternity’, which is actually a quite complex song. Even though it’s an aggressive song, it indeed – as you said – remind me of ‘A Night At The Opera’ and ‘A Twist In The Myth’ era. So I thought yeah, I wanted to go into a more plain and straightforward direction, but this is obviously what I have to work with, haha. So I started working on it and started to find it attractive after a while, and then everything started to come naturally. But it was a rollercoaster ride; one song became more classical-inspired, then another had a more futuristic aspect, but still sort of complex. And all of a sudden two and a half years went by, and the album was finished. But yeah, it’s a massive album, no doubt about that. But although it’s complex, I wouldn’t say it’s a difficult album. But maybe it’s a natural thing for me.

I understand. But you see, it’s just that the music has so many different layers, and there are so many details on this album that initially it even made a bit of chaotic impression on me…
I can understand. For me it all sounds very normal, but of course I was involved in the creation of it over the years, so everything is logical. I get the songs and the ideas from the rest of the guys, and then work on my vocal elements, and I already see how these two elements work together. So for me it grows slower than it does for you or the listener in general. When you listen to an album, you have to realize everything at once, even if it’s just one song, while for me it’s a slow process and I’m familiar with every bit of the album.

Exactly. There is simply too many things going on at the same time that you can’t find out everything after only four or five times. But that’s also the beauty of the album, because it grows on you every time, and even after many listens it’s still a new journey and a new discovery. But again, it’s all very Blind Guardian, but yet different. You already mentioned ‘Ashes Of Eternity’. But also a song like ‘At The Edge Of Time’ is a good example. It all starts very aggressive and has all BG-elements in there, but twists into a more progressive approach that reminds me bands like Rush and Saga, and your vocal approach sometimes even reminds of Chris de Burgh, you know?
Hansi bursts out in laughter: Haha! It’s funny that you mention Chris de Burgh. You know when we thought about him, really? That was actually when we did ‘Ashes To Ashes’ (from ‘Somewhere Far Beyond’ – Nima). There are two particular parts in there that I thought I was sounding like Chris de Burgh. And ever since we realized that I admire him as a vocalist, so it’s no problem, haha. But on this album I didn’t realize that. Another guy actually told me that he thought he heard a bit of Marillion in there. But I agree with you on Rush on ‘At The Edge Of Time’. There are not those typical progressive Rush elements in there, but I like the comparison.

You know, people always ask me about some songs and how I would define or describe this or that, and to be honest I can’t, because it’s a natural output for us. I mean, if you saw how a song comes to life, then you would understand that it’s a personal aspect that differs per band member. Because everyone has his own approach and charm, and brings another dimension to the songs. When I say something for example, André (Olbrich, guitars – Nima) would totally disagree, and the other way around. Because my approach to a song might be completely something different. You mention ‘Ashes Of Eternity’, and ‘At The Edge Of Time’; my biggest concern for the album, from the beginning of the production to the end, was ‘At The Edge Of Time’. Because I didn’t know where the song would lead me. But this ended up spectacularly well, and I’m very happy about that. But on the other hand there were also songs that I had great expectations from, but which were not as satisfying for me as ‘At The Edge Of Time’. Don’t get me wrong, because I’m of course happy with all the songs, but considering the expectations I had, in the end it turns out differently during the production. Even when you realize that the songs are finished and ready prior to the recording. The effect of the actual production has on a song is massive, even though nothing changes. It’s just because of the performances sometimes, and the way things are mingled together in the end.

band imageHehe, now you have made me curious about the songs that were not satisfying for you…
Hehe, yeah, well actually there is only one which I think is good, but didn’t meet my expectations, and that would be ‘The Throne’. I had the highest expectations for that song, but I’m simply less excited about it than the rest of the songs on the album. And that’s something I never, ever had thought of.

Haha, hmm… that’s actually one of my favourite songs on the album, along with ‘Prophecies’, which is a similar composition in my opinion. But on the other hand you have a song like ‘The Holy Grail’, which is absolutely one of my most favourites, also due to the old-school approach on that song that especially reminded me on the ‘Somewhere Far Beyond’, and even ‘Tales From The Twilight World’. But a song like the opening track, ‘The Ninth Wave’ is again totally different, and the massive Gothic/Gregorian intro of the track was really surprising, and made me wonder about the direction of the album. Of course I had heard the single ‘Twilight Of The Gods’ before, which was also surprising, especially the chorus…
Haha, yeah, I absolutely agree with you on ‘The Ninth Wave’. We were actually discussing that song as the first single. But I was against it, because I felt that we would reveal too much of the album when it comes to surprises. And this is definitely a rollercoaster ride, and it will strike the people by surprise without doubt. But I’m sure this will become one of the most favourite ones, even though I was wrong about ‘Fly’ (from ‘A Twist In The Myth’ – Nima), which I still consider one of the best BG-songs. But it wasn’t received very well by all the fans, especially the older BG-fans.

But with regard on ‘Twilight Of The Gods’, I’m still not sure. I believe that this is the most logical output when it comes to a single-choice for the album. Because it delivers a very melodic, typical BG-song, and I also believe that the chorus will be a strong sing-along in a live situation. I would understand that you say the chorus is surprising. We had to work on the chorus for quite a while, because the way the song is structured, and the colour of musical arrangements is so massive and speedy that it was difficult for us to find something that would catch up with this attitude, and stand out as a chorus. So we had to take a different approach for it. I think when we play this song live, it would become more clear and obvious of why this has to be in this direction.

Oh I’m very curious about the new songs live, and whether they will have the same effect live as they do on the record…
That’s something I wonder, too, haha. When we are doing the composing and the recording, I rarely think about the live situation, because that would disturb the forms, because I would start thinking about what would or won’t be possible. So I just go with what is possible at that moment, in the studio where I’m at my best condition and not exhausted. And afterwards we think about how we would do it live. But with ‘Twilight Of The Gods’, and especially the chorus, I can imagine that we will be able to adapt that into a more heavy tune and a more straight to the point element. And I have hopes that this is going to be an all-time classic.

Well the album is already a classic in my eyes, and it’s not even released yet…
Haha, thanks. We have actually started working on the next one!

What? Really???
No, haha!

Well, composing a massive album like ‘Beyond The Red Mirror’ was one thing, but then had come the part that you had to record the album. Of course you are not unfamiliar with massive recordings, but I can imagine that working with different choirs and different orchestras and everything else, was more challenging for this album, right?
Actually this part was not very challenging. It was challenging in terms of coordinating it. Because when we were talking about the orchestra, this came more as a coincident. The Czech orchestra we usually work with was booked, so we needed a new orchestra shortly before the production. And finding an orchestra with the same qualities on such short notice is not very easy. Luckily the orchestra from Hungary were able to step into these shoes, and did an equally great job as the guys from Prague. And the same went with the two orchestras. It was just because of some English spoken parts that we wanted to have involved into the classical choir environment, that made it necessary for us to have an American choir as well. But it was all more a matter of coordination and administration, than performance. I mean, all these guys are absolute professionals, and all have done an amazing job. The biggest challenge during this production was the time-set of keys and harmonies. We are used to it since ‘A Night At The Opera’, but on this one the harmonies are even closer related. If we go back to a song like ‘Ashes Of Eternity’ for example, there are hardly any power chords and any straight definitions. Same thing can be said about ‘At The Edge Of Time’, and this of course makes it essential to be in key and on the spot, and everything like that. Those things became a lot more important, and this was a very demanding task on every musicians.

And to come back to delivering the songs live; do you think you can have the same effect of the orchestras and the choirs on stage with keyboards and samplers?
Yes, it depends on the songs that we are going to play. For a song like ‘The Grand Parade’ it might be difficult, and we have faced that problem with ‘The Wheel Of Time’ (from the ‘At The Edge Of Time’ album – Nima) in the past, but if we’re talking about songs like ‘The Ninth Wave’, ‘Prophecies’, ‘Twilight Of The Gods’, or ‘Miracle Machine’, we can do alternated versions, and I would be surprised if people would actually miss anything. Some of the stuff can easily be altered into a more live environment situation.

You know, it has always been an interesting subject for me when it comes to bands that use choirs and orchestras on the record, but use keyboards for those parts in a live situation. Of course working with the real deal is something different – and this is not criticism, but curiosity – but if you can have a similar effect with keyboards, why put time, effort and money into the real thing?
Of course it’s a little bit different. When we go to Prague or to Budapest, we usually have an orchestral arrangement designed, sound-wise, almost like a real orchestra, and there is not much lacking. But still, the hall, the individual performance and the way the conductor is leading the whole thing… this can’t be captured in a programmed version, and therefore we take the challenge, because it’s about real played music. There is nothing wrong with doing it with only keyboards or orchestral samples, if you don’t have the opportunity. But if you do have the opportunity, even when the additional value might be small in terms of how well audible it is, it still adds a small percentage to the whole atmosphere and sound quality.

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I think it also keeps you interested in your work as a musician, after doing this for more than 30 years…
Definitely. It’s really overwhelming to see how different their approach to music is in general. It can really be an inspiration, and not only in terms of performance but also profession. For us it’s simply amazing to work with these guys, and to see how it all comes to life. Plus the simple fact that if we were only to release the orchestral part of the album, that alone would justify a whole album, and I don’t think people would even complain about it. Not that we intend to do such thing, haha, but we could. And you can’t have something like that with a keyboard orchestration.

To get back to something that was said at the beginning of the interview; you said that you wanted to go for an easier album, but in the end it turned out to be a different approach. Has your own approach to music changed over the years?
Yes, definitely. Back in the 80s, even before Blind Guardian, I was a pure metalhead and didn’t listen to anything else. I started listening to rock music in the 70s, and I listened to absolutely everything. From Queen, to Deep Purple, to punk, to whatever was around. That changed in the beginning of the 80s, and I was listening to only heavy metal music. It was everything I needed and I couldn’t relate to anything else. I think this was also because I was hanging out with guys that were doing the same thing, the ideology and whatever. Also when we started with Blind Guardian, all the guys had the same attitude. But all of a sudden this started to change in the late 80s, for all of us in the band. Of course we were and are still metalheads, but we became open-minded again towards rock music. Like a sudden mass-manipulation we all discovered Queen again, started listening to Jesus Christ Superstar, Genesis and all that was prog, rock, whatever again. This conducted my life for the next ten years. All over those twenty years I could have sworn that I would never listen to a jazz-album for example. But nowadays, I like jazz music like any other genre. In the past ten years I can listen to any type of music, as long as it is good. It’s a matter of quality and something I can relate to, and grow in to.

Haha, with metal music alone it’s a difficult task to keep up with everything. I can’t even imagine what a work it would be to keep up with everything, haha…
That’s another thing, haha. But I don’t have to know everything nowadays. Back in the 80s I knew every metal band, like a real metal specialist does. But nowadays I’m just curious, and if something catches my attention I will listen to it and buy it. I still buy a lot of records, but don’t have to know everything spontaneously. Back then however, it was a must! I still follow the metal scene, but more in terms of which bands are in the lead, and which of my idols from the past are doing a new album, and also the band that started around the same time and moved with us, and are still doing good music.

And Sinbreed (the heavy metal band BG-guitarist Marcus Siepen and BG-drummer Frederik Ehmke are active in) of course…
Hahaha! Eumm, yes… of course, haha. I just finished listening to it, for the 122nd time, haha. I have listened to some of their stuff, but that’s their business actually. I mean, when I did the Demons & Wizards albums (the project with Jon Schaffer from Iced Earth – Nima), I have no idea if the guys have listened to the whole albums.

Well, I didn’t want to involve Demons & Wizards in this interview, but now that you’ve mentioned it, I’m still waiting for the third album…
So am I, haha! I had a chat with Jon shortly after new-year, and it’s still the same story: we both want to do it, but it’s a question of time.

Let’s get back to ‘Beyond The Red Mirror’ then. Lyrically this is another conceptual album. You have developed a new story, continuing where ‘Imaginations From The Other Side’ left off…
Yes, the story starts where ‘…And The Story Ends’ finished. You know, we re-visited that album when we were doing the ‘A Traveler's Guide to Space and Time’ box, and I just figured that I had never finished the story, and that it might be worth to tell it. And while doing so, I immediately started to invent the story, of course, haha. I just realized that twenty years ago I was sure that the boy standing in front of the mirror would have dared to jump through the mirror and into the other dimension. But now, being older and more of a “coward”, I just decided that this boy was only a boy, and therefore was not courageous enough to jump and instead tried to live his life in his regular world. And with that decisions a lot of problems occurred for both dimensions, and this is where I take off with on the new album. If you look at the lyrics and also the story parts that I’ve added – to at least the limited edition and the Earbook version – you will see that this is a futuristic attempt to tell a new King Arthur story in a sort of a new “grail-quest” adventure. Although there is far more in there, this summarises it a bit.

I’m very curious about the lyrics, because my digital promo didn’t have them…
Well, actually the line-notes are more interesting I think, and some people may thing I’m going nuts, haha. No, but that’s not the case; it was just emotion and the lack of time, haha.

I’m also very curious about where you get your inspiration from to come up with stories like this. Back in the 60s and the 70s I think people smoked or swallowed something, then came up with the most brilliant ideas – in their eyes at least… No but seriously. Stories like this and actually turning them into lyrics is a complex process and one hell of a job. It also shows a bit of the musician’s soul, mind and fantasy. And that starts somewhere of course, so I’m always curious about how the idea starts to take form and develops itself.
Hahaha, that’s true. Maybe I should try something like that if I ever lack anything. Good to know, I’ll keep that as an option for the future, haha.

But seriously, I start with the emotion while singing. I do my vocal lines musically first and pay no attention at all to the words. Whatever comes out, comes out and has an influence on the way a certain part sounds. The expressions and the melody lines are more important to me than any lyrical point at first. But at a certain point an image will be created by that. I try to figure what is in the music first, and try to deliver that emotionally. And once this has become clear I start thinking about subjects. In the case of this album it went back to the music again, which had two different face: the more classical approach, and the more futuristic and more disturbing approach, which we face in a song like ‘The Ninth Wave’ for example. Therefore I was confronted with two different dimensions, and these dimensions have been delivered to the vocal performance already. Basically by the emotion I then have, I get a first hint to into which direction I have to go. And also when we start working on the songs, I have some working titles that are given by André sometimes. ‘Ashes Of Eternity’ for example was called ‘Time Encrypted’ at first, which gives you something to think about. This is actually how it starts, and I start thinking about working titles or anything that comes to my attention and can be related to the emotion, and I build it up from there. Once that is accomplished it keeps developing itself until the album is finished. On this particular one it even went on after the album was finished, because some of the conclusions were drawn after the album was done.

But I agree with you that it’s a complex process and it is one hell of a job. Sometimes to really come to the essential core of the story, I have to wait a long time. Because even though when for example three songs are written, it is still not completely clear what the song or the album could be about. On this record, at a certain point it became more and more obvious that there were these two dimensions, and the conceptual idea became more and more physical for me. Sometimes it’s the other way around; I just figure that the subjects are more individual, and there is no need in combining them together. And as you said, it’s a different approach, as is our songwriting in general. We do have a style and our own sound, but we don’t have a pattern and we really intend not to copy ourselves. Of course, sometimes we fail, which is an option after thirty years, haha. But still, our main goal is to come with fresh ideas and not copy ourselves, and the first few steps are always very difficult. Once it starts rolling it all becomes easier. Especially when we go back to the lyrics, some things just occur at strange places. You know, I’ve heard about some musicians who are able to write songs on the toilet when they’re doing their business, Haha. But none of the BG-songs are composed like this, and I can’t imagine that something like this will ever happen. But storyboard-wise, since I never have to stop thinking about lyrics and the story and its direction, it does happen sometimes. In the bathroom, or even at the super market while my food is being scanned, haha. This is far easier to accomplish than the musical part.

Unfortunately time is limited as always and we have to make it quick…
You are planning on a massive tour again, starting in April…
Yes, we have some time to regain our energy before we start touring in April, because this is going to be very demanding on us. We’ll be on the road for two and a half months all over Europe, and right after that we will do some shows in Japan and Australia, and there is hardly any time in between before we head to North-America and South-America. So we’ll be very busy for the rest of the year. We have already discussed the setlist and we are really trying to put some songs in there that we haven’t played in quite a while, and some we have never played live yet. It’s always an issue to see which ones will be doable, and which are only dream works. But I have a good feeling that we will end up with ‘Guardian Of The Blind’ (from the debut, ‘Battalions Of Fear’ – Nima) on the setlist, and stuff like this, from each album actually. If we would be able to achieve even a handful, I think it will be a great surprise for the fans, even though I revealed one song already, haha.

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