Sometimes I feel like power metal should be called “polar metal,” and not just because it has bands with names like Sonata Arctica. See, power metal is maybe the most polarizing subgenre in all of metal, at least in the U.S.

In Europe, power metal is a much bigger draw. Bands like Stratovarius, Helloween and Blind Guardian actually sell records. They play festivals. But here in the U.S., their work is appreciated by a select few metalheads, and ridiculed by the majority.

Here’s the thing: power metal is everything people who don’t listen to much metal, and whose impression of the music hasn’t changed since the early 1980s, think heavy metal is. The songs are about wizards, and dragons, and heroic fantasy, cribbing lyrics from J.R.R. Tolkien and Michael Moorcock and pretty much anybody else who’s ever adorned a book cover with a painting of some dude with a sword, and they’re full of squealing guitar solos and screaming, upper-register male vocals.

Blind Guardian has been around since the mid-’80s, recording two albums as a speed metal group in the tradition of fellow German acts like Paradox, Gamma Ray, Helloween and Running Wild before moving in a power metal direction on 1990’s Tales from the Twilight World. Ever since, they’ve been making more and more complex and compositionally ambitious records, occasionally going to the concept-album well, as on 1998’s Nightfall in Middle-Earth (based on Tolkien’s The Silmarillion). They use a lot of vocal overdubs for Queen-like choral effects, and their songs are adorned (some might say bloated) with guitar and keyboard solos.

At the Edge of Time (buy it from Amazon) is their ninth studio album (they put out a double live disc in 2003, and there have been EPs here and there), and it’s one of their most ambitious. The first song, “Sacred Worlds,” is more than nine minutes long—one of the longest tracks they’ve ever released. On it (and the album as a whole) the band is backed by a full orchestra, giving their already bombastic riffs and double bass drumming the additional impact of surging strings, reeds and brass. Lyrically, the band draws inspiration from George R.R. Martin, Michael Moorcock, Robert Jordan, Peter S. Beagle and John Milton.

A typical Blind Guardian song is built on a foundation of fast, almost thrashy drumming, with guitars that surge and recede like vast ocean waves, first coming in hard and overwhelming, then slowing down into something more epic and prog-rocky, just as vocalist Hansi Kürsch switches between a hoarse (but never death-metal guttural) delivery and a more epic, higher-pitched voice. The choruses are catchy and made to be sung back at the band at a packed live show. The guitar solos, by contrast, are shredtastic, designed to stun the listener into submission with speed and high frequencies. Sometimes, as on “Road of No Release,” they start out with delicate piano before getting epic. Mostly, though, they barrel straight at you, totally unconcerned with subtlety or what non-power metal people might consider good or bad taste.

By now, you probably know if this is your kind of thing or not. I admit, until a few years ago, power metal was not my cup of meat. But lately, the gurgling and barking of death and black metal vocalists, and the dissonant, non-catchy melodies of their instrumentalist bandmates, have started to get a little old. So I’ve been listening to more power metal, and I’ve been finding myself with a smile on my face more often. Maybe this will happen to you, too. Who can say?

Phil Freeman

Here’s the video for “A Voice in the Dark,” the first single from At the Edge of Time.

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