'A Night at the Opera' is a difficult album in the Blind Guardian discography, and sadly proved to be the start of a new sound that turned a number of old fans away. As the follow-up to their brilliant Tolkienian concept album 'Nightfall in Middle-Earth,' it had a lot of pressure upon it: the band could opt for a back-to-basics style in the face of their previous experimental epic, but one that would inevitably fail to stand out compared to their excellent earlier releases, or they could try to up the ante further. They tried the second approach, but the end result isn't particularly satisfying.
The main difference here is a shift from power metal to a form of progressive metal incorporating elements of folk and seventies rock with a stronger symphonic element than before, but one that still seems largely secondary to the music despite its prominence. The band's core sound has altered drastically, André Olbrich's formerly so enjoyable lead guitars now seemingly confined to two sounds: a chugging, medium speed riff that always seems like a direct continuation of a brief passage from the previous album's 'The Curse of Feanor,' and squealing lead melodies that do nothing more than squeal.
The classic speed metal sound is completely absent, replaced with restless, pointless time changes and contrived rhythm sections that fail to stand out, but the main glaring difference comes in Hansi Kürsch's new vocal approach, an incredibly high-pitched, effeminate squeak remarkably similar to Sparks' Russel Mael. Hansi's regular singing style only surfaces on a few occasions such as the ballad opening of 'The Maiden and the Minstrel Knight,' and the rest of the time he conjures the image in my mind of a delighted mole popping up from the ground and celebrating his freedom. This maintained mood becomes incredibly tiresome across a seventy-minute album.
The album's progressive leanings are its biggest failing, as not one song seems able to stand still, and the only ones that manage to retain some sense of consistency and repetition tend to be the best (the more mellow 'Sadly Sings Destiny,' the steady rocker 'Wait for an Answer' and the dynamic 'The Soulforged' and 'Punishment Divine.') No song comes in shorter than five minutes, the longest being a dull fourteen, and the variation between slow and fast, heavy movements (that aren't particularly fast or heavy) becomes really tiresome and makes most songs overly complicated, the only respite for casual listeners being in the shamelessly catchy choruses that are still often spoiled by Hansi's high singing, which really stretches credibility by the piercing 'Under the Ice.' He manages to retain some dignity with energised performances in 'Punishment Divine' and 'Battlefield' when not merely reaching for the high notes, and while the band create some impressive textures and atmospheres, it often feels like each member is doing his own thing, with a lack of natural chemistry.
I should make it clear that none of these songs are bad, but even the aforementioned best ones don't stand up to the band's earlier material, and with their predominant medium tempo and the constant shifting making any convenient distinctions such as "the ballad" or "the epic one" impossible - 'And Then There Was Silence' may be extremely long, but it's no more pompous or diverse than the rest. This is Blind Guardian's longest song to date and a rare presence in live set-lists, but was played when I saw them in London in 2006 to a mixed reaction, and it lacks anything interesting enough to keep me entertained throughout.
Orchestration has been a big part of Blind Guardian's sound since the mid-nineties, and this song really goes overboard on the backing symphony, which is nice enough except that the regular instruments are often drowned out or simply aren't interesting enough to dominate, particularly Olbrich's usually reliable lead guitars that don't let out a single memorable or distinctive riff. Rather than a masterpiece, this lacks much of what makes even a standard Blind Guardian song so enjoyable, as even the chorus fails to be a highlight, as any sense of epic drama is buried in the overly happy air given off by Hansi's new vocal style, something that's particularly irritating in the Morris dancing "ya ya ya" finale.
This song, with its several distinct movements separated by silence - thus, in reality several different, equally uninteresting songs masquerading as one - will be enjoyed by many metal fans, particularly those of a progressive leaning, but not necessarily by the band's existing fan base. The bonus track 'Harvest of Sorrow' is thankfully about ten minutes shorter, and is a soft folk ballad in the style of songs from previous albums, available on limited editions as well as the 'And Then There Was Silence' single. Once again boasting a strong orchestral presence in the swelling of strings, this sadly lacks the charm, enthusiasm or interest of its predecessors 'Lord of the Rings,' 'The Bard's Song,' 'A Past and Future Secret' and 'Blood Tears,' and is simply a dull outro as a result.
'A Night at the Opera' is forgivable as a bit of a miss-step for the band with the burden of a follow-up to a classic hanging over their heads, but is most disappointing for inaugurating a new style that they still haven't shaken off, despite their efforts. And they have tried: the unsuitability of this material for a live setting evidently caused the band to reconsider its approach and return to simpler, as-live material from now on, but moving into the career stage of legendary metal band with an extensive back catalogue, such plans were put on hold for a long, long time.
1. Precious Jerusalem
3. Under the Ice
4. Sadly Sings Destiny
5. The Maiden and the Minstrel Knight
6. Wait for an Answer
7. The Soulforged
8. Age of False Innocence
9. Punishment Divine
10. And Then There Was Silence
11. Harvest of Sorrow (bonus)
Disc #1 Tracklisting
1 Precious Jerusalem
3 Under the Ice
4 Sadly Sings Destiny
5 Maiden and the Minstrel Knight
6 Wait for an Answer
8 Age of False Innocence
9 Punishment Divine
10 And Then There Was Silence
11 Mies del Dolor [*]