Beyond the Red Mirror has been out in North America for nine months now, and local fans have eagerly awaited next week’s show at the Commodore since it was announced in May; and while Blind Guardian vocalist Hansi Kürsch has discussed the story and the conceptual focus of the album in several interviews, all of which have no doubt been voraciously devoured by diehard fans, we had a few questions for him about the creative processes and symbolism behind the songcraft, as well as his opinion on the future of metal in a vapid, consumer-driven culture (and, as we’ve just come out of a federal election in Canada, some of his remarks are acutely pertinent for young musicians and music fans.)
Beyond the Red Mirror has an interesting textural quality – like a tapestry, it weaves together distinct material into compelling patterns that each tell their own part of the story within a larger narrative – and the sum total of the work feels like it is cut from whole cloth – a fully-realized Blind Guardian. That could also be said of several of your latter albums, each of which was written over the course of a few years – is there something about the length of the songwriting process that facilitates a comprehensive work, so that the completed album feels like an epic novel rather than a collection of short stories?
Because of the length of the songwriting and the production period, I might have too much time to think about it and this for sure has an effect. I would say I spend more time in catching the spirit of the song and finding or inventing the right story for it, than for the lyrics itself. I, sometimes, have to adjust last minute because of the frame a musical pattern has, or the opposite I have to go back to my original intention because of what we call “magic words” which can´t be substituted. In this case, I have to make sure that the magic word used makes sense with regard to the whole context.
When it comes to the essential storytelling in Blind Guardian, I always realize that the music we are working on certainly has a strong narrative character, which changes its mood within the songwriting more than once. On [the surface], my way of doing lyrics is a result of me being a scatterbrain. When I start designing storyboards, I very often change the perspectives, which leads into the “dilemma” that this later on has to happen within a verse, if necessary. I try to consider all aspects and to guarantee that I am questioning everything I just wrote down. Due to that, the persons talking in a story are multiple and I do not necessarily point out who is doing the talking. They are sometimes using the same phrases but for each of them they might mean something completely different.
On “Beyond the Red Mirror” I intended to create a story which would deliver the qualities of a well known myth, where the core lore has gotten lost and all available transmissions have been distorted, mystified and idealized over the ages to secure the interests of the ones abusing it, or simply enjoying it. As an effect of the music, the story I originally had in mind was even far more dystopian than the final output and contained some very tricky plots. At points, I was scoring a story of the protagonist who was supposed to meet King Henry VIII in his childhood days when his brother Arthur was still crown successor. This particular mission to find the Holy Grail should have also led the protagonist to Thomas Morus, writer of “Utopia”, later on beheaded by Henry VIII. Since there was no suitable song, I had to skip the idea.
One of the key elements to crafting a complex narrative is the use of symbols, which provide multiple layers of meaning. There are intricate patterns of meaning on the album, and you’ve chosen familiar cultural symbols (e.g. animals – Hare, Fox, and Crow; and mythic places/people/things – Avalon, Abaddon, Sheol) to help realize them. How did you decide upon these particular symbolic references?
Some of the symbolic references are typical human. They are usually related to higher forces. Man always felt the urge to find names and physical [forms] for the unexplainable. On the album, it was one of my highest goals to let well-known but fairly undefined forces, such as time, space, or fire, become physical and individual on the highest level but still untouchable for men. Since mankind has not changed that much over the ages, fire had to become an essential [form], because it is still the most fascinating phenomena in many aspects – a companion of our rises and falls. It maybe is the key to our progression but it also might be the driving force to our own destruction. Typical Blind Guardian patterns, of course, were a must to be involved, as well.
The essential question, and I may have stolen this from Christian sources, is the question what truth really means. This aspect attracts me a lot and I am always getting back to the essential question. The more philosophical aspect about what is being real follows short after and is closely related. Since in both questions I have not found the definite answer, a lot of the religious symbols which I have woven in, such as Abaddon or Sheol, are also abused for good, evil and neutral.
I tried to point out that it is difficult to judge what is good and what is evil if you do not know all the facts, which certainly is meant to be an analogy to nowadays world issues. We are flooded with useless information and it is really difficult to get details about a core problem. Therefore, judgments become very one sided and different opinions will be more and more accused to be evil and extreme. It is black and white thinking we are educated to live with. With this story, I tried to point out that there is always more than just one or two aspects to an issue.
The “Nine” are what they are: a supernatural species with almost unlimited power, yet, you never can be sure if there is not someone even more powerful. The “Nine” are aware of that. Still they can be overcome by the power of many and, of course, by their own ignorance. The term “Nine” is an analogy to medieval belief. The number nine was meant to be the most powerful of all numbers due to threefold trinity. I always liked that idea, though I never really understood it.
“The Fallen Son” who sees through all of the dilemma and manipulation is the definition of revolution and progress, still he fails for many reasons yet he stays the voice of reason. He simply has lost direction over the years and therefore established an Orwellian 1984 system. Call him “Lucifer”, or “Mordred”, it does not matter. What is important is that he started with the right goals, but all his plans ended in a total dilemma. The nation needs faith and a higher force they can believe in and relate to. If that is taken away, we will face real chaos. The Fallen Son unwillingly caused this.
The Chosen One, Arthur, stands for eternal innocence and purity. Maybe, that is the only key to survive. As we can see he is always trying to do the right thing but that does not necessarily mean he will succeed. Still, it is all about trying. The worst thing one can do is stand still and not move anymore. Arthur gets a second chance and he is willing to take up the challenge. At the end, this is all that matters. “The Holy Grail” obviously stands for hope.
The music of Beyond the Red Mirror is high drama, at turns uplifting and terrifying, mysterious and adventurous; what’s particularly interesting in terms of its narrative is that it combines two genres of modern mythology that continue to fascinate us as a species: fantasy and science fiction. Often an epic fantasy mythology, such as Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, looks to the past for its contextual frame, whereas science fiction looks to the future. Combining the two into a single mythology seems to be a newer convention, exemplified by the struggle between two realms that we see on Beyond the Red Mirror – do knowledge (science) and mystery (magic) co-exist in reality?
Yes; as long as the human race does not try to control it, both are reflected in nature.
Blind Guardian doesn’t shy away from complex, intricate music or challenging narratives and its fans clearly appreciate that; meanwhile popular music in general seems to have taken the opposite approach, dumbing itself down and catering to instant gratification rather than long-term appreciation; it’s not difficult to chart a path from classical music to modern progressive rock/metal that retains classic artistic ideals – how do you imagine this style of will continue to evolve, and how can it survive the larger cultural trends of popular music?
I see a lot of counter-movements. There are many people who are trying to bring back the old spirit of music. You find them on the streets and at fairs, for example. Modern minstrels one could say. The quality of their performances and the music they are delivering is really good… To a certain extent, they are inspiring me. Of course, the music they are playing is not mainstream-ish, but it attracts a good amount of people who walk by and listen to that. They realize how special some of this music is. And these people are the ones who will always be interested in a music that delivers a little more than same-tasting fast food sounds. There is a source in these people which needs to be fed by emotional, musical vibes and this cannot be done with the actual cultural movement of popular music. So this keeps me going.
I am more afraid about the fact that in many young people this source, or urge for music seems to have gotten lost, or at least has been buried under a thousand different things, which to me appear useless. A world without music as one of the essential elements frightens me a lot. I feel sorry for these people and hope that they will realize what they are missing. I do not even know how something like this could ever happen. What I foresee for the next 10 to 20 years are musical wastelands. Not that the last 15 years have been a revelation… The survival for bands which are not worshipping the actual trends has become more and more difficult, no doubt. To make a living as a professional rock band is almost impossible. At the very end, I believe that a lot of bands will disappear and only a smaller amount of young bands will substitute them. For the scene, this even might be healthy, because it has to reinvent itself, which is not necessarily a bad thing. But it definitely is a long-term progress.
As for Blind Guardian, I believe that progression is one of our strongest qualities, so we will find a way through it, no matter what. We have a loyal following and we still have enough potential to surprise. And, who knows, we may strike something in people who right now are not interested in BG, or in music in general. As longs as we are thrilled by what we are doing, we have a mission.
Blind Guardian are scheduled to perform at Commodore Ballroom, Vancouver wsg Grave Digger on Monday 16 November 2015.
*UPDATE: Check out our photo gallery from the Vancouver show here!