You pretty much can't go wrong with Jon Schaffer or Hansi Kürsch. The ICED EARTH guitarist and BLIND GUARDIAN vocalist are masters of their chosen callings, and two of traditional metal's leading lights, so when they get together, the results are bound to be pretty stellar. Schaffer's precision triplets and tasteful riffing, and Kürsch's distinct voice, make DEMONS & WIZARDS something that exists in a rarefied realm far above most "supergroups" and side projects. This is more a summit of metal's elite, a meeting of Valhallan minds, and a distillation of everything that's good about quote-unquote "power metal" into one colossal package.
"Touched By the Crimson King" may have been five years in the making, but it picks up right where the self-titled debut left off. Some of BLIND GUARDIAN's bombast seeps into the ICED EARTH ethos, making for some huge choruses and monumental songs, starting off in fine fashion with the urgent "Crimson King". "Terror Train" lives up to its title with a manic, edgy performance from Kürsch and insistent guitar harmony runs. The band's ballads are equally strong, though "Seize the Day" and the acoustic "Wicked Witch" fail to match up the poignant majesty of the debut's "Fiddler on the Green". "Love's Tragedy Asunder" spotlights some rare fancy bass work, and features a killer midtempo chorus similar to "Tear Down the Wall" from 2000.
Kürsch and Schaffer are so damn good, they even take what sounds like an awful idea on paper — covering a song as ubiquitous as LED ZEPPELIN chestnut "Immigrant Song" — and redeeming themselves quite well with it. I'd still rather have one more original tune on the "plain" version (the usual raft of limited editions with bonus tracks, slipcases, and whatnot on the way), but they do the song justice, and it's a nice capper to the album.
So why "only" an 8? Familiarity, mostly — maybe it's just because these guys make it look so damned easy, but DEMONS & WIZARDS is a formulaic concept, no matter how flawlessly that formula is executed. There are absolutely no surprises here for anyone who's heard the first record, and that alone makes it less than perfect — after all, you can only hear a sound for the first time once, and we've heard this before (especially given Schaffer's workmanlike playing and insistence on sticking to basic riffs that, while leaving all the spotlight for the vocal melodies, can sometimes start sounding samey).
Does that make it less enjoyable? Hell no — "Touched By the Crimson King" is pure talent and class, top-notch musicianship and quality songwriting from two icons from whom we'd expect nothing less. A request, gentlemen — don't make us wait half a decade for the third album… and how about a tour?