By David E. Gehlke
German power metal veterans BLIND GUARDIAN have a defined songwriting core of vocalist/lyricist Hansi Kürsch and guitarist/composer André Olbrich. The two are responsible for some of the finest epic metal numbers of the last 30-plus years and also for some of its most orchestrated — especially when taking into account 2002's voluminous, occasionally bloated "A Night At The Opera" and more recently, 2015's "Beyond The Red Mirror" and 2019's "Legacy Of The Dark Lands". These efforts pushed BLIND GUARDIAN away from their brisk, speedy late '80s / early-to-mid '90s period that is held with high esteem in the power metal community. In reality, the Germans sometimes let their imagination and quest for new ground get the better of them with mixed results.
However, the band has brought their sound back home on "The God Machine". Stacked with the straightforward, anthemic, if not rousing material that made BLIND GUARDIAN such a force, "The God Machine" isn't a creative cop-out; instead, it harnesses the band's breakneck energy and merges it with the flair of their unequaled 1998 foray, "Nightfall In Middle-Earth". Phoning after a successful appearance at France's Hellfest, Kürsch sounded assured and well-aware that "The God Machine" was going to please a fanbase that has been jonesing for songs like this for quite some time.
Blabbermouth: You have previously noted that André often wants to take BLIND GUARDIAN's sound further and you are often trying to pull him back in. For "The God Machine", was it a joint decision that you would head in a more straightforward direction?
Hansi: "We both go off in many ways. [Laughs] It's not always him going in certain directions. He was more into orchestrated stuff in the last few years, even though that was part of our strategy — he was not to blame for that. You can say we have small discussions. You never know which direction the songwriting goes afterward, but I intended to go back to something more in the direction people could easily comprehend. Well, not comprehend, but I intended to have something where the protagonist would be the essential element in the music again. That was something I was demanding and he delivered. We started with 'Secrets Of The American Gods' and 'Architects Of Doom'. These are very complex songs, although 'Architects Of Doom' is very intense. After that, we found our way. I have to clarify that we wrote more songs than the ones on 'The God Machine' and are more on the 'art' side. There is some blues, some folk, what I call 'crime noir,' almost jazzy stuff. In the end, we agreed to make a straightforward album. That was the essential point after songwriting. We had 14, 15 songs, then we sat down and met with [producer] Charlie Bauerfeind and spoke about the album's direction and what would be most beneficial for us. Based on the last few years, we all said it was a time for an intense album and we also felt the urge in ourselves. It was a very moving time. All the frustration led us into such a more drastic direction."
Blabbermouth: Do you see any risk in comparing this album to "Somewhere Far Beyond" or "Imaginations From The Other Side"?
Hansi: "I don't see any risks and I don't see the direct links. People may feel that we intended to deliver something more vivid and in a 1990s direction, but that had to do more with the sound and the complexity of the music. Whatever comes along, we have to work with it. It's not like we have a recipe or patterns. We have to make a judgment ourselves once the music is somehow proceeding. Whether it's good enough and if it catches our attention, that's the most important thing. We usually always say, 'This is something the people should appreciate as well.' It's sometimes a little closer to what the audience may expect or want us to do and sometimes, we are a little further off. Whether we do a classic album or a modern album, or a more traditional album like this one, it's our way of thinking that this is the best album we've ever done. If it's 'A Twist In The Myth', 'Battalions Of Fear' or 'Nightfall In Middle-Earth', when we finished, that was what our idea of BLIND GUARDIAN was at that particular moment and it always felt like the best album we ever did. It's been a continuation with every album. Sometimes, we think it will be more difficult for people, but it's what we're delivering at the moment and the best we can do in this particular direction. There's no exception for 'The God Machine'. It's what we felt we can do the best at the moment."
Blabbermouth: How nice was it to get the orchestral album ("Legacy Of The Dark Lands") out of your system?
Hansi: "For me, it was a complete relief. I felt really free afterward. It was on our shoulders for 25 years. A lot of the stuff, not everything, was precisely defined five years before we released the album, sometimes even ten years. It was frustrating to have that stuff, but we were never able to accomplish it in the way we had it in mind. Therefore, it was on my nerves. It was an influence on 'Beyond The Red Mirror'. It was an album we twisted into the orchestral direction more than it was composed. It would have been a vivid album with a completely different mask if there wasn't 'Legacy Of The Dark Lands' right after. Everything was somehow directed in a direction that would lead you to an album like 'Legacy Of The Dark Lands'. It's still an accomplishment and is exactly what we wanted to do. It turned out exactly as we planned after so many years. It took too much time. With time, it created so much anticipation and, to a certain extent, pressure. I was really happy when we left that behind."
Blabbermouth: Back to the new album: Do more straightforward songs like "Damnation" or "Blood Of The Elves" give you more freedom as a vocalist?
Hansi: "'Damnation', yes. 'Blood Of The Elves' is a very strict one. It doesn't appear like this. The patterns are very defined and it's not easy, especially in the verses, to create vocal lines that are melodic and still capture the intensity of the song. This was not easy. But, if I look at the whole album and, for example, a song like 'Damnation' compared to what I did on 'Legacy Of The Dark Lands', this was like coming home. It was so much easier to make myself fit into the music. I felt so much more comfortable and confident when singing with rhythm guitars because they have a distortion that comforts my voice, which is rough and raspy. The performances were far easier to finalize than the ones on the 'Legacy Of The Dark Lands'. There was all the dynamic stuff in the music and no distortion at all. I had to make myself fit in. That was a learning process.
"I learned a lot and that also helped me with each album and performance since. It was a bloody experience. We sang each song three times, more or less finalized versions, until we really hit the point. With 'The God Machine', we went for one definite [take] and were very critical during the production. None of the songs were done in one day. It was easier compared to 'Legacy Of The Dark Lands', where I went in and in and in again. When I adjourned after a while, I realized, 'That is nice. But is that what the song needs? Or do I need to sing it harder or softer?' It was a never-ending story. This was very demanding. 'The God Machine' was about performing, then deciding if that was the best I could do or if I would need to go back to increase the quality. It was so much more comfortable than singing on 'Legacy Of The Dark Lands'."
Blabbermouth: You already released "Secrets Of The American Gods" as a single. It's the true "epic" song on the album. Where do you think it sits among other BLIND GUARDIAN songs of a similar thread?
Hansi: "From the fans' reaction, I have to say, it is ranked very high. The sensation does not seem to stop, but I'm curious to see what will happen in a live setting and when the album is out and people grow into it. I believe it might become one of the all-time classic BLIND GUARDIAN songs. There is a form of anticipation from our side about which songs could be like that. Sometimes we are proven wrong. 'Blood Of The Elves' was not on my list at all. It was one of the songs we finished when we decided to go for a more 'let your hair down' kind of album. People have highly appreciated that song."
Blabbermouth: You don't have a tried-and-true ballad here, but "Let It Be No More" is the closest thing. Is it one of the few times where you've used personal topics?
Hansi: "You could say so, but it's also related to the time when it was composed. Sometimes you cannot separate your life and the incidents in life from the music. This is the most essential and particular moment because this song was written during a time when my mother was slowly passing away. That had a big influence on my vocals and the melody lines. I also made that a part of the lyrics. It's about, 'Where do we go from here?' And, 'What is left? Is the one departing the one who is left? Or are we the ones who are left?' It's one of the essential messages of the songs, and in what and whom can we believe. Of course, when things like that happen, you question your life and what is essential in life."
Blabbermouth: You performed a set of nearly all early BLIND GUARDIAN songs at last year's Keep It True festival and did the same recently at Hellfest. What's that like for you? Is it pure fun or more nostalgic?
Hansi: "It's great fun. It's good we decided to present 'Somewhere Far Beyond', which is also connected to the last three years. We didn't know when we would be able to play shows and in which size shows would be possible. We came up with the idea and said, 'We will do something in celebration of 'Somewhere Far Beyond', and we also designed everything about live performances as it would be 30 years ago since that's how old the album is. That was the initial point. Then, when the decision was made and everything was turned around a couple of times in organization, creativity and everything, we just figured, 'Well, let's go for something old-school.' There was no need to introduce something new when the main focus was on 'Somewhere Far Beyond'. If we had been really authentic, it would have been 'Battalions Of Fear', 'Follow The Blind', and 'Tales From The Twilight World', but that was too far off for us. So we decided to go into a suitable situation in doing 'Somewhere Far Beyond'. There will be the adding of one or the other new song over the year, and also some of the stuff we did after 'Nightfall In Middle-Earth' will also be featured, but on a very small level. It's just the year 2022 when everything starts anew, I hope. Our focus for 'The God Machine' and for the real touring lies in 2023, if not 2024. This is basically a fun year for us. This is how we will treat the festivals we're going to play and most probably what we will play into September. There's hardly anything else to play after. We're going to keep it very calm and fun. It's fun to do that stuff. The good thing is that all this stuff is doable, so we can relax more onstage. When speaking about 'A Night At The Opera', it's still a dream to do that album."
Blabbermouth: That would be tough.
Hansi: "It's a nightmare! [Laughs] I would have to — and this goes for the other members — start rehearsals now. We could consider this an option for 2023 and we still wouldn't be good. [Laughs] It's an accomplishment; it takes a lot of dedication, hard work and an even more hard work to survive such an album onstage. These songs will come and there will be more featuring of what we have done in the last 20 years as well. But this was not the moment and I am really happy that we finally have the confidence to do whatever we intend to do and whatever we feel is best for the band."
Blabbermouth: Some people forget that you used to play bass while singing these songs. When performing them, do you ever think, "Thank goodness I don't have to play bass and sing"?
Hansi: [Laughs] "I have been released from bass completely. That was different in the late '90s and early 21st century when I felt, 'Something is missing and I don't have the chance to help myself.' That was from this point of view, it was easier with bass, but as you said, I failed big-time ever since 'Imaginations From The Other Side' to really be on par with the rest of the band and be on par with what I can do with vocals. It was the right decision, but I'm so far off. I wouldn't mind trying it out, but again, this is an accomplishment and would be a lot of rehearsals. I haven't played a lot of bass over the last 20 years. I'm terrible. I was terrible and I'm even more terrible now. [Laughs] Even though some people would love to see that, it wouldn't be a good idea. I must say, my hair would not grow back even if I did. [Laughs]"