There’re few releases I’ve cared about this much in the last fifteen years. Having been a Blind Guardian and Iced Earth fan for over two decades, I can’t’ say I’ve been as excited about any of their recent1 releases as I have been for a new Demons & Wizards release. On paper, it’s one of the greatest power metal dream teams to ever exist. On record, their music damn-near lives up to it. While many fans wished-for-this and wished-from-that from 99’s self-titled release or the ’05 follow-up, Touched by the Crimson King, my needs were simple. I wanted to hear Hansi’s voice set to the music of Iced Earth. For the most part, that’s exactly what I got. Yet, there’re a handful of tracks on each record that surprised us all. It turns out Schaffer can write riffs that are more than triplet gallops and Hansi can soar higher than he’s done for any bard. III is finally here and, yeah, I’m kinda excited.
Blind Guardian has always fed my fantastical appetite through the years—providing me with stories and full-concept records at a pace and with a passion that’s pure fun. Then, there’s Iced Earth. A band that has given me plenty of headbangable moments and vivid imagery through their own concepts—even crushing my spirit at times with heartbreaking ballads and war/lost-love themes. When I first heard Demons & Wizards, I realized it was no different. In a single band, I could experience the storytelling nature of Blind Guardian and the crushing, yet crippling character of Iced Earth. For two—now three—records, this has been the goal of this power-metal duo. But, fifteen years is a long time to go without your partner-in-crime. Even identical twins can lose a connection after a decade-and-a-half of separation. So, what’s that mean for Kürsch and Schaffer and their precious III?
It means that these two gents are pros at what they do and they have a relationship that surpasses many marriages. Yet, some things have changed after all these years. Like any relationship, sometimes the safe and comfortable adventures together aren’t the most exciting. But, there’re risks for leaving the comfort zone. In this case, writing an hour-long album with three songs over the eight-minute mark. Though they’re evenly-spaced throughout the disc, the eight-minute “Diabolic” and the ten-minute “Children of Cain” are the bookends. Bold, to say the least. While the opener is “meh” in the riff department and its reverberations are a lousy rehashing of “The Clouding” (from Iced Earth‘s Framing Armageddon), Hansi’s vox do keep it from sinking below the forgettable follow-up, “Invincible.” The closer, though, is a piece worth waiting for. Combining the rock/country vibes of “Timeless Spirit” with mandolin-led licks and vocal arrangements, the soothing section of the song teeters along the fringes of David Bowie‘s “Space Oddity.”
The closer is a bold move but for all its successful moments, its twin fails. Unlike “Children of Cain,” “Timeless Spirit” is much too long. Carrying us through well-executed acoustic guitars and its country-tinged pre-chorus, the song ends up being another in the bunch. The chorus is big and the choral support is grand. But, it flops in the same way as the opener. Again, this is due to its length. Now, I have no bias against long songs,2 but the shorter, more-digestible tracks on III are the best. Songs like “Final Warning,” “New Dawn,” and “Universal Truth.”
The first opens with a riff that reminds me of the Something Wicked This Way Comes trilogy before it chugs along with that classic Iced Earth gallop. Hansi’s vox take on a dark tone that fits the mood perfectly around the 3:00 mark when the guitars unleash one of the most headbangable licks of Schaffer’s career. “New Dawn,” on the other hand. mixes those dark vocal patterns with teary-eyed emotion. Sadness engulfs the clean guitar passages while Kürsch’s melodic approach pairs well with the sinister riffage. But “Universal Truth” is the unique one of the trio. It’s full of radio-friendly melodics, with a pre-chorus that feels almost like a Moonspell song. It’s an addictive track that might be out of place on III. But it’s a hooking one, to say the least.
All in all, III is a solid outing from the super duo. No matter the length or repetitiveness of the track,3 this collection of songs is almost as variable as the ones on the debut. Especially when you compare songs like the standard-fare “Wolves in Winter” to the AC/DC-ish cruiser “Midas Disease.” A couple of songs do little for me (“Split” and “Invincible”) and others are far too long (“Diabolic” and “Timeless Spirit”). Though this new album doesn’t quite hit the mark as the debut did, it’s a bit more diverse than Touched By the Crimson King. Sadly—and unsurprisingly—the record is being over-hyped all over the interwebz. So, what do I know? That said, it’s still a decent record that shouldn’t go missed by diehard fans.
Written By: Holdeneye
On paper, Demons & Wizards should be one of my favorite bands. Between the two of them, Jon Schaffer and Hansi Kürsch have reached perfection at least four times with their main gigs, so a combination of these wildly talented men should yield nothing but straight Holden–bait albums. Unfortunately in practice, this collaboration has always underwhelmed me. After purchasing and spinning Touched by the Crimson King for the first time, I remember asking myself, “Self, wouldn’t you rather just listen to Iced Earth or Blind Guardian?” Myself nodded, removed the CD from the stereo, and placed it on the shelf, where it remains to this day. My indifference to their past output resulted in the announcements of a third attempt being met with apathy, and I had no intention of even listening to III until Dr. A.N. Grier invited me aboard a romantic terror train ride for two. How could I refuse the honor of tag-teaming a high profile release with my favorite nurturing and gentle spirit?
Things start decently enough with opener and single “Diabolic.” An ominous intro gives way to Schaffer’s huge chords before the song launches forward with Hansi and Schaffer trading some vocal lines in the verse. A big sugary Blind Guardian chorus appears as Brent “Deadly” Smedley (Iced Earth) hammers the kit with a driving rhythm, and I find myself gaining some optimism for the rest of the album. And that’s what makes the rest of what I have to write so painful. “Diabolic” has about five minutes of compelling material but drags on for eight, and it’s marred by some thin-ass falsetto chants of “deus” towards the end. And yet, it’s one of III‘s best tracks. What follows is an hour of mostly tedious meandering as Schaffer attempts to incorporate prog rock and alternative styles into his heavy metal while Hansi makes a valiant but flawed attempt to elevate the material.
“Invincible” sounds like a 90’s alternative rocker, and it’s just weird. “Wolves in Winter” is an ok but boringly standard mid-paced metal anthem that would fit on any of the recent Iced Earth albums. “Timeless Spirit” is not a benevolent spirit. It’s a nine-minute slog that feels twice as long, Schaffer strumming endlessly (timelessly?) while he or some guest plays Pink Floyd leads over the top. Hansi sounds strained on this one and on both of the following tracks, “Dark Side of Her Majesty” and “Midas Disease.” The ten minute closer “Children of Cain” wants to be a Led Zeppelin epic and has a decent clean guitar intro, but it drags on forever and only momentarily hints at capturing the sense of grandeur for which it aims. Some high note strumming is used to carry the song and album to a close, and all I can think of is Schaffer in a huge Hawaiian shirt playing the ukulele version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” Not a good look for possibly my favorite guitarist of all time.
And there’s the rub. Jon Schaffer is literally one of heavy metal’s most talented rhythm guitarists, and there’s only one song here that even acknowledges that legacy. Penultimate track “Split” uses some of Schaffer’s inhuman picking speed, and it makes the rest of the album almost unlistenable by contrast. His riff work used to have a menacing bite that few other guitarists have ever been able to touch, but the past 13 years have seen his music reduced to a state of near self-parody as he reuses the same musical themes over and over.4 This is the same man that wrote “Dante’s Inferno,” a sixteen-minute riff-monster that just might be the finest heavy metal song ever produced. It’s a song that seems to fly by in a fraction of the time it takes for some of these much shorter yawners (“Timeless Spirit” and “Children of Cain”) to finish. How have the mighty fallen!
At first, I thought I just didn’t “get” what Demons & Wizards were trying to do here and that I should cut them some slack. Why shouldn’t bands be allowed to experiment and morph their sound? This is a side project, so why should I hold it up to the standards set by their main bands? But then I remembered what makes good albums: good songs. There’s not a single track here that I will purposely listen to again despite great production and some great musicianship. For an exponentially better version of the genre-bending aimed for here, check out the recently released Vision of Choice, a great album filled with great songs.
- Read: in the last ten years. ↩
- Unless your name is Midnight Odyssey. ↩
- A staple for long, drawn-out Shaffer epics. ↩
- I often wonder if using his own signature “Icebucker” pickup since 2007 hasn’t reduced the “oomph” of his riffing style. Compare his modern output with Night of the Stormrider or Burnt Offerings to see what I mean. ↩