Twist And Shout -  Mike Exley talks to Marcus Siepen from Germany's Blind Guardian as new album "A Twist In The Myth" moves the band up the grid here once again.

How ever you define success; bands that work very hard on the road, or bands that produce great studio moments alone, you simply cannot ignore Germans Blind Guardian? Sure, they've struggled to establish a foothold in some areas and early albums saw them all too often settling for a more obvious thrash element that became a mill stone in the live arena, but since the late 1990's (with "Nightfall In Middle-Earth" and "A Night At The Opera") they seem to have been treading a new path, less afraid of change and experimentation and breaking away from their image as the 'Dungeons & Dragons', 'Lord Of The Rings' fantasy specialists with little to back it up.

Marcus Siepen, guitarist and long time songwriter alongside vocalist Hansi Kursch (who many feel has benefited hugely as a songwriter from his pan-global alliance with Iced Earth maestro Jon Schaffer in Demons & Wizards) is as upbeat on the phone to me from his home prior to the World Tour that is set to bring them even more plaudits than before, than it's possible to imagine. But a top 30 entry for the single released to accompany the album ('Fly') in Germany only, a No. 1 in Japan and a No. 4 in Spain..... ?

Surely, it's happening again? The now legendary curse of the English speaking countries where the band has struggled hugely. It's got to be a worry?

"Well, it might take a little longer for some people, but, so far, no. We're really happy with the way Nuclear Blast has marketed the release and with the reactions that have been coming back. It's an unusual album for some Blind Guardian fans, I think, but we've always believed that our fans are very special because they're always very open to what we've tried to do..... And, that's certainly true now. I think they expect this, really?"

"It's been harder in England and the US, of course. We debuted live in the UK only in 2002 (at Bloodstock) and the band has not been to America as much as we'd wanted, but really I blame this on our label situation more than on our approach or our music. We spent many years signed to Virgin Records and the UK company simply was not interested. In Germany, the company was upbeat and we heard many times that the UK was interested but nothing came out of it. Nuclear Blast has changed all this right away, right when we signed, so now you guys better be ready for us!!"

That's a bold statement! How do you think it will pan out then?

"Well, we already have a show booked and had to change the venue already because it was over booked, so hopefully, that means a good night? I don't know. We'll take it one step at a time. Try to get back after that and do another couple of shows and build it up. The reaction so far has been very positive, so I firmly believe it's possible."

"We've got a big US tour planned as well. That starts in early November and we might even get back there in 2007. It was difficult to get a foothold in the US. We toured there for the last album, but that was really only the first time. That said, 8-900 people turned up most nights, many more than we were told to expect, so it was great. The last time we played live, remember, apart from a couple of warm up shows here in Germany, was at the end of 2003, so we're really hungry for road work."

Yes, it's been a long time. Is this the ideal album to try and break new ground though, or do you think it would have been preferable to have tried it when the band was expanding its ideas further with "Nightfall In Middle-Earth", or "A Night At The Opera"?

"Well, it would have been nice before, of course, but I do think this is an ideal record to do it now yes, because this is an album that bridges the gap between the old Blind Guardian and the new one. I'm not saying this didn't happen before, but somehow, this one sums up exactly what the new Blind Guardian has in 2006, not just what was going on in the mid 1990's. If anyone doesn't know us, then this is definitely the album to go for."

"The band has worked very hard to try to experiment but also define exactly what Blind Guardian is. There's no concept this time, no big plan or really defined image like say in the past, with the lyrical themes or the Tolkein-esque cover artwork........."

Yes, I believe, originally, that Hansi even wanted to call the album "A Day At The Races", following on from "A Night At The Opera" (2002)?

"That's right. When we called the last album "A Night At The Opera", of course, everyone was freaking out, accusing us of stealing a title from Queen and stuff like that; but, please remember that Queen themselves took the title from a Marx Brothers movie and we have as much right to use any title as they did? That movie had a sequel which was called "A Day At The Races" and I firmly believe that, one day, we will get around to using that title because it has been at the forefront of our minds for sometime."

"I think it comes down to creating a balance between what people expect from us and what we want. We can't satisfy everyone. If the album cover has a dragon on it, or it's called after a Marx Brothers movie? So what. What is important is that we never get stagnant and we don't let this type of argument cloud what we can do, which I think is write great music."

"This band has made huge strides from the thrash elements of the band back in the mid 1990's, to the more technical stuff of "Nightfall....", right up to the album that is "A Twist In The Myth". I cannot even think of trying to please everyone, Mike! What is important is pleasing me, Hansi, Andre and Fred............ that's it. I'm pretty sure, one day we'll get to a position where we can think about concepts and take on board other people's ideas, but for the time being, there's still so much within us to be brought out; even after 20 or so years."

OK. Pick out a couple of songs that define what you were saying there about pulling together the many strings of Blind Guardian and creating an album that defines the band in 2006?

"Well, firstly I should mention 'Fly' because it's the first song that was released (as a single)....... We had a few problems in the studio. Hansi got sick and the release date had to be delayed but we decided to issue this because not only does it sum up what I said about the band in 2006, but also because there had to be a bridge between the news columns of the magazines that were telling everyone about the new record and the record itself. Although we are not a natural singles band, with the acoustic version of 'Skalds And Shadows', 'Fly' definitely has a place as a single because it is one of the tracks on the album that is bold enough to stand up for itself."

"We've done this once before (with 'And Then There Was Silence') which was the bridge between "Nightfall...." and "A Night At The Opera", so it wasn't too hard to accept but 'Fly' has now found a life of its own. It's kinda made it fun as well. I think we'll leave singles to the pop bands, but a No. 1 in Japan and top five positions throughout Europe? Well, they're very nice, of course, ha! ha!"

'Fly' is not typical for Blind Guardian at all. It illustrates the 'New' side of the band, the extremes that we're capable of and it confused a few people (which we always like!), so I think it worked very well."

"Then, there's 'This Will Never End' too. You know, it's difficult for me to find any one track that can define the record; they're all different; very different in some respects, but as the opener 'This......' is important because it tries to counter the feeling I've heard in a few places that we've lost some of our power over the years whilst we've experimented with the 'Progressive' edge. To me, this is untrue and 'This.......' proves this. It's fast, aggressive and heavy and I don't see anything wrong with that!"

"Another song I like very much is the second single and video track, 'Another Stranger Me'. It has its untypical side too; a kind of Seventies rock feel which we've never tried before - it's rather straight - but it's also a very important song!"

Yes, I called that your "Saxon moment"!

"On my God! No, I love Saxon, ha! ha! I don't know, people will react very differently to it, particularly to the video which is definitely one of the best we've worked on but the idea of the song is quite simple really, which I know people will find unusual for us. Often we've tried to put the whole 'factory' into some songs with many different parts, but that is just built around some much more direct ideas and I feel it works perfectly. Comments on that song have been almost as good as for the more experimental ones or the songs that do define the old Blind Guardian, so you never can tell. The important thing is that you never limit yourself. You never say, "I can't!"

Charlie Bauernfeind produced. Now, he's a very established 'face' in Germany having worked with many of the top bands. Was he necessarily the right person to produce this, if you wanted to take the sound forward and experiment as much as you claim?

"Actually, I don't think you can over play that side of it too much. Charlie knows us very well, but if there was a real change to be made, I think we would be the one's making it not a producer. It's hard to make people understand, but I think a band can experiment without changing its sound and that's definitely what Blind Guardian is about."

"We have worked with Charlie several times before, so when we start experimenting in the studio, which, I tell you, happens quite a lot, we know we have a safe pair of hands on the recording side and a friendly pair of ears that knows how to find the vibe and the atmosphere right away without losing the initial feel. Do you understand? It would be really difficult to try to explain to another person how you feel about something very personal like a song, where as Charlie can read that almost before we've tried to explain it."

And moving to Nuclear Blast? Some people will claim you’ve gone back into your shell; into a safe environment?

Well, I think people can be left to say this really, Mike. I don’t care. What is important is that a label is there not only to put out your music but also to give you chance to try and let every fan get the record, see the band and hear the band. And Nuclear Blast are doing this already. Unlike Virgin.”

“The vision that Nuclear Blast had with us. How they wanted to work with us, perfectly matched our ideas and if they’re from Germany, then so be it. They know ‘metal’ inside out; Blind Guardian is still a metal band, so that’s perfect for us. What would you do? We were signed to Virgin. When Virgin was merged with EMI, all the people who understood us and metal got fired, and it was just chaos. Everything went wrong; it couldn’t go on like that. You see it from the lack of real releases. OK, there was the DVD ("Imaginations Through The Looking Glass" - 2004) and the Live record but it was going to be another four or five years before we recorded a new album with Virgin. It’s been four already pretty much, with no live work, as I said, since 2003. That had to change.”

What are the priorities now then?

“From Nuclear Blast’s perspective and ours, I think the most important thing now is that we are seen presenting this album live. It’s released on September 1st I think, one week later we kick off the World Tour which should keep us on the road until the end of next year and really, there’s nothing more important than this. Especially for me, this is the best part of being in a band like Blind Guardian. It’s lovely being in the studio, seeing a song grow and feeling the album coming together, but, really, being out on stage and getting the feedback from the fans is the highlight of being a musician. You can write as many songs as you like, but if you never ever saw anyone enjoy them, going nuts whilst you’re on stage, where would you be?”

“We’re going to be going all over the place - Europe, South America, Eastern Europe, Australia......, and then we’ll be back for the festival season again. Fantastic.”

Presumably you won’t be taking your skateboard with you this time? (Marcus broke a leg in an accident several years ago and scared the hell out of everyone including himself)?

Ha ! ha! No, I don’t think so. I was very lucky. We were not on the road at the time, just writing new songs, but everyone was concerned because I broke my leg in five places and could not walk for nearly five months. Then the leg got infected as well, and it was a real nightmare. I don’t think I’m ever likely to get on a skateboard again actually. Thank you for bringing that up, ha! ha!”

“I hope everyone comes down when we play your town. The new album is a real stepping stone for us and I hope we can bring a lot of pleasure to a lot more people.”

Thanx to Mike Exley for his help and also Nuclear Blast.

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