Time flies when you’re busy conquering the world. Two of power metal’s most revered and iconic figures, Blind Guardian frontman Hansi Kürsch and Iced Earth guitarist Jon Schaffer are both notoriously focused and hard-working. Over the last 20 years, both their bands have risen from cult acclaim to something approaching legendary status, with relentless touring and a steady stream of celebrated new music all part of the plan. They’ve also been trying to make music together, as Demons & Wizards. Finally, after 15 long years, they have a new album to share with us – and it’s seriously epic.
A collaboration that sent power metal fans into a state of frothing anticipation when it was first announced in the late 90s, Demons & Wizards brought Hansi’s extraordinary vocal talents together with Jon’s peerless guitar work and songwriting smarts. The results were stunning: both the duo’s self-titled debut (2000) and its bigger, bolder follow-up, Touched By The Crimson King (2005), were rapturously received, particularly in Blind Guardian and Iced Earth’s central European strongholds. The biggest surprise about D&W was that these two major talents were so easily able to write songs together, with no clashing of egos or toes being trodden on. As Jon Schaffer tells Hammer, Demons & Wizards was a band borne of friendship, first and foremost.
“It goes back to Iced Earth’s first European tour in the early 90s,” he notes. “We were main support to Blind Guardian. Hansi and I were living on a bus together, and we just bonded instantly. We had an amazing tour. Hansi and I were doing lots of partying and we were pretty much always the last ones to bed, up all night talking and stuff… and several years after that, we discovered we could write songs together.”
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“That was in 1997 and Jon was visiting me in Germany,” adds Hansi. “We ended up in a pub, having a party with all the Blind Guardian guys. We went back to my house and went to bed, heavily drunk, and we woke up the next day with terrible headaches! Ha ha! But Jon just picked up one of the guitars in my house and started playing. I thought it was probably something from Iced Earth, but I liked it and I had a melody in mind. Very soon, we had a song.”
That song would turn out to be My Last Sunrise, one of the grandiose highlights of the first Demons & Wizards album. With both their bands doing well, this was a side-project with a ready-made fanbase, and when Demons & Wizards was finally unveiled in February 2000, it was an undeniably big deal. As Jon notes today, it was a creative match made in heaven and everything just clicked.
“It worked smoothly from the start. We were so simpatico anyway, and we always have been, since we first met. It was like, ‘Wow, not only are we really good friends, but we can actually do something really creative and cool together.’ Having a friendship for seven years and then suddenly there’s a whole new level to our relationship? That was really cool.”
It’s a good problem to have, but both Blind Guardian and Iced Earth have had full schedules over the last 20 years. As a result, the delay between Touched By The Crimson King and the new album – aptly named III – is easily explained: Hansi and Jon’s schedules simply didn’t match up frequently or well enough to facilitate the making of another album. Hansi even notes that due to being absurdly busy, he didn’t really notice that so much time had passed. When they did reconvene to begin work on their third record, both men were determined to make it count.
“We really started talking about it again in 2016 and Jon came to see me when Blind Guardian was touring the US,” says Hansi. “But shortly after, the work began on [Iced Earth’s 2017 album] Incorruptible and for me the work on Legacy […Of The Dark Lands, Blind Guardian’s 2019 orchestral double album] started. I tasted a little blood when Jon sent me three songs and said, ‘If you feel they are suitable and you’re comfortable finding melodies for them, this could be the start…’ That was the first moment when I really got the hunger for Demons & Wizards again. But even then I had to wait another two years! Ha ha ha!”
“We were both still juggling lots of things during the whole process, but I think we achieved our goals at a high level,” states Jon. “I think the fans are going to be super-happy. You can hear on the records that we’re having a good time. We can do whatever the fuck we want. We don’t have to do this. We do it because we enjoy it. We had a killer time making the record, even though it was intense. We laughed a lot!”
As Guns N’ Roses fans will confirm, waiting 15 years for a new album doesn’t always end well. Fortunately, Hansi Kürsch and Jon Schaffer are hardly the kind of men to lose the plot during the creative process, and their new album delivers on every level. Although instantly recognisable as the duo’s work, it’s also a much more ambitious, diverse and immersive affair than its two forebears, with inspired forays into progressive and classic rock alongside the more mind-blowing vocal harmonies (Hansi!) and ultra-precise steroidal-thrash riffing (Jon!). From the epic, eight-minute assault of opener Diabolic and the pitch-perfect metal melodrama of Wolves In Winter, through to the AC/DC- saluting Midas Disease and opulent, proggy closer Children Of Cain, it confirms that time has not dimmed its creators’ chemistry one bit.
“This had to be something special,” says Jon. “Before it all started, I took a big hike out in the desert mountains in Arizona and just got my head clear, got recharged, came back, and then I went to Germany, me and Hansi had our meetings, and we set up the whole plan for this record. So I was super-inspired to write and in a good spot. I guess we both were! The stars aligned and it worked out perfect. With us, it’s all instinct. Our original intention was to make a 45-minute record, but we ended up with about 65 minutes of music and neither of us felt there was any filler, so we just said ‘Fuck it, let’s put it all out…’”
Nineteen years after their last live performance as Demons & Wizards, Hansi and Kürsch took the unusual step of hitting the road before releasing a new album. They kicked off with a series of club and festival shows across Europe last summer, culminating in a barnstorming headline performance at Wacken Open Air, followed by their first-ever North American tour. Even though they hadn’t released a minute of music in 15 years, Demons & Wizards were welcomed like heroes, by old and new fans alike.
“Oh, Wacken was the peak point, absolutely,” enthuses Hansi. “Everything worked as scheduled, straight from the masterplan. I think we might even have gotten the biggest response at the whole festival! So that’s something you wish for but you can’t plan it. We did the work and prepared ourselves very well and it really paid off that day. We had the North American dates afterwards and that was a blast as well. It was the first time those people could see us onstage, and the passion and love for Demons & Wizards was almost tangible in every room.”
“Yeah, there were grown men crying in the audience,” chuckles Jon. “I felt like, ‘Whoa, easy dude!’ Ha ha ha! But it was all ages, too. A lot of young kids, a lot of people our age and then everything in between.”
“That’s the great thing about this band” Hansi concludes. “It attracts people of all ages… and all genders! We are a band that really appreciates seeing girls in the audience, and there were definitely some! Ha ha!”
As they have already finished their world tour, Demons & Wizards will not be hitting the road in support of III. Instead, Hansi and Jon will return to their day jobs, beginning work on new Blind Guardian and Iced Earth albums and bracing themselves for new campaigns. But with plenty of fire for D&W in their bellies, fans that missed out on seeing the band this time around almost certainly have something to look forward to. It might take some working out, but this imperious double act are having too much fun to stop now.
“It might be in 2021 or 2022, we just got to figure it out, but we’re definitely planning to do more shows,” Jon avows. “As far as more new material goes, we’ll have to take it one step at a time. But when we do a live production in the future, incorporating all these killer new songs from III and still delving into the past, we’ve got to have a stage show that matches that. It’s all about theatre and taking this whole thing to another place and keeping it special. As long as it’s fun, we’ll keep doing it. And it’s fun because we’re friends.”
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