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Blind Guardian    
Blind Guardian
In the mid-nineties, death metal had taken over thrash and even death had begun to fade. Metallica had sold out. Grunge was everywhere. In the US, it seemed that metal was on its death bed. Yet, the internet was just kicking into gear. Suddenly the world was shrinking. It didn't matter that I was the only metalhead for 80 miles and 16 people showed up to the most recent OverKill show. There was a growing community on the internet where people could share information. Through online friends and tape trading, I discovered Germany's Blind Guardian. Thrash was alive! Of course, the two tracks I had on a Memorex cassette ("I'm Alive" and "Another Holy War" off of 'Imaginations From The Other Side') weren't sufficient. I needed more. But I sure as hell wasn't going to find it at Best Buy. Blind Guardian was apparently only for those lucky enough to live overseas where metal was still commercially accepted. Fortunately, I took a trip to Germany around that time to visit family. My family lives in northern Germany. In the country really. In the US, we would refer to it as Bumfuck. Among my biggest priorities while visiting was to get my hands on as much Blind Guardian material as possible. I took a harrowing trip on the autobahn to the closest big city. I couldn't make sense of the street signs and got lost many times, but like Golem in search of his precious, I would not be stopped. Eventually, I reached my destination and found the rumors to be true: the record stores here carried metal. Victory. I now possessed precious treasure that could not be found in my homeland. And that's how it was. Blind Guardian was only for those who sought it out. Even today, despite the fact that Blind Guardian has been around for over 15 years and securing the band's releases is far easier than it once was, they have developed only a cult following in the US. Now, with the release of 'A Night At The Opera', this legendary act is getting the big promotional push they deserve. That coupled with the band's first North American appearance scheduled for the ProgPower USA festival in Atlanta next November, many metalheads will be discovering the band for the first time. In light of this, I took the opportunity to take a trip down memory lane with guitarist Marcus Siepen.

METAL UPDATE: Wie gehts? [How are you?]


MU: Mein deutsch ist schlecht. [My German is terrible.]

MS: My english, too. (laughing)

MU: Do you speak metal?

MS: Oh, yeah!

MU: O.K., then we are all set. The release of this album marks the biggest promotional campaign you have ever had in the US. Because it is likely that many people are being introduced to the band for the first time, I was hoping that we could revisit your past accomplishments.

MS: No problem.

MU: Blind Guardian has had a stable lineup since the beginning. That's rare.

MS: I know, but we just get along with each other. Of course, there are the usual arguments and fights in this band like any other band, but if a problem shows up, we try to solve it so that everybody is happy. If somebody doesn't like a song or a part in a song, we change it until everybody is happy. This way it just works for us. We know each other for such a long time now, and we know how to work best with each other.

MU: Did you guys all grow up in the same town?

MS: Yeah. We are from Krefeld [Germany]. That's where everybody still lives. That's where we have our studio.

MU: How did Blind Guardian get together in the first place?

MS: Everybody was playing in different bands. Andre and Hansi went to school together. They both played in different bands, but both hadn't been very satisfied with their old bands and decided to form a new one. And Thomen used to be a guitar student of Andre, but he never was really good at playing guitar, so he switched to drums. (laughing) One day he just came into the band when their old drummer left. Also, I had my own band and I shared a rehearsal room with the other guys. One day they fired their old guitar player and asked me to join. We jammed for a couple of days and I joined the band. Since 1986, this is the lineup.

Blind Guardian

MU: What were your influences when you were starting out?

MS: All kinds of stuff. Definitely old Iron Maiden. Queensryche. Helloween. Queen, obviously. Metallica. The usual metal influences, I guess. (laughing)

MU: I remember driving on the autobahn in the mid-nineties, risking my life to get my hands on Blind Guardian CDs because we couldn't get them in the US.

MS: (laughs) Yeah, I know. That has been a big problem for us. Finally, Century Media. . . they even released 'Nightfall In Middle-Earth' one year after it was released in the rest of the world. And they released the whole back-catalogue besides the first two albums.

MU: For the benefit of those who are not familiar with Blind Guardian's history, let's go all the way back to the first album and discuss each of your releases.

MS: Sure.

MU: What are some of the most vivid memories of your first album, 'Battalions Of Fear'?

MS: It was so exciting. We finally got a record contract.

MU: With what label?

MS: The label was called No Remorse Records. It was a very small independent label. Basically, we were the very first band that was signed to this label. Everything was absolutely new and exciting. We went to a real studio for the first time and totally freaked there. We recorded the first album within two or three weeks. (laughing) It was great. We did our first tour in '88. It was about eight shows. It was the first time we drove through all of Germany with another band.

MU: Who did you tour with?

MS: Labelmates called Grinder. It was fun. It was a great time. We learned a lot.

MU: And then you did 'Follow The Blind'.

MS: This was the next major step. We had one more week in the studio which was absolutely amazing. (laughing) We didn't tour for that album for whatever reason. Andre and me were doing our civil service back at that time. We just did single shows on weekends. It also was fine. Musical-wise it was a little different direction. Compared to the first one, it was much more heavy. We listened to bands like Testament and Forbidden and Holy Terror all day. So, this was our thrash period.

MU: Are those first two albums still in print in Europe through Virgin?

MS: Yeah.

MU: You've got bands like Testament going back and re-recording stuff, Slayer is going to re-record stuff and Megadeth re-mixed the first album. . .

MS: Really? I didn't know that. Cool. The original version sucked sound-wise. (laughing)

MU: Have you ever considered re-mixing or re-mastering the first couple of albums?

MS: Not really. I mean, what we did with the 'Forgotten Tales' album - we recorded some of the old stuff in different versions, or some of them in acoustic versions. That was fun. It is something similar, I think. At the moment, there are no plans to re-record the stuff, but it might be interesting because it would definitely sound different today.

MU: Do you still play material from the first two albums on tour?

MS: Oh, yes. Of course. For example, from 'Follow The Blind' we always play "Valhalla" and "Banish From Sanctuary". From the first one, a lot of people still ask for "Majesty" or "Run For The Night". So, we still play these songs.

MU: So, after 'Follow The Blind' you were signed by Virgin?

MS: Yep. I mean, No Remorse Records went bankrupt. When we released 'Tales >From The Twilight World', it was still released by No Remorse Records, but Virgin already did the distribution for that label. A half year after this album had been released, No Remorse went bankrupt. We managed to get out of the contract - get all the rights back from the whole back-catalogue, so we were free to deal with any other company. We knew Virgin from the distribution job they did for us and they knew us. They made a really good offer besides all the other labels that made offers. We finally signed to Virgin which was a good choice, I guess.

MU: Was there a big change in promotion?

MS: It was a big step, yeah. No Remorse was a really small independent label and Virgin is a big major, so there was much more money involved. We got the chance to record longer and we did bigger tours from that day on. It was good.

MU: When you went into the studio for "Somewhere Far Beyond", was that the first time that you had gone into the studio with a bigger budget?

MS: No. The budget for 'Tales From The Twilight World' already had been bigger. We recorded that for something like six to eight weeks. It was incredible for us back at that time. That's when we started experimenting with all the choir arrangements and the guitar harmonies. I guess that was the first album where we found the real Blind Guardian style. The first two albums had been fun. We still like them, but they didn't have this typical Blind Guardian style. With 'Tales' we found our own style.

MU: Did you tour for 'Tales'?

MS: The tour was planned for 1990. We were supposed to tour just after the release, but Thomen had to go to the hospital and have an operation on his lung. We had to delay the tour for about one year, so we toured in '91. It was the first real European tour we did - together with Iced Earth.

MU: Did the fans come out?

MS: Oh, yes! It was great. Again, we learned a lot on this tour. We shared the same Nightliner with Iced Earth. We became such good friends with each other that we partied all day and all night. Everybody was sick after two days! (laughing)

MU: You lived the rock-n-roll lifestyle.

MS: Exactly. Yeah. We learned that that's not good on tour. (laughing) But I guess you have to have this experience. It was a great time.

MU: And then you hit 'Somewhere Far Beyond'.

MS: Yes. Again, the production was a little longer. Both albums, like 'Somewhere' and the 'Tales' album are not the same, but they're kind of similar. With 'Somewhere Far Beyond' we tried to make 'Tales' even better. So, stylistic-wise it is very similar. Everything was a little more precise, but there was not a big change in the music. On that one we had the first major hit for Blind Guardian which is "The Bard's Song" - a song we definitely have to play every night or else the fans will crucify us. (laughing) We did the next bigger tour for that one. We toured Japan for the first time which was incredible. It is the other side of the world and you go there and play in front of 4,000 people totally going nuts. It was amazing. We used that tour to record the first live album which was obviously called 'Tokyo Tales'.

MU: Are you still big in Japan?

MS: Yeah, it's OK. The problem at the moment is - for every metal band - that the Japanese market is collapsing for whatever reason. But we are still doing very good there. They seem to be really into German metal.

MU: Your first four albums were all produced by Kalle Trapp, yet the production changed from album to album. It seems like he grew with Blind Guardian.

MS: He definitely grew. In the beginning he just did most of the German speed metal and thrash metal scenes, but he grew from that day on. But after the 'Tokyo Tales' album, we knew it was time to change the producer. We learned a lot from Kalle on the first four albums, but at that time we felt that there wasn't anything left he could teach us. Also, concerning the vision of Blind Guardian, he drifted away from our vision. He came with us to Japan to record the live album and to mix it and we had some major problems with him. When he mixed the first song from the live album, which was "Banished From Sanctuary", he played it to us and we totally hated it. It sounded exactly like the version on 'Follow The Blind'. It sounded exactly like the studio version. A live album should sound like a live album and not like a studio album. We had some major arguments with him at that time, so we knew the next album would be produced by somebody else. We ended up with Flemming Rasmussen in Copenhagen.

MU: What was the vision of Blind Guardian at that time? How did that differ from Kalle Trapp's vision?

MS: Kalle is more the guy. . . how to call it. . . basic music. He is still doing bands like Saxon or Molly Hatchet or something like that - much more simple music. Our music became more and more complex from album to album. He didn't really follow that. He wasn't really into the music anymore, I guess. We still like each other on a personal basis.

MU: So why Flemming Rasmussen of Metallica fame?

MS: First of all, we were looking for a different studio. We checked out all kinds of studios in Germany, in England, wherever, and, also, Sweet Silence Studios [Rasmussen's studio] because we knew his work for Metallica and the Pretty Maids. We really like those albums because of the sound. He's got a really great studio. He's a great guy. So, we decided to go with him. It was a good decision. It was exciting. It was the next major step because we learned so much from him. He taught us a lot about being precise in timing and stuff like that. It was much harder for us to record this album ['Imaginations From The Other Side'] than any of the albums that Kalle did with us because Flemming really pushes you over your limit - which is great. Also concerning the music, it was the next major step for us from 'Somewhere Far Beyond' to 'Imaginations'. It again brought new elements into our style concerning the rhythms and more epic arrangements. The choirs got bigger. It was a wild experience.

MU: It is a very "big" album.

MS: Yeah. It was the first one we completely recorded outside Germany. We'd been in Copenhagen for about six months. It was really fun.

MU: And you did 'Nightfall In Middle-Earth' with Flemming Rasmussen as well.

MS: At that time we already had our own studio. At least we had started building our own studio. We started recording 'Nightfall' here in our hometown in Krefeld, but the problem was that the studio wasn't finished at that time. We had two rooms finished and we knew we couldn't mix the stuff there. So, we booked Flemming for the mix and we started recording here with some other engineers. But when we realized that we wouldn't make it hear in our own studio, we called Flemming and said, "We'll come to you and record the rest in Sweet Silence. You'll do the mix anyway." Again we went to Copenhagen and stayed there for about five months. It was great working with him, but also at that time we reached a point where we could not learn anything more from him. We knew back then it would be time for a new producer for the next album. But, still, he did a great job on 'Nightfall'. He's a great guy.

MU: Whose idea was it to focus on the Tolkien stuff for 'Nightfall In Middle-Earth'?

MS: We thought about doing a concept album after we had the first four songs written. They all went musical-wise into the same direction, so we thought about doing a concept album. We had different topics in our mind. One, obviously, was Tolkien. Other ones were King Arthur, for example. I know we had four topics, but I forgot about the other two. In the end, we decided to do something about Tolkien - about the Silmarillion.

MU: Why the Silmarillion. That seems to be the least obvious and the most ambitious choice you could have made.

MS: Yeah. Definitely. It was Hansi's choice because Hansi had to sing all the stuff and he had to write all the lyrics. He presented this concept to us and we liked it most. It was quite a lot of work. The problem I see in concept albums, especially if you do it on something like a book or whatever. . . I mean, if, for example, the lyrics for just one song are missing and the part of the book you have to sing about. . . for example, a sad part - you can't write a happy song to that. So, it limits you in songwriting. A lot of people have been asking if 'A Night At The Opera' will be another concept album. No, it won't. It isn't. We don't want to be limited in any way. So, we had the concept on 'Nightfall'. It was fine. It was fun to do that, but that's all for today. (laughing)

MU: Of course, you've been asked a million times, but what did you think of the movie?

MS: I have been asked a million times. (laughing) I love it. It totally blew me away, I have to say. Although there are some important parts missing, like Tom Bombadil for example, still it's awesome. Before I'd seen that movie, I thought it would be impossible to make a great movie out of the book because it's so huge and complex, but Peter Jackson did a great job. What I heard is the DVD version will be one hour longer than the cinema version and contain all the missing stuff which will be absolutely great. It's the ultimate movie, I guess.

MU: How close did Blind Guardian get to contributing to the soundtrack?

MS: Pretty close. When they announced this movie project, a lot of fan sites on the internet had these votings going on about who should do the soundtrack and we won almost all of them. It was great. That brought us the attention of Peter Jackson, so we managed to get in contact with him. We were asked to send in demo stuff. But at that time, we already had been stuck in the middle of songwriting for 'A Night At The Opera'. We were short before starting the pre-production. Finally we said, "Thanks for the offer, but we won't do it." I don't know if we even would have gotten the job anyway, but we knew the break between 'A Night At The Opera' and 'Nightfall' has been four years and if we would have gotten that job, there definitely would have been no new Blind Guardian album now. Blind Guardian is the most important thing to us, so we didn't want to risk that just because of doing the soundtrack for the movie.

MU: Are you guys fans of fantasy writing, in general?

MS: Definitely. I just read Lord Of The Rings again last year for the third or fourth time. Same with Hansi and all the other guys. We all read a lot of other fantasy-related books.

MU: You are familiar with the DragonLance series?

MS: Hansi is now, yeah. We had a voting going on at our homepage where the fans could vote on a lyrical them for one of the songs and they voted for the DragonLance stuff. So, Hansi had to read the books. (laughing)

MU: Blind Guardian fans have a lot of input.

MS: We like to involve them in this kind of stuff and they like it also. They appreciate it a lot. At the moment, we have a voting going on so that they can vote for their favorite ten songs of Blind Guardian. We will consider these songs to be part of the setlist for the next tour. That's fun to see the fans opinions about the songs. The internet is a great way to keep in contact with everybody throughout the whole world. We like to use this medium.

MU: What is the idea behind 'A Night At The Opera'?

Blind Guardian

MS: It's just a title. As I said before, there's no concept. Its just ten songs with different topics. Its nine songs with different topics. Two songs deal with the Iliad - the war of Troy - which is "And Then There Was Silence" and "Under The Ice". Besides that, its just different things Hansi thinks about - stuff like the DragonLance story. One's about Jesus Christ. One's about a German philosopher, Nietzsche. There is no concept because we didn't want to limit ourselves.

MU: What is the cover concept?

MS: We had this cover concept in our minds of a fantasy orchestra performing in an orchestra pit at an opera house.

MU: What number is bigger: the number of fantasy creatures on the album cover or the number of tracks used to produce the album?

MS: Tracks. (laughing) Definitely tracks. The highest amount of tracks we obviously used on "And Then There Was Silence". We had about 200 tracks for just this one song which is more than other bands have on five albums.

MU: That is unbelievable. What is it like in the studio trying to mix 200 tracks?

MS: It is hell! We had to work for four months on just this one song. It was a hell of a job to do this one, but we finally made it. Everybody likes this song. Everybody is asking, "Will you do it live?" I have no idea, to be honest. We just started rehearsing that song. If we are going to play it, it's going to sound different, definitely, because there's not 200 musicians on stage. We'll see.

MU: Isn't it fair to say that a lot of the tracks on the last few albums can't sound exactly the same live?

MS: It's true. It's been like that since 'Tales From The Twilight World' - since we started using all these choirs and the harmony guitar stuff. I mean, there's just two guitar players on stage. All of us try to sing backing vocals as good as possible, but it has to sound different. We just concentrate on the main melody lines concerning the vocals and concerning the guitars. Andre just focuses on his main lead guitar line and I focus on the main rhythm guitar stuff. If in one part the second lead guitar part is more important, I'll switch to lead guitar or acoustic guitar or whatever and it just works. It definitely sounds much more raw and heavier, but that works just fine. And concerning the choirs, we always have a couple of thousand people in front of the stage singing all the choirs, so nobody ever complains. (laughing) We have our choir with us.

MU: There is a debate among fans about the old style of Blind Guardian vs. the new style of Blind Guardian. What is the dividing line?

MS: I guess people say old Blind Guardian is stuff like 'Tales' and 'Somewhere Far Beyond' which is not as complex as we are today. Obviously, the new style is much more complex and bigger. There are some people that simply prefer the more basic style we played back then, and there are a lot of people who just like the newer albums better. There are a whole lot of people who like both.

MU: Is it a goal of the band to become more complex?

MS: It is no real goal. We don't have a master plan when we write songs. We just write what comes to our minds. At the moment the music is complex, but I have no idea what the next album is going to sound like. It might be even bigger, if it is even possible, or it might be the opposite way - a thrash album or whatever. There's no master plan that we say we need two speed metal songs and we need one ballad and we need one song that's totally blown up with 200 vocal tracks. We just start writing and see what happens. When we start producing an album the goal is to try to sound a little different than we did on the last album. We never want to repeat ourselves. We always try to get some fresh influences into the music. The new album is the perfect mixture. We've got the typical Blind Guardian stuff like "Battlefield" and "And Then There Was Silence", but we also have got things that are totally different for us like "Sadly Sings Destiny". Or we've got really interesting percussion stuff going on for our style of music. We started adapting these kind of rhythms on the rhythm guitar side. It is a pretty good mixture between pretty unusual stuff and the stuff most people are expecting from us. I guess it's a pretty interesting album. The funny thing is on our past albums you could name one or two songs and say, "This is the typical song for this album." - the mood, the style of that album. But there is no such song on this album because they are all different.

MU: Who is the new producer that you used for this album?

MS: A guy named Charlie Bauerfeind who already worked with us on the 'Nightfall' album. He was one of the engineers for the 'Nightfall' album. He also did the production and the mix for the "Mirror Mirror" single. So, we know this guy for five or six years. He is a great guy. We decided to let him produce this album which was a good choice.

MU: He has done a lot of power metal stuff.

MS: Yeah. He's working with bands like Helloween and Freedom Call. He's just producing Rage. At the moment, Rage are in our studio recording their new album.

MU: I wouldn't say that Blind Guardian is a typical power metal band.

MS: A lot of people ask us what kind of metal we play. "Is it speed metal?" "Is it progressive metal?" "Is it classic metal?" I, personally, don't like all these categories. They just limit you in whatever you do. So, I say we're a metal band. We have progressive stuff. We have speed metal stuff. We have ballads. We have whatever you want. You can find it on one of the albums. I just call it a metal band.


review of Blind Guardian 'A Night At The Opera'

"Battlefield" from 'A Night At The Opera'

*BUY * Blind Guardian 'A Night At The Opera'







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