Reviewed: July 2019
Released: 2019, Century Media Records
Demons & Wizards actually represents a reboot of one of heavy metal’s more tantalising collaborations.
Originally released in 1999, the album was the result a project put together by members of Iced Earth and Blind Guardian. Namely, Jon Schaffer (Guitars) and Hansi Kürsch (Vocals).
This partnership also resulted in a handful of live performances in 2000 and a follow up record in 2005 (Touched By The Crimson King).
Bringing things up to date, in addition to the commitments of their main bands, Schaffer and Kürsch have found time to reunite for some activity around the Demons & Wizards project. This includes a series of planned performances in 2019 and 2020, as well as the promise of a brand new studio recording in 2020.
It’s a lot to get excited about for any fans of Demons & Wizards, or indeed, both Iced Earth and Blind Guardian. To further whet the fans’ appetite, the band’s albums to date have been remastered and given a premium re-release package. Described by the label as, “mandatory power metal masterpieces,” it is the first of this pairing that we turn our attention towards for this review.
If timelessness is the benchmark of good music, then I have to take my hat off to how fresh this album sounds. If this had been presented as a brand new release, I wouldn’t have batted an eyelid. I certainly wouldn’t have pitched Demons & Wizards debut album as being twenty years old – which, let’s face it, is going to be older than some of our readers!
While I haven’t made a direct comparison with the original 90’s master, here the music sounds crisp and vibrant with a clarity that showcases the intricacies of the arrangements. There is also something contained in the melodic, folkish elements that makes this album feel like it could be decades older than its release date – but in the best possible way. A retrospective warmth that reaches back into the 70s and begs to be played on vinyl.
If this is all starting to sound like something more suited to the corduroy-wearing real ale drinkers, then be assured: Demons & Wizards is absolutely a heavy metal album. It has all the riffs and soaring vocals you would hope for given the collaborative musicians’ primary bands and it successfully draws on a wide range of influences.
The ominous doom of Rites Of Passage draws the listener in before accelerating into some dexterous speed metal on Heaven Denies.
The momentum continues, and Poor Man’s Crusade contains the albums first really satisfying chorus, confirming Demons & Wizards as a formidable writing partnership with an excellent grasp of dynamics. This record soars and hammers when it wants to, but can just as easily bring things down to a more measured and intimate tone.
This is demonstrated on one of the album’s early highlights, Fiddler On The Green. Initially a ballad in the truest sense, with a bard’s lilt that evokes something from an older time. It is a folk song, albeit one that builds towards a majestic swagger that showcases Schaffer and Kürsch at their most melodic.
The breadth of the musical palette in use is a key strength on Demons & Wizards. The songwriter’s confident arrangements ensure that everything gels coherently. The metallic charge of Blood On My Hands or Winter Of Souls provides plenty of resounding crunch but also sits alongside the mellower moments, such as Path Of Glory, without jarring. Everything flows, and like all good power metal, Demons & Wizards can transport the listener. It plays like an aural landscape, using fluctuating tone and character to create a piece of work that feels completely organic. It’s quite an achievement.
In fact, so immersive is the experience, when the band conclude the main collection of songs and move on to a faithful but frivolous cover of Cream’s White Room, the effect is to be drawn back to reality with a bump! While it’s an enjoyable rendition, it feels like a disposable supplement to what can rightfully be considered an epic achievement. But that is a minor niggle and I won’t begrudge the band for cutting loose and enjoying themselves. If anything, given the additional offering of an alternative version of an earlier tune (The Whistler) and a demo recording of Heaven Denies, I’ll acknowledge them as giving us some generous bang for our buck.
I found this to be a really enjoyable album. It’s progressive and melodic and effortlessly sweeps across the spectrum of rock and metal. I have no doubt this re-release will generate some much deserved interest in the band and pave the way for some ongoing success.
I’d fully recommend tracking down a copy ahead of their upcoming tour and I look forward to seeing what comes next.