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An auto-biography of gig attendance #1: Rock Of Gods, 1996

Some of my ticket-stubs.

Many years ago I wrote a post about how music gigs are the best form of entertainment. Having reconsidered, I decided that music gigs used to be an amazing form of entertainment when I was young, when I hadn’t seen many bands live, and when I had like-minded friends to go to gigs with. Attending concerts has lost its appeal for me in more recent years. A few weeks ago my mother sent me some old ticket-stubs and rekindled all those memories of gig attendance of my youth. A few days later I learned that Immolation are coming to Brighton, UK, as part of Mammothfest. Immolation is one of my all-time favourite death metal bands, and in terms of consistency, endurance, and creativity, the best death metal band of all times, in my opinion. In anticipation of this gig and in remembrance of the music gigs of my youth I decided to start a new series of posts where I will share with readers some of my favourite moments of gig-attendance throughout the years. I will start with the first heavy metal gig I ever attended: the Rock of Gods festival in Piraeus, Greece, on July 12 1996.

The news of the Rock of Gods festival hit during a summer English course that some of my friends and I were taking. The line-up included Slayer (a band that I worshiped and still do), Blind Guardian (another favourite among certain members of our group back then, myself included), Motorhead (not a favourite at the time, but, still, exciting), Rage (hadn’t listened to them at the time), Nightfall (Greek black metal band), and Fatal Morgana (Greek progressive metal band). At the time I was 15 years old. Although I wasn’t particularly young, my parents were negatively disposed to heavy metal music and the wider subculture. Yet, the congruence of several factors around Rock of Gods allowed me to convince my parents to permit me to go: it was a summer festival (so we didn’t have school-related responsibilities), it was taking place close to our home-town (Piraeus), and several of my friends would accompany me (among whom a friend my mother considered the “ideal student”). So, I bought a ticket.

Most of my memories are of peripheral things around the concert rather than the bands themselves. My friends and I (a group of five) met with some older kids from school in a public square, and together we took the bus to Piraeus. The fan credentials of those older kids were much better than ours; they had long hair, they wore cool old t-shirts, they knew all the bands, and they were doing drugs. Savvas, one of the older kids, grabbed me by my Iron Maiden t-shirt (Fear of the dark) and, half-jokingly, told me “when Rage come out on stage, I will kill you!”. I laughed, but I was also a bit worried. In any case I made a mental note not to be near him when Rage would come out.

The bus dropped us off and then we had to walk for a bit in order to get to dock 3 where the festival was taking place. Our group was walking alongside hordes of heavy metal fans with smiles in their faces. On the way to dock 3, I remember seeing the following slogan written in spray on walls: “Αγαπάς το Rock; 7χίλιαρο!” (“Do you love rock? Pay 7.000 drachmas!”). Although I remember getting the anti-commercial message of the slogan, I was also confused. I was not sure whether the slogan was directed to fans (that were seen as passive dupes of capitalism), music promoters (that were seen as exploiting the fans), bands (criticised for not playing for free), or the broader system including all those actors together (the culture industry). That was a festival that cost money to organise, with an international bill consisting of several awesome and successful bands, so I couldn’t see how the price would be an issue. Upon reflection, I guess it was meant as commentary on the culture industry; a system whereby heavy metal music is mass produced and marketed as a commodity. The slogan was trying to point out that “if you love rock music you are forced into market exchange relations”. The contradiction in this message is that rock music itself, as we know and love, is the product of the capitalist economy; an economy that is producing albums, and has allowed relatively affluent kids from around the world to own instruments and make bands like Slayer and Blind Guardian, that are eventually recruited by the music industry. I still think that rock music as a commodity should be critiqued, but that slogan did not offer any meaningful critique.

Inside the festival area the atmosphere was beautiful. I had never seen so many heavy metal fans at the same place. I remember feeling quite awkward and slightly scared, so I made sure I stayed close to my friends. Before any of the bands started playing, I spotted Thomen, Blind Guardian’s original drummer, in the crowd. The feeling of seeing one of my music heroes up-close was unique, so without much thought I went to get an autograph. Thomen was very friendly and happy to sign our ticket-stubs. I thought about my friend, Nick, who couldn’t attend the concert because he was away on holiday, so I found a piece of paper and asked Thomen to sign it for him. I gave it to Nick when he came back from holidays and the bastard couldn’t care less. Around that time, we heard the disappointing news that Motorhead were replaced by Saxon…

My memories of the actual bands are extremely blurry. I think I was over-stimulated, by the crowd, the bands, and the newness of the experience of a heavy metal festival, so being attentive of the actual music-listening experience was hard. One of the things I remember clearly is the asphyxiating atmosphere at the front of the stage. Especially when Slayer came out, kicking off with “South of heaven”, the heat combined with the the crowd crushing on me, made me feel faint. I was next to my friend Mark, and when the first notes of “South of heaven” came out of the amps we looked at each other with surprise and started screaming like the little fanboys that we were. Mark then asked me “which song is this!?”, to which I replied “Dead skin mask!”, a mistake that I eventually corrected a few seconds later. I have no other recollection of Slayer that night, apart from the fact that they played quite a few of the punk covers off Undisputed Attitude (1996), and, if I remember correctly, Jeff’s guitar with all the punk stickers. Similarly, I have almost no recollection of Blind Guardian, apart from “The bard’s song”. This is really peculiar, especially since I was dying to see them, and Imaginations from the other side (1995) was (and still is) one of my favourite albums of all time. Although I was not listening to Rage at the time (I fell in love with them after the concert) I vividly remember Peavy at the front of the stage singing “Alive but dead”. Under different technosocial circumstances, a recording of this concert would be widely available, and I would love to be able to experience it again. The only thing I could find online was the YouTube video below, of an audio track from Blind Guardian’s performance on that evening, 21 years ago.

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An ode to Blind Guardian

The term “ode” is of course used catachrestically here, as I do not aim to compose an actual ode. The intention of this post is to simply praise what might be the greatest metal band of all times: Blind Guardian. Of course this is a personal opinion and would be naive to assume it is anything more than that. However, I would like the readers of this post who have not heard of, or have not paid attention to, Blind Guardian, to give them a chance and, by doing so, potentially enrich their lives in the most beautiful of ways.

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As it sometimes happens in similar occasions, I will mobilise my personal career as a metal fan in an effort to invest my opinion with authority. I have been passionately listening to metal for 20 years. I first became obsessed with traditional heavy metal. Iron Maiden, Accept, Savatage and Dio were the first bands that I listened to and, with the exception of Accept, I quickly fell in love with them. Around the same time, by the end of 1995, I was exposed to power metal, starting with Helloween‘s Keeper of the seven keys parts 1 and 2,  and then to the newly released Blind Guardian and Gamma Ray albums Imaginations from the other side, and Land of the free, respectively. Soon after that I got addicted to Slayer and I would spend my days and nights listening to Reign in blood and Divine Intervention, over and over again, as well as to Kreator and Sodom. Not before long, a cassette started circulating in our metal circle with the relatively recently released Slaughter of the soul and The dreams you dread albums, by At The Gates and Benediction, respectively. These two albums opened up the floodgates to the genre that I love the most to this day: death metal. Soon I would be all over bands like Dismember, Unleashed, Entombed, Grave, Napalm Death, Sarcofago, Massacra, Death, etc. Although this is a very sketchy account of my personal metal history, it is meant to suggest that I was carefully nurtured to the different metal sub-genres and I have always had a broad appreciation of the metal spectrum.

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From left to right: Thomas, Marcus, Andre, Hansi circa 1988.

As it also happens with metal fans sometimes, my move from a less to a more “extreme” metal sub-genre usually meant a relative depreciation of the former. This was particularly pronounced when I started listening to death metal and I suddenly lost all interest in traditional heavy metal and power metal. Indeed, even today if someone asks me which the albums that I have consistently considered to be the most godly over the years are, I would reply with albums like Symbolic (Death), Clandestine (Entombed), Indecent and Obscene (Dismember), With fear I kiss the burning darkness (At the Gates), Heartwork (Carcass), Legion (Deicide), without a second thought. These are, without kidding, what I just thought! Yet, now on second thought, I would also include a number of albums by Maiden, Dio, Slayer, Rage, and others. However, there is also one album, that I excluded in the above list on purpose, that I would also include without second thought. That would be Blind Guardian’s Imaginations…. In my mind both traditional metal albums and death metal albums can be monumental, yet the former clearly belong to a different class to the latter. I have always considered death metal much more interesting, inventive, even critical, compared to traditional metal sub-genres. Blind Guardian is probably the only band that reconciles the creativity, aggression, criticality of death metal, and the fantasy, musicality and entertaining component of traditional metal.

bg2One of the most noteworthy things about Blind Guardian is their stamina. Over the years, I have witnessed – these are all personal opinions of course – countless once brilliant bands of the same scene, like Helloween (post 2000), Gamma Ray (post 1995) and Rage (post 2002), deteriorating on a downward spiral to becoming embarrassing shadows of their former selves. Yet, Blind Guardian managed to reinvent themselves over the years and constantly develop their unique style, leading to the release of an unprecedented masterpiece (what could easily be their best album ever) three months ago. No band that has been active for so long can claim to have achieved this.

BG circa early 90sBlind Guardian quickly released three albums between 1988 and 1990 that had pretty much the same style; fast power metal that combined elements of the quintessential German power metal band at the time, Helloween, and traditional English heavy metal. These influences are quite obvious. “Run for the night“, one of the standout tracks off their debut, sounds quite similar to “Starlight” off Helloween’s debut EP. Kai Hansen, the co-leader of Helloween made guest appearances in all first four Blind Guardian albums. With regard to their British metal influence, on their second album they covered the song “Don’t break the circle” off Demon‘s great second album The unexpected guest. Moreover, the even not so trained listener will be able to distinguish the NWOBHM influence in Blind Guardian’s early work, especially in the twin guitar harmonies. The twin guitar harmonies on “Majesty” (around 2:30), another classic from their debut, remind a lot the melody and overall approach of White Spirit on songs like “Fool for the gods” (at 4:25). Common element in those three releases is the epic atmosphere and speed. Although the style in their first three releases is somewhat constant, their third album shows signs of refinement and broadening of scope, exemplified on the track “Lord of the rings”.

The big change happened in 1992, with the release of their fourth masterpiece Somewhere far beyond. While the most obvious changes include the more ambitious orchestration and the complication of songwriting in general, I think the biggest change is Hansi’s singing, which evolved from an accompanying to a leading instrument. At that point Hansi’s melodies became the factor that took Andre’s music to new unreachable heights. The riffing as well explored new territories and embraced all the different techniques in the metal world, opening up new expressive avenues to the band. Triplet riffs that go back to the opening notes of Deep Purple‘s “Highway star“, and taken to new heights by thrash bands like Exodus (“Piranha“, “Deranged“), Metallica (“Damage inc”), Kreator (“No reason to exist” among many others), Sodom (“Shellfire defence“), and of course, Iced Earth (“Iced earth“), assumed new life in the competent hands of Marcus and Andre. I personally think that the influence of Manowar should not be underplayed either at this stage of Blind Guardian’s evolution. Songs like “Holy war” I consider to be blueprints for Blind Guardian’s sound.

The ultimate musical masterpiece. Whoever disagrees can go fuck themselves.

The ultimate musical masterpiece. Whoever disagrees can go fuck themselves.

Since then Blind Guardian committed to providing excellent musical narratives that enchant and cultivate the listener. I honestly discover new things whenever I listen to Imaginations… even though I have been listening to it non-stop for 20 years (and the same goes for all Blind Guardian albums). Another big change occurred with the release of Nightfall in middle earth (1998), in which the band slowed down its rampant pace considerably. Just like with the case of Somewhere far beyond that took the band to a new direction, Nightfall… was the album that would pave the way for the new Blind Guardian that, probably, looked for inspiration more to Savatage and progressive rock than thrash and speed metal. I would also postulate that the experimentation of their peers, Rage with an orchestra on Lingua Mortis (1996) must have had an effect on what Blind Guardian envisioned for the future. A night at the opera (2002) is an unprecedented progressive metal masterpiece, to this day probably my second favorite Blind Guardian album. This is an extremely thickly textured album, suffering from a not-particularly-good production. Despite that its brilliance is unquestionable. This album was the second major break with the band’s speed metal past, having just one song that is reminiscent of the speed metal days (i.e. “Punishment divine“). When this album was released I was going through a period of cynicism with regard to the metal genre and I remember being totally disappointed with the absence of fast songs. I remember that the biggest metal record store in Athens (Rock City) opened on a Sunday (all stores are closed on Sundays) just to sell the then-newly-released Blind Guardian album. Blind Guardian fans were a bit restless so they pushed their way through the entrance and, although I still don’t know exactly what happened, the glass doors shattered to the ground.

In A twist in the myth (2006) the band continued down the progressive path it had taken in the previous two albums, albeit with a much less ambitious orchestration and song structures in general. I consider it one of their most accessible albums. I also consider it to be in many ways the pinnacle of their songwriting, and if it ended with “Lionheart” it could easily be my second favorite BG album. “Otherland“, “Another stranger me“, “Carry the blessed home” are absolute masterpieces. The album that followed (At the edge of time, 2010), on the one hand, looked nostalgically in the past, with songs like “A voice in the dark” and “Tanelorn“. On the other hand, it also explored new territory for the band with the symphonic “Sacred worlds” and the long epic “Wheel of time“.

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From left to right: Andre, Hansi, Marcus, Frederik circa 2014

Which brings us to 2015, when after almost 30 years of astounding musical offerings Blind Guardian manage to release what could be their most beautiful, inventive and ambitious masterpiece yet. It’s been more than three months since I bought Beyond the red mirror and I still can’t believe my ears. My only problem with the album, which irritated me a lot at first, is that the rhythm guitars – an important ingredient in BG’s sound – are way too low in the mix. Other than that, the album’s brilliance is indescribable. I will save the more elaborate review for the Best off list at the end of the year. Until then do yourselves a favour and listen to Blind Guardian, probably the best band of all time.