Interview with vocalist Hansi Hansi Kürsch | By Brandon Ringo
Since their debut almost three decades ago, German power metal luminaries Blind Guardian have continued to push the envelope well past metal’s comfortable boundaries. Their music features grand, epic storytelling, and makes a great soundtrack when lost in a bad neighborhood with a crackhead to whom you accidentally offered a ride (true story). With their 10th album Beyond The Red Mirror, the band has traveled back in time 20 years to create a sequel to their classic Imaginations From The Other Side. It’s the perfect album to bring along to your next “Dungeons & Dragons” game… or on an uncomfortable car ride.
What have you guys been up to over the last few years? At what point did the writing begin for Beyond The Red Mirror?
I dare to say that we have been busy in accomplishing different missions. Right after the release of At The Edge Of Time, we massively started promoting the album mainly by live performances. And this touring period had been extended quite a few times. At the very end, the accomplishment of our live performances took far longer than expected, and so—after victoriously sacrificing our precious health and beauty in a two year lasting concert battle—we finally returned to the studio to work on our first “Best of” album and the compilation box A Traveler’s Guide To Space And Time. All of this obviously kept us away from songwriting. There was no chance for us to compose our material while we worked on other projects like the ones I have mentioned. To cut this story short: more or less, two and a half years ago, we started songwriting on the new album and we kept working on new songs almost up to the end of the production.
Did you immediately know that you wanted to make the album a sequel to Imaginations From The Other Side, or did this theme develop organically?
It had not been my intention in the beginning, and was a very slowly growing process during the album production. It was only at the very end of the production when I was really able to finalize the storyboard in a suitable way, because many things were depending on the running order of songs, which was kind of open until the very last moment.
The idea for a concept started taking shape after we had finished a good amount of songs. I would guess three or four songs were already written before I realized two certain similarities within the songs. One song we have worked on constantly featured the “let your hair down” side of Blind Guardian, while the other one always presented the orchestrated side of the band. I was very often thinking about two different universes, which would have to be featured in the lyrics. A couple of times, pure fantasy images interfered by harsh reality elements popped up in my mind, while performing or listening to the instrumental arrangements. That’s when I first thought about a concept.
Still, in the harder songs, there also had been a significantly strong, disturbing sci-fi approach showing up, which needed to be featured, too. Therefore, it became obvious to me that I would not get very far with regular, classical fantasy topics. This somehow brought my attention back to Imaginations. There, I found everything I needed: a non-completed story, a first design of the two universes, and a lot of individual songs that reveal a dark and futuristic intention. I also found the perfect link to fantasy: the Arthurian epic. A mingling of all these elements is what can be found lyrically on Beyond The Red Mirror.
Were there difficulties trying to match the tones and themes of an album that’s 20 years old?
Lyrically, it was no problem at all. At different spots, I also found it very easy to weave in the whole lyrical Blind Guardian universe in a more philosophical way. “Truth” and “Time”—which are very often elemental parts in my songwriting—became a major part of the concept. Musically, I would say, we never considered the capturing of Imaginations’ links [to be] a big necessity for the songs, because they were already revealing their own individual magic. Production-wise, we agreed on bringing back the intensity of the band members’ performances, the way we’d supplied it on Imaginations. In my case, I have to admit that the performance 20 years ago was also heavily influenced by innocence…
Do you typically write lyrics first and form the music around them, or vice versa?
No, music—including all melody lines—comes first. I am singing freestyle when I do my vocal melodies and their layers. So, whatever comes into my mind will be sung. But, of course, I am already designing moods and first magic words there, which later on, may become a part of the lyrical concept for the song. In many cases, I am influenced by the first musical elements I am provided with, because they already speak a very strong language. At other points, there is also a hint given by the person who came up with the idea and gave a name to the song for working reasons. The first two songs that come into my mind here are “Holy Grail” and “Ashes Of Eternity.” [Drummer] Frederik Ehmke named his song “Holy Grail” and I kept that idea, which at the very end, fit into the concept very well and gave me some direction about how to get to the final plot of the story. I would probably never name a song “The Holy Grail” in normal cases. Here it was just perfect. “Ashes Of Eternity” was originally entitled “Encrypted Time” by [guitarist] André Olbrich. This gave me inspiration to think about the meaning of this working title. I immediately started creating a story in connection to The Holy Grail and the main concept. “Twilight Of The Gods” is an example of spontaneously choosing the right words while performing freestyle. What inspired you to incorporate multiple choirs and an orchestra, and how did you choose these musicians? As for the pure classical performances, this became necessary mostly by accident. It was because our regular classical partners from Prague—who performed on At The Edge Of Time—were not available. We were running out of time and had to finalize the orchestral and choral parts for a good amount of other songs. Luckily, we were able to find a tremendously great orchestra in Budapest, who was able to nail down our stuff on schedule and in a perfect way. So the [two groups] are usually performing at different spots on this album. To make everyone’s life a little more difficult, we needed a native speaking classical choir, because we decided to use classical voices in a regular Blind Guardian song, for example in “The Holy Grail.” That’s where the Boston choir comes in, but originally, they were also supposed to become part of the great choir in “The Ninth Wave.” In total, we needed three choirs for the beginning of this one song. When creating the intro to “The Ninth Wave,” we were immediately thinking something “Carmina Burana”-like, and therefore, needed many individuals to perform this particular part due to the momentum we were intending to create. It came out beautiful, I think. How has your songwriting approach evolved over the past two decades? I started to understand that straight storytelling is—especially when I am dealing with individual songs—quite a challenge, which is difficult to overcome. This is due to different reasons, mainly because of the frame given within a song. I, therefore, tried to develop my style into something more open, by giving space to personal insights or just by revealing particular situations of a story. I have also been able to find a way to coordinate the multiple voices in my head. [Laughs].
What or whom do you feel has had the greatest impact on your ability to create such elaborate stories?
As far as storytellers go, I still say that Stephen King and J.R.R. Tolkien have had the biggest impact. This is not only because of the stories they create, but also because of the way they seem to approach things and how they relate to their own stories personally. I also like their philosophy about the value of storytelling. I have started to understand that the universes they have created become realities within themselves: a reality which will have to define its own truth, strong enough to be the foundation of the story, and by that, secure its own universe’s existence. This brings me back to Christian mythology, religion in general, and all related philosophies, which can be very helpful sources of inspiration, too.