After five long years, Blind Guardian returned to Denver on the cold night of November 11, 2015.
There’ve been a couple of shows where I’ve sort of not been with it, you know? Every once in a while a band comes by where I sort of feel inclined to go but don’t quite feel excited or super enthusiastic about the whole deal. But I’ll admit: the moment I heard Blind Guardian would go on tour I started counting down each day until the night of the show. Without any kind of overblown hyperbole, I think I can safely say that it was the most anticipated show in our neighborhood of states (I met a guy in line for tickets who drove from Utah). Blind Guardian, along with fellow and older German metal masters Grave Digger, played at Denver’s Summit Music Hall on the first snowy night of autumn’s steady decline.
Of course, upon entering the hall’s threshold the crowd formed into a welcome sight of assorted and colorful tour shirts, along with a veritable carnival of lovingly adorned battle vests and jackets (one of the non-musical highlights for me, every time)—some simple, others crowded in a wide and varied assortment of pins and patches, back patches slowly but surely beginning to drown in the encroaching waters of surrounding emblems. I love that stuff.
By the time Grave Digger came out on stage, the merch line that ran the length of the hall had dwindled to a few stragglers, and the crowd, while not fully gathered, had concentrated on the floor.
It was encouraging seeing Grave Digger perform, and more encouraging still to have heard so many members of the audience sing along to some of their post-80’s material with such joy. While Grave Digger marked a place for themselves in their early years, the band slowly fell into the Running Wild trend of semi-yearly releases, each less distinguishable from the next, although just as electric and edible—if you took each one of the inspired tracks from each record, you’d come out with a solid stand alone. But their brand of head-rattling, beer-swilling Priest-and-Maiden-laden speed metal, while perhaps not the most accomplished as far as albums go, translates well onto the stage, as the muscular riffs of unrecognizable tracks from their horde of recent works rang out with the very clanging bombast the band built their career with, Chris Boltendahl, the band’s vocalist, croaking out lyrics with gusto and prompting the crowd to participate through his unintelligibly German accent.
Grave Digger are old metal dudes—their long hair could fit the wrinkled chin of a wizard who can read the hearts of men. As members of the Priest/Maiden/Head-inspired onslaught that erupted from Europe, Boltendahl, along with the rest of his band mates, is fifty—minus the man behind the goofy and loveable keyboard-playing grim reaper costume (complete with a floppy Muppet mouth that sings along to the tunes)—and the wonder of their performance is in seeing old metal dudes doing what they love, especially axe man Axel “Ironfinger” Ritt, who saw fit to take off his jacket (the only upper body garment he was already wearing) at the start of the set. Jesus, the guy’s a beast. He’d spiral into mad, sharp solos, letting the heat emanating off his steely weapon ooze onto him as he looked like he was about to erupt in a Pentecostal tongue-talking bout, “oohing” his way into riffs and flexing through chords, eyes closed as a spirit passed through his whole being. And despite being thin and somewhat gangly, the man manages to channel the hot streaking bravo of an iron pumping metalhead straight out of Heavy Load or Thor through his dimly toned biceps and leftover abs. He alone was the powerful replacement for the pyrotechnics a band like Grave Digger sorely needs and sorely misses when playing a small stage, matched perhaps only by Boltendahl’s recognizably raspy vocals and mannerisms, a heavy metal showman lost through time, prowling the stage like a young Rob Halford and giving a glance infused with wickedness to any too unwise to look him in the eye.
Grave Digger, knowing their legacy and their success, couldn’t possibly go without a couple of universally recognized opuses, despite most of their material coming from less familiar records—their set was not complete without classics like “Headbanging Man” (their very appropriate opener), “Witch Hunter” and “Heavy Metal Breakdown”, the latter of which saw Boltendahl sing while clad in his very own battle vest. However, and I must say “however,” the enthusiasm and catchiness of the stuff they played—so fervently rooted in the thrashy speediness that birthed them—is enough to inspire renewed familiarity with their startlingly large discography (seventeen full lengths, vs. Running Wild’s sixteen). It’ll be a nice adventure to see what I can mine from their winding maze of works.
After Grave Digger left the stage, the crowd waited for a half hour before transitioning into an anticipated murmur that grew into a loud “Guardian” chant the moment the band’s Red Mirror-themed backdrop was placed on the stage.
The evangelical power of Blind Guardian appeared then—ushered in by the band’s welcoming, friendly, and appreciative way of addressing the audience—the same power that can make a forty year old with a beard shake his head in wonder, whisper “beautiful” after an interpretation of “I’m Alive”, and elicit an echoing reply from the youth next to him, the very same power that can erupt into a music hall full of an audience that knows every lyric to every song played on stage, the same power that can lead to a four minute chanting of the closing, bisecting lines to “Last Candle”—both evenly distributed amongst the hall—as vocalist Hansi Kursch looks on in pride and pleasure, drummer Frederik Ehmke providing a skeletal beat as the band smiles and mouths the same lines. Introduced by shadows and the ominous choir that bleeds into the song, the band broke out into a simmering rendition of “The Ninth Wave”—an appropriately operatic and theatric opener that set up for the entire show: a display of skill and passion from one of the most beloved bands in all heavy metal.
And I do say “most beloved”—Blind Guardian have established themselves as an institution thanks to their pioneering brand of thrash-infused power metal that gallantly and genuinely dives into high-borne fantasy with discernibly loving care. They have become a constant for any and every sort of metal enthusiast unrelated to the grounds of power metal’s usual over-the-top shenanigans. The thin family man with the Nile baseball cap, the big Native American man in the Saxon shirt, the wide kid with the Bathory back patch and Windir back shape and the grim looking dude in the Emperor hoodie were all there, together, for the same thing: Blind Guardian.
Without a second of rest, the band dove right into “Banish from Sanctuary”, and the show formally opened. That song alone illustrated the power of Blind Guardian’s live performance—few bands can bring their studio recordings to life with such absolute precision, and the German troupe does it with natural ease. I’m really thankful for the Summit’s sound quality; the sound was clear while being loud enough to fill the hall, unlike other venues where you can’t make out a single note in the din and your clavicle starts to rattle around like an epileptic snare drum. But praise goes to Blind Guardian and their uncanny ability to recreate their signature and sharp sound, tone, density and breadth of their albums with startling faithfulness—every guitar note and every drum pattern, burned into my memory, came to life vividly on stage, minus a few ad-libbed moments from Hansi. And Hansi. Man, Hansi. The guy is a goddamned singing machine; he inspires chills of awe as he hits every note with astounding fervor, and seeing the man’s facial muscles pop out like inflamed arteries as he raises his voice to a glass-breaking pitch—especially how he turned the grand “stormbriiiiiingeeerrr” from “Tanelorn (Into the Void)” into a shrill Halfordian high—is absolute magic.
The set list consisted of carefully selected offerings from the band’s catalogue, a mix of classic and recent material including must-haves like “Time Stands Still at the Iron Hill”, “Imaginations from the Other Side”, and “Wheel of Time” (which was the massive opener for the band’s first encore), along with obligatory but equally impressive blockbusters from Beyond the Red Mirror. In particular, the hop-and-a-skip of “Prophecies” provided a nice, musical segue into the strong, vicious rendering of “Last Candle” which, as mentioned above, brought the crowd alight in a brilliant moment of interaction—one of a few that marked the show with a mirthful and heartfelt exchange between band and audience. That’s another facet of the band’s skillful showmanship: those wonderful handpicked moments where they expect as much from the audience as the audience expects from them. “Lord of the Rings” served as one of the show’s pinnacles, almost everyone bunny hopping to the chorus and filling the hall with singing, including goofily operatic tenor-style intonations that rung to the side of the floor that took the time to vocalize every strum in the song—stuff that only ever sounds like it appears on a live album, which, coincidentally, the band announced was forthcoming and, to the glee of everyone present, Denver’s show is set to be a part of it.
Jesus, the fans. Jesus, the fans. It’s impressive to see such a willing audience for such a willing band. From every angle there were dudes going berserk—singing their hearts out, pantomiming theatric gestures and expressions as they furiously headbanged, doe-eyed dudes looking out with hopeful eyes towards heroes finally come to them. And I was one of them. I was singing along to “Nightfall” and “Time Stands Still” and “Valhalla”—the chorus of which became another chant that lasted minutes after the song—all the while raising my hands and craning my fingers to cup invisible goblets of violet fire. I was screaming from a crippled diaphragm, as loud as I possibly could at that point, along with the audience: “GUARDIAN”, for minutes on end, after the band left the stage for the first time, a begging chant so loud and resounding that it almost seemed to force the band out for an encore, a sequence that repeated twice that night to everyone’s delight. Who else but Blind Guardian to feint twice.
And how couldn’t I? During the second encore, the band (of course) played “The Bard’s Song – In the Forest” (after “Into the Storm”, which included the dialogue intro “War of Wrath”—which the man behind me recited perfectly), and I felt like a train had hit me as it all came rushing back. I remember: after a particularly harsh day at school and a particularly awry encounter with family, I’d sit in a dim room, close my eyes, and sulk. You know, as kids do. But one of the constants of those days was both parts of “The Bard’s Song” (“Forest” and “Hobbit”), a piece that lifted the spirit and always succeeded in making everything feel just a little better. And right there, standing right there, at that very moment, I suddenly realized the significance of this band not only to me, but to so many other people in that audience, each one singing—from the deepest part of themselves—the reassuring anthem to the disenfranchised and desolate that is “In the Forest”. Those same mythical bards that invited the somber to leave troubles behind had become a tangible reality on that stage, and for the first time for many. All of a sudden, a crowd sang a personal source of consolation and shared in the opening up of wounds and anxieties as they gathered in the promise of a positivity that imprinted them, that they could carry with them in their hearts and minds, just as the lyrics of the song itself offer: “Tomorrow all will be known/And you’re not alone/So don’t be afraid/In the dark and cold/Because the bard’s songs will remain/They all will remain.”
“In my thoughts and in my dreams/They’re always in my mind/These songs of Hobbits, Dwarves and Men, and Elves/Come close your eyes/You can see them, too.” Unfortunately, the band doesn’t often follow up with “The Hobbit”, which is a great shame. I remember when I was younger and the closing lines of “In the Forest” came up, leading to the slightest pause before the opening of its partner piece. I would sit there, totally overtaken by the assurance of a monumental tale to come and assuage the fear of tomorrow, one of such moving greatness it could stir frisson every time and without fail. And what could be greater than The Hobbit, condensed and communicated through the heights of passion made music? While meant for kids, Tolkien’s prelude hides and veils quite a few moments of darkness, from Gollum’s monstrous nature and murderous intent placed in the midst of a fanciful quest to Bilbo’s fear and meek understanding to Thorin’s desperate greed, elements that Blind Guardian takes and enlarges in a song that churns and careens with the wondrous and understated emotional heights of the story. I am utterly convinced that the complete “Bard’s Song” is one of the band’s most magnificent shining moments of potency.
When the band played “In the Forest”, my eyes watered. Just a little, though. I ain’t afraid to say it. Everyone enraptured and mystified after the long-expected constant of Blind Guardian’s live shows, Hansi declared the end and announced “Mirror Mirror!” bookending it all with one of the best-loved standouts from Nightfall in Middle Earth, an emphatic execution—which sounded sublimely apocalyptic—of a musical war that the band masterfully orchestrated in their signature chaos of theater-meets-speed metal. No one was still in the final, world-ending revelry, as the band closed with perhaps their most wondrously rousing and anthemic concoction. And finally, after an hour and a half that seemed far, far shorter than it was, the band saluted the cheering, frantic audience, and left to the background’s orchestral sounds of “At the Edge of Time”, sent off by a final band name chant. Then, with murmurs overtaken by that unavoidable silence that drips from the air in the sudden absence of a show’s bombast, we left to stumble home, enchanted, our hearts beating in our hands, as heavy metal’s bards and some of Germany’s most hallowed sons prepared for the next destination where they would soon spread their incantations. Also, Andre Olbrich gave a little six year-old girl a guitar pick, which was adorable.