Blind Guardian release ultimate tour souvenir

Blind Guardian live during their impressive Beyond The Red Mirror world tour.
Blind Guardian live during their impressive Beyond The Red Mirror world tour.

There have been plenty of times over the years where I've questioned the motives of a band releasing a live album.

Much like the 'greatest hits' bundle, I had long considered the packaged live set little more than an excuse to cash in on the fan's endless need to be a completist; especially when sugared with a 'previously unreleased' track or unusual version of a favourite.

It was only when I started attending more gigs that I realised the potential worth of the live album. A good one has the ability to transport you back to the arena.

Such is the case with Live Beyond The Spheres, the mammoth, 22-track, three-CD live slab from German heavy metal masters Blind Guardian.

Now available, the set captures the band on the European leg of its tour in support of the sensational studio platter, Beyond The Red Mirror.

I was one of the lucky loyal legion to witness the Sydney show and I've got to say, listening to Live Beyond The Spheres sends blissful shivers down my spine.

Guitarist Marcus Siepen during a quieter moment in the band's set.

Guitarist Marcus Siepen during a quieter moment in the band's set.

According to guitarist Marcus Siepen, that's the very intention.

"That's exactly what we try to do ... capture what we did on that tour and hopefully anyone who listens to it will feel like they're back at the gig again," he said.

Live Beyond The Spheres includes material from throughout Blind Guardian's 30+ year career, from old-school favourites like Valhalla, Lord of the Rings and Majesty, through to efforts from the latest release including The Ninth Wave, Prophecies and Twilight of the Gods.

"It's getting more and more tricky with every new album because we're adding songs to the pile of music that we can choose from," said Marcus of devising the touring set list.

"We always obviously try to play songs from the latest album, because after all that is why you go on tour, but there are so many classics that people want to hear and we always want to dig out some songs that we haven't played in a while or haven't played so far.

"So what we do is we play rather long shows - two-and-a-half hours or something like that - and we can squeeze quite a lot of songs in that and we change the set every day. Normally we play around 18 songs a night, but we performed 45 different songs over the course of the tour."

Formed in 1984 in Krefeld, Germany, Blind Guardian is well known for its intricate mix of progressive riffery, intoxicating melodies, symphonic bombast and crushing power.

Their ongoing mastery of the craft has led to their output becoming more complex with each successive release.

Taking the studio recordings to the stage can be quite a task, says Marcus.

"It is difficult in some points because when we record something in the studio we can do whatever we want to do," he said. "If we want to record 60 guitars then there's no problem, we go for it, but on stage it's just Andre Olbrich [guitarist] and me.

"When ever we play a new song on the road we have to rearrange it. We have to sit down and figure out what are the most important lines, concerning vocals and choirs and whatever, and we really have to figure out what guitar parts are needed.

"We go through it and rearrange it for live and it works and sometimes it can transform it into a different beast. If I listen to the studio version of The Ninth Wave for example, and then compare it to the live version, to me it's a different thing. The live version is more heavy, it's more brutal, it's more in your face."

Of course, some of the tracks are harder to translate than others.

"There are a couple of things that are tricky to play live," said Marcus. "Sticking with The Ninth Wave, that one's a tricky one because lots of the vocal parts and backing vocals that we do are rhythmically completely against what I am doing on guitar. That's really tricky to do because you have to really focus otherwise you will f**k up your guitar riff or you will be out of tune with the vocals.

"Another song that we played for the very first time on this tour - it didn't end up on the album, because we only started playing it late on the tour - was The Curse Of Feanor. People have been wanting us to play it ever since we released the Nightfall [In Middle Earth] album, but we never were able to really come up with a proper live version.

"Again there's a lot of tricky stuff going on there with guitar and vocal parts going against each other. We tried a couple of times over the years in rehearsals but we never were happy until now. This one was a challenging one. It's not that you're afraid of it, but sometimes you look at the setlist and go, 'oh, that one's coming up' and it changes your focus.

"Obviously there are some songs I don't think about at all, my fingers know automatically what to do and where to go, you don't think about it. I can do whatever I want when I'm playing it."

The Blind Guardian line-up is completed by vocalist Hansi Kursch, drummer Frederik Ehmke and live players Barend Courbois [bass] and Michael Schuren [keys].

Marcus says playing live is the ultimate thrill.

"Nothing compares to that," he said. "The rush of energy and adrenaline that you get once you hit stage and you start playing ... you get this immediate feedback from the crowd. You start playing a song and they immediately start going for it. They go nuts, they start singing, they start stage diving, crowd surfing ... for me, that's the absolute highlight of being a musician because that's the real deal.

"If you go on stage and you have a couple of thousand people going nuts, it's an absolute high."

Marcus said that he was pleasantly surprised when the band played its latest material on the recent tour.

"I have to say the great thing about the Beyond The Red Mirror stuff is that the reaction to those songs we've been playing has been pretty much the same as to the classics, which doesn't normally happen when you play those songs for the first time," he said.

"The reaction has always been positive, but with the new songs people tend to listen more rather than go nuts immediately. But the reaction has been the same as to songs like Mirror Mirror and Valhalla and that has been amazing, because we expected positive reactions no doubt about it, because we are convinced about the songs obviously, but we were not prepared for this overwhelming reaction. They became like instant classics which was overwhelming for us."

One song which always manages to incite a positive reaction among fans is the singalong favourite, The Bard's Song, a song in which I witnessed a Sydney crowd sway and sing as one.

"It's one of those very special songs there's no doubt about that and it doesn't really matter where we play that song the reaction is always the same yet there are still things happening that send shivers up and down my spine," Marcus said.

"For example, when we played that song in Warsaw, Poland, people sat down as soon as we started playing the song. We were going, 'why is everyone sitting down' - they were sitting down as if there were in a forest around a camp fire and they were singing so loud. There were goosebumps, it was intense.

"I remember Hansi talking about this. He started singing with his eyes closed - and there are times when you have a focus point in the crowd - and when he re-opened his eyes his focus point was gone because everyone was sitting down and he lost his balance. It was really a special moment.

"Whenever we return to Warsaw it happens again. I was told by fans it wasn't planned. For whatever reason it just did. It was really really nice."

Marcus said that he was asked many times to nominate favourite moments from tours and was hard-pressed to offer just one or two.

"Obviously when we play Dusseldorf, which is not our hometown, but its about 20 minutes from here, so it's always our hometown gig and its a 7000 seat venue that we sell out and there are lots of friends and family members there - that's always a very special show," he said.

"But I could name Sydney was an amazing show, I could name London was amazing, I could name Montreal was amazing, San Francisco was great, Tokyo was amazing ... I could name cities all over the planet that immediately come to mind, but I couldn't say that one was better than the other because there are so many good memories about the whole touring thing and we're blessed by this.

"We have very loyal fans all over the planet and no matter where we are going, we can always be assured the fans will come and sing and go crazy and make it something special."

For Marcus, the new live release serves as a celebration of a milestone - his 30th year with the band.

"When we started we were a bunch of kids dreaming about making it and the funny thing is we were actually convinced that we would make it," he joked. "As you know, there are no guarantees with this, but we were convinced.

"We worked hard for this and rehearsed every day trying to improve ourselves as musicians, as composers, as live performers. Whatever it is, we always try to give our best that we can possibly give. Never have we been distracted from the main plan. 30 years later here we are talking about it. It's pretty amazing.

"Only if you really love something will you be really good at it. More than half of my life I have spent with this band and I'm loving it."

Live Beyond The Spheres is available now through Nuclear Blast Records.