Sunday, August 1, 2021

Summer Slay-cation 2021


Off on my usual Summer vacation, but I will return in October for the annual horror metal reviews! Thanks to you fine folks for stopping by, as always. - autothrall

Friday, July 30, 2021

Helloween - Metal Jukebox (1999)

The idea of cover albums in power metal is no rarity; groups such as Hammerfall and Powerwolf have put out some pretty damn good collections, plugging their selections directly into their own sounds and ending up with something they could use positively to expand out their set lists and pay such tributes forward. When Metal Jukebox was first announces, I was naturally curious, since this was coming from a band that was a favorite of mine, and I wanted to hear what choices they'd make and whether they'd translate them into a proper Helloween feel or if they'd try to conform themselves a little more to the picks. I think, for the most part, they succeed in the former, with the caveat that this is nothing special overall and beyond its value of a curiosity, there's only about an EP's worth of material here I enjoy revisiting.

The opener is a scorcher, a cover of one of my favorite Scorpions tracks "He's a Woman, She's a Man", and the generally over-the-top Mr. Deris does a fantastic job applying his more schizo, crazy side to the original Klaus vocals without derailing, the slightly heavier approach with the drums and guitars really works on this one, and it's no surprise that it's probably one of the more obvious covers of the band you'd do beyond "Rock You Like a Hurricane", etc. ABBA's "Lay All Your Love On Me" actually comes off like a track from the Time of the Oath sessions...the production on the guitars isn't perfect, but adding the heaviness is awesome, and it's really atmospheric, with some great bass grooves. Focus' "Hocus Pocus" is a fun track to begin with, and while Helloween makes it sound even sillier than the original, it's still a damn fine cover and Deris really stretches his vocals here. Otherwise, there just aren't many that inspired me all that much..."Space Oddity", "All My Loving", "White Room", or Faith No More's "From Out of Nowhere", which is one of the bigger surprise inclusions, all do a decent job of emulating the originals and inserting Andi's voice, but they're all forgettable and taste-wise some of them are just too uninspired and generic as selections.

The others beyond that just aren't all that great, or a little disjointed and uneven like their "Locomotive Breath". Nothing here is terribly miscalculated, for instance even on some of the weaker covers they pull off a good guitar tone or vocal line, but it's almost like in showing the band's diverse influences and roots they end up making Metal Jukebox a less coherent or interesting experience. I've certainly heard far worse cover collections, don't get me long as you're into the Andi era and a lot of classic rock and hard rock tuneage, you'll be entertained for enough of a window that you won't regret the experience, but I almost wish they had ramped up the intensity with a few more ragers like the Scorpions cover, or some better, highly arranged adaptations of stuff like the ABBA track. At least this is a superior diversion for Helloween fans than the lamentable Unarmed album about a decade later.

Verdict: Indifference [6.5/10]

Tuesday, July 27, 2021

Helloween - The Best * The Rest * The Rare (1991)

The Best, The Rest, The Rare really walks the line between being a total label-driven bullshit retread compilation and something that was likely invaluable at the time, for fans like myself who weren't able to get our greedy paws on all of its more obscure gems and B-sides. It was not at all difficult to acquire Walls of Jericho or the Keeper of the Seven Keys albums in the early 90s, I had already had the cassette versions for years and would soon pounce on the CDs once I got my first disc player as a High School graduation gift in 1992. So right there, I can tell you that about 50% of the material on here is just lifted from those and ported over so it can offer up a 'greatest hits' for a band that was still rather in its youthful phase despite already being into its second and more popular phase with Kiske singing.

We didn't need another pressing of "I Want Out" or "Future World", or even "Judas", but of course it's in the name of the collection, and I can't fault them at least for their taste because all of these cuts are all time favorites and highly memorable. At least going into it, we knew that the diehards would only be focused on that last third of the title, 'The Rare', and to that there were a few treats included from singles that I didn't own or hadn't even heard the B-sides of. "Save Us" was my favorite, a raging anthem with amazing vocals and guitar melodies that was surely among the harder hitting tunes the band had put out at that time, and that chorus part...simply put, this is one of my fave Helloween tunes to this day, so even if had to suffer the cash grab component of this release it was slightly worthwhile. The similarly titled "Savage" was another highlight, and another really heavy track that was pretty much a thrasher but imbued with those great harmonic vocals, and a catchy chorus. "Livin' Ain't No Crime" is decent enough if you love Keeper of the Seven Keys Part I, and "Dont Run for Cover" is also alright, but for me the weakest of the tracks that were unique to me when I bought this tape.

The one other gem here was the Kiske-sung version of "Victim of Fate", which worked very well, even if I still prefer the more acidic Kai vocals of the original. If you were a Helloween fan around this time, there was no chance you weren't going to pursue this, just to hear that 5-songs, EP length chunk of value, and for that very same reason, you also didn't need the rest of the stuff which you likely already owned. If you were brand new coming to this without any prior knowledge of the band, then you probably would have been attracted to almost all this material, even most of the worthy rarities, so from that angle it's not that bad of a deal. A bucket of vomit has more value to me than a 'greatest hits' comp of any sort, and I am well on the record for that, but again, this one is conflicting because they snuck on the good shit that you wanted with other shit that you already had... These days, The Best, The Rest, The Rare is far less interesting since most of its handful of gems are available on CD or other re-releases of their classic albums, but for 1991 I took the good with the bad, just skipped past the songs I'd rather listen to in their native original album environments, and enjoyed the ones I didn't have.

Verdict: Indifference [5.5/10]

Saturday, July 24, 2021

Helloween - Pink Bubbles Go Ape (1991)

Even with the advance knowledge that Helloween had adopted a silly side with tracks like "Dr. Stein", I saw the cover and title for Pink Bubbles Go Ape and knew something must be wrong. A woman holding a fish in what looks like a hotel hallway? I don't really see any pink bubbles...or any apes, and the logo placement and the title font are butt fucking ugly. And then I saw it was Storm Thorgerson and Hipgnosis and all that highfalutin jazz, who have about a 50/50 rate of coming up with a very cool cover idea or pretentious rubbish for the rock world; this one falling into that latter category. The album was actually not too easy to get around my area, but I finally landed the cassette and was not happy with what I was seeing, and once I hit play, I wasn't terribly fond of what I was hearing either...

That little acoustic intro ditty title track is absolute nonsense, its boring and doesn't generate excitement whatsoever for what's coming, which is too bad, because at least with "Kids of the Century" you get a proper sounding Helloween track, with a strong and fresh sounding production, even if it lacks the really memorable hooks and chorus of the two Kiske-fronted albums before it. And putting aside the aesthetics of the whole affair, which are terrible, this is my chief complaint with Pink Bubbles Go Ape. The music here, even at its strongest, is simply not fit to lick the boots of Keeper of the Seven Keys, and for a band that was on the precipice of becoming ginormous, this was a colossal letdown and could have proven a career ender on many levels. I understand the group was starting to have some internal problems and the writing was on the wall, but that didn't exactly soften the blow when I was such a fan of that 1985-1988 period when they were among my champions. It doesn't lack for the metal, don't get me wrong, even though there's a little bit more of a hard rock influence coursing through cuts like "Back on the Streets", "Heavy Metal Hamsters" or "Goin' Home",  they still put the pedal to it.

In fact, if we cut off a lot of the chaff on Pink Bubbles Go Ape, we'd have a passable EP. I'd keep "Kids of the Century", and the surprisingly powerful "Someone's Crying" which maintains that anthemic Euro power metal quality we so loved, and then "Mankind" and "The Chance" would round it out, both of which are also fairly catchy and melodic. None of these is top flight Helloween, but it would have tided me over for a year or so. Maybe even combining it with the best from Chameleon, we might a solid but short album. Tunes like "Your Turn", "I'm Doin' Fine, Crazy Man", and "Number One" just don't cut it, even if the band is trying to show that they can spread their wings into even more accessible turf. And as outrageous as it might have been to have a new hit called "Heavy Metal Hamsters", the title of which is the only detail many people even remember about this album, it just doesn't deliver with that chorus, in which Kiske sounds like he's going limp. Kai would later pen "Rick & Famous" for Gamma Ray, which is a lyrically and musically a similar idea only 100x better. In fact, there are some parallels in a lot of the writing here to that first Gamma Ray album, but it's not as good.

This was actually a Chris Tsangarides production, sort of a legend in the hard rock/metal field, and I think he does a decent enough job of coming up with a sound that further modernized where the band was at on the last two. The details are all clear, from the bass lines to the drums and synths, and Kiske sounds pretty comparable to the prior outings. When I was younger, I remember thinking that at least it sounded pleasant coming out of the speakers, but the tunes were largely just a crushing disappointment. Even if you compare it to the reprinted, rarer material on The Best, The Rest, The Rare like "Save Us", which I got the same year, it comes up well short. The Death of Helloween Part I? We'll see...

Verdict: Indifference [5.75/10]

Wednesday, July 21, 2021

Powerwolf - Call of the Wild (2021)

Call of the Wild sadly doesn't offer up anything new or nuanced as far as the Powerwolf formula. From the songwriting to the very samey look to the cover artwork, if could be mistaken for any of the last 4-5 albums they've released, and that seems such a shame, for a band which puts this much effort into its material to play it so safe, when the formidable talent they've got could be applied more creatively. More musical tones, more color tones, new concepts. I notice too that this seems to a trend among the European power sect, even my most beloved bands do enter these long ruts of redundant releases, you could have said the same for a Running Wild or U.D.O. Fortunately, they both still put out a lot of kickass albums over the majority of their career, and ALSO fortunate is that Powerwolf have at least come up with a more fun set of originals than they have in years. Combine that with the pretty amazing 3CD-set they've put together for their fans, and Call of the Wild, despite my misgivings, is still probably my favorite album they've wrought upon us since the first three.

You pretty much know the drill if you've heard anything they've produced over the last decade or so, the transition into the more orchestra-focused bombast of the Goth horror alternative to Sabaton continues, though even at their worst I think I enjoy what Attila and company come up with far more than most of the Swedes' material. Big, soaring heavy/power metal riffs, entertaining and often innuendo-strung lyrics and choruses, constant orchestration which almost always resembles the Wagner school, and Attila's distinct vocals which are delivered at the same quality and pitch they always have been, the guy shifting between his operatic tricks and the weight and volume that he needs to secure himself among that whole class of character-driven German power metal vocalists like Rolf Kasparek, Hansi Kursch, Kai Hansen, Andi Deris and Chris Boltendahl. The mix of strings and choirs is probably a notch higher quality than their previous shots, although it doesn't distance itself much structurally. The leads and riffs are good if not totally standout, the drumming is potent and the entire atmosphere of this could be heard to diamond cut the band's style into its most coherent yet. All of the songs here are fun enough, beyond the initial singles you've got stuff like "Varcolac", "Dancing With the Dead", "Sermon of Swords", "Undress to Confess" and "Reverent of Rats" which I'd be happy to mix into any Powerwolf playlist, and as with a lot of records, if you're new to this symphonic/operatic style of metal I think you'll easily be blown away by how professional and comfortable they sound in the niche.

Beyond the fact that it's 'more of the same but better', the bonus content here is quite excellent. There's a second disc of 'hits' from the band's catalogue in which they're joined by a number of other popular vocalists. A few of them try the wedge in 'extreme' vocals of folks like Alissa White-Gluz, Johan Hegg and 'Speed' Strid to mixed results, White-Gluz in particular sounds cheesy but then I've never been a fan of her style. The cleaner approaches taken by Euro power metal royalty Ralf Scheepers and Doro Pesch are quite though, and I was quite surprised by the results when they used some more Goth vocals like Chris Harms. All in all though, I enjoyed listening through this a lot, its another example of how the band gives its audience their money's worth, I mean if you're going to shell out $20-25 for the 3CD or 3LP it's just not something you'll regret. The final disc is the usual purely orchestral treatment of the new tunes, and some of them really shine here, especially at the end with the trio of "Sermon of Swords", "Undress to Confess" and "Reverent of Rats", all memorable enough to toss on your speakers when you're running your epic fantasy RPGs or wargames. Again, Powerwolf is all about the value, and these extra discs might end up getting at least 50% the play as the core album.

I will reiterate that I wouldn't complain if Powerwolf took some risks to evolve a little, maybe even 'devolve' a little back to the superb songwriting of their masterful Lupus Dei sophomore, still my fave after all these years. There were surely some symphonic elements, but they felt more restrained back then and I'd love if if they got back to more guitar-centric territory. New color palettes and artwork also wouldn't hurt; Zsofia Dankova's extremely talented and I think she could mix it up a little if they wanted her to. But as far as the overall Call of the Wild impressions, it's rock solid and I've certainly enjoyed the time I've spent with it so far, it would make a great crowning jewel to transition into territories even more haunted, atmospheric, lycanthropic, and hopefully, surprising.

Verdict: Win [8/10] (breaking down the altar and the verse)

Monday, July 19, 2021

Helloween - Chameleon (1993)

Chameleon is widely considered the nadir of Helloween's career, even more lowly than Pink Bubbles Go Ape, and I can entirely understand and even sympathize with that sentiment...but I don't agree with it. Like its esteemed predecessor, I had to find this one on import, because if the 90s musical trends weren't enough to stick a fork in the trajectory of a European power metal band, Pink Bubbles certainly was. Aesthetically it's another instant facepalm moment, the four splashes of paint and the quaint little logo placement and title font make this look like some sort of 80s prog pop album by someone like Paul Simon, Peter Gabriel or The Police. It does not inspire confidence, and it's not the only weird choice made for this album, but at least when I look at it I don't want to leap off a building like when I saw the prior album artwork. It's just a boring minimalism that only slightly matches up with the qualities of the music.

I have to disclose here that I do have a soft spot for Chameleon because it contains one track which I count among my all-time Helloween favorites, and that is "Giants". Atmospheric, gorgeous, and powerful, it has this more airy feel to it than anything I had heard them do before, but still driven with a great, heavy guitar riff and a similar anthemic melodic nature, just delivered in a more spacious format. That chorus sends an emotional chill right down my spine, the bass playing is great with the fills, it's got a cool orchestrated breakdown in the bridge, and there's just not a second I'd change of it, sheer excellence. And it's this atmosphere which actually extends across a lot of the album, also showing up songs like "First Time". This feels like a Helloween evolved (or devolved), for better or worse, and its offering something its predecessors didn't. It's not exactly experimental, but it definitely dips its toes into a little of the proggier rock that the cover hints at, and the band even tries some non-ironic attempts at pop or soft rock with cuts like "I Don't Wanna Cry No More", "In the Night" and "Windmill", and I'm not so much a fan of those, but the band does a reasonable enough job with them that I can't bring myself to hate it.

Other cuts like "Revolution Now" bring in a bluesy, Zeppelin hard rock influence and mesh that in some some of the spacious, acoustic moments and it's at least catchy the first few times through. It's almost like Chameleon is trying to live up to its namesake, and that is ultimately one of the reasons I still count it among the lower rungs of their studio efforts, because it's all over the place, and other than the general mood created by the production, it's often incoherent. Like with Pink Bubbles, I could put together a good EP's worth of material that I like to revisit, and an even better one here ("First Time", "When the Sinner", "Giants", and "Step Out of Hell"), but it's really not one where I find myself ever wanting to listen straight through. "Giants" will always remain in my Helloween playlist, but I don't think anything else here is quite so vital to me. Certainly I could understand how so much of this was a turnoff for a lot of fans who were probably already dismayed with the fourth album and were digging Helloween a plot that was two feet wide and six feet deep. As history would dictate, though, nobody should've been too quick to lay on that topsoil.

Verdict: Indifference [6.25/10]

Friday, July 16, 2021

Helloween - Master of the Rings (1994)

Master of the Rings might not technically qualify as a 'comeback' album, since the band never really went anywhere, but it as sure as fuck one of the best 'bounceback' albums I've ever experienced, the survivors of the Pink Bubbles/Chameleon Apocalypse reemerging with new members and an honestly fresh take on the power metal they had so pioneered through the 80s. If I complained about the prior two albums lacking in any real 'hit' power, Master of the Rings is almost nothing BUT tracks that hang around in your head long after the playtime has winded down. I picked this up instantly upon seeing it at the local metal section, and immediately thought they had done some kind of new play on the Seven Keys legend, but with rings instead. Little did I know that I would end up one day appreciating this even MORE than the second half of that conceptual duology that broke them onto the radars of heshers everywhere about 7-8 years prior.

This album has it all...the subdued synthesizers of "Irritation" explode into the knockout combo of "Sole Survivor" and "Where the Rain Grows", two of my favorite songs in the entire Helloween catalogue, and they were on fire with this inexhaustible energy they hadn't had in years. Blazing melodic riffs lead the charge, with Michael Weikath and Roland Grapow offering a wide range of attacks, with few misplaced notes and a song selection that's nearly as diverse as Chameleon before it, only this time it's all fantastic. But we really have to give some credit to the inescapable charms of Andi Deris, who crossed over to the band from the unfortunately-monikered Pink Cream 69, a band dwelling on the border between catchy heavy metal and sleazy MTV near-glam, who already had a number of good under albums beneath their collective belts, so it's no wonder this guy was an attractive choice. He's got much of the range of his predecessors, and yet a more silky intonation which is quite unique, and his performance here ranges from soothing ballads to atmospheric screams. What are the fucking chances that a band gets not two, but three amazing vocalists in its lifetime? If you think about it, that's usually something that only happens to the mega hard rock and prog rock acts.

Let's talk production, because it was quite different. There's a more modern, compressed bite to the rhythm guitars which feels like the band was joining a new century rather than attempting to just mimic their past works. However, they add some nice tones and effects to the leads that counteract the low end for some awesome atmosphere. This is a band whose leads can literally take an already great track to the next level. Markus Grosskopf's bass lines strut along happily, he's got plenty of room in that mix, and drummer Uli Kusch was another colossal pickup, coming over from, ironically, Kai Hansen's Gamma Ray. There was not a weak link among the roster here and despite whatever friction occurred later, this might have been the greatest pool of raw talent they'd assembled until arguably the recent Pumpkins United years. Ever cylinder is firing, from the gorgeous charging and chugging of "Still We Go", to the almost obnoxiously catchy "Perfect Gentleman" with its whistle-sounding melodies that almost come off like the anthem for a beer company; we're talking "I Want Out" level catchy. Even the freaking power ballad, "In the Middle of a Heartbeat", is a raging success.

What's more, if you got the awesome 2CD version from Castle Records, you got an additional 35 minute desk featuring a couple of leftovers like "Can't Fight Your Desire", which is nearly good enough to be on the album proper, as well as a trio of covers, my favorite of which is naturally Thin Lizzy's "Cold Sweat", but they do justice to KISS and Grand Funk Railroad too. It might be little more than an afterthought or a bone thrown to the fans to keep the sales up, but it feels pretty elaborate for a bonus disc...there's certainly thrown into the instru-metal shredder "Grapowski's Malmsuite 1001 (In D-Doll)", you have to imagine that might have been something planned for an album proper. I'm often stunned by some of the lukewarm reactions this album occasionally gets...I was hooked from the moment I laid ears on it, and these day's it's got to stand as one of my top 3-4 Helloween efforts with ease, and the beginning of an impressive 25+ year streak which had only a few fumbles. The diehards will always revere Walls of Jericho and Keeper of the Seven Keys, and sure, I am among them, but if I'm keeping count, this is the beginning of their most consistent and prolific era and some of its works demand just as much respect.

Verdict: Epic Win [9.25/10]

Monday, July 12, 2021

Helloween - Helloween EP (1985)

Ah, the original EP with the green logo and the hideous face inside the smashed pumpkin. Helloween has evolved so much through it's 36 years that occasionally I forget just how good they were in the first place. In the middle of the 80s they were arguably aggressive as they'd ever be, and that was the rule, not the exception. Sure, they've had plenty of fast and comparable tracks throughout their catalog, but most of the stuff prior to Keeper of the Seven Keys gives off a vibe very similar to a lot of the other speed and thrash metal acts of the time, only with the catch that it was much more precise and I daresay even technical. I often liken this s/t EP to the earlier Exciter albums, or a lot of the old stuff populating the rosters of Combat, Noise and Metal Blade, only Helloween played it faster and with a virtuosity that was dizzying when I was a kid.

It's not always going all-out in the mph department, but the 27 minutes rarely ever let up, whether it's the frenetic and head-spinning of "Starlight" and "Murderer" or the trotting Maiden-on-Crank of "Warrior", the last of which sets up a lot more Gamma Ray than you'd think. I'd say for most people, "Victim of Fate" is the best known track here, it's certainly got the catchiest chorus with the vocals that shift into that scream, and then that mellower breakdown (again, very Maiden) with the whispers, but this one's not much less savage than its neighbors, just a fraction more melodic and built to be the classic that it has become. "Cry for Freedom" is also worthy, the soft intro escalating into another frenzied melodic piece with the great chorus vocal accompanying the shrieking. Obviously one of the most distinct features here was the vocal ability of Kai Hansen, who had this pinched, nasally timbre, with plenty of range to it, but definitely rough around the edges and coming across almost as psycho as stuff Slayer in the day. His narrative stuff is also a treat as he's snarling and growling out the lines before the bluesy lead busts out in "Victim of Fate"; another trait he'd use again in his post (and pre-) Helloween output...

Most people forever equate the band with Michael Kiske due to his presence on their breakout albums, and Andi Deris has had his lengthy and iconic presence within the roster, but it's hard for me to put either of their styles above Kai's...nd when you add his incredible guitar playing and songwriting abilities? Fo'get about it. Kai is the True Metal God+++ of the Helloween canon, and there couldn't be a stronger initial exhibition of that than this EP. That's not to say the others are slouches...Michael Weikath matches his playing quite well, and contributes to the writing. Markus has always been a bassist's bassist, playing to the song but managing to get a few hints of his own skill level, and poor Ingo was highly energized here with fast beats and fills that support all the mayhem. Like so much of the material put out during the 80s, this one sounds eternal, I don't think it has aged at all as I listen through it again; Helloween remains just as exciting and 'next level' and awe-inspiring as I felt when I was a kid, and its still as great a place to start as any in their catalogue.

Verdict: Epic Win [9.25/10]

Friday, July 9, 2021

Helloween - Judas EP (1986)

The only thing working against the original Judas EP was that it only had one new song to offer. A friend and I used to love these old Combat cassette issues of stuff like this or Celtic Frost's Tragic Serenades, we'd sit around on our skateboards in his basement, back when that was our thing, and just toss these things in the boom box and wonder. I seem to remember they didn't even have much by way of J-cards, or at least some of them didn't, they were just the cover and the inside of the cassette cover was just bare white. It wasn't an issue, but this one really stands out to memory with the simple mouthless pumpkin image and the green classic logo on the little flag sticking out from its 'brow'. I mean how could it get any cooler? A band that performed music this exciting, AND with an aesthetic connection to Halloween, our favorite day of the year?

These days most have experienced this one as part of that full-length compilation version which includes all of the original s/t EP, Walls of Jericho, and this one new tune, without the bells and whistles that were on the Combat EP. And don't get me wrong, that's the way to do it, you get the most bang for your buck and the official studio material of that era all in one place, with the exception of one track from the Death Metal 4-way split in 1984 they did with Running Wild, Hellhammer and Dark Avenger, and for all I know there's some other version that also includes that. But I'm approaching this for what it was, an EP or single with one new tune and some extras. WHAT a song that was, "Judas", another scorcher the likes of which you heard on those earlier releases. A fast beat with lots of double-bass characteristic of what drove the power metal general into its own niche beyond just the traditional heavy metal. Awesome bass lines and fills, and riffs even more rich and catchy than all the previous material. It's also just a little bit more evolved in the arrangement, with that pre-chorus and chorus perfectly placed, and it serves in a sad way as Kai's swan song as the front man with the band, since they'd pick up Kiske after this and Kai would focus more on his writing and guitars (but he wouldn't be able to avoid the helm for long!)

By far one of my favorite Helloween tracks, with the perfect ending where Kai spits out those elevating screams and it ends with that little swell of choir. There are two 'live' tracks from Walls of Jericho, "Ride the Sky" and "Guardians", and this was great as it was my first opportunity to hear the band 'live', and man did they sound awesome...nearly studio perfect? Probably because it was, these must just be the studio tracks, maybe washed out a little in the mix, with crowd noise added in. But at the time, I liked to imagine they actually sounded this great. The Combat cassette also had two tracks lifted from the original EP to flesh it out, "Victim of Fate" and "Cry for Freedom", which are arguably the most popular, so I guess if this was your first introduction it was offering a good pair of samples and then "Judas" to top it all off. Rating this thing is a little hard, because obviously I love the title track so, so much, and the cover, and have that nostalgia...but the other material is basically all a re-tread and it doesn't have much place as a product anymore.

So "Judas", the song? 10/10. Everything else about it, not so much...

Verdict: Indifference [6/10]

Tuesday, July 6, 2021

Helloween - My God-Given Right (2015)

I'd love to know what the band was thinking when they came up with some of their cover art choices...a post-nuclear-winter New York City being ruled over by robotic pumpkin-headed snowmen? It's kind of a neat idea, although the digital artwork is a little cheesy and dated. I also like this version of the logo with the central pumpkin wearing the Statue of Liberty's crown. But you dudes are German! As for the actual musical contents of My God-Given Right, they are definitely not fooling around, because it's another solidly crafted modern power metal album with all the flourishes you'd expect: ace musicianship, polished and powerful production, and Andi Deris flexing his vocals all over the spectrum with another charismatic performance that continues to quell his doubters.

This one goes for the throat immediately with a bunch of harder hitting, anthemic pieces anchored by some pretty heavy guitars and drums, then just built upon with the vocal harmonies and proggy guitar leads. The melodies might not be the catchiest they've ever conceived, but if you're a fan of records like Master of the Rings, Time of the Oath and Gambling With the Devil then this one delivers that particular style in spades, with perhaps a bit more heft to the rhythm section in the mix. I think some of the most memorable tracks come a little further in, with the rousing, mid-paced "Stay Crazy" and that absolutely awesome higher pitched vocal line in the chorus, followed by "Lost in America", which might answer my question above about the cover choice when they're from across the pond. That tune has a pretty plain buildup, but another epic chorus and then some really awesome lead tradeoffs in the bridge. "The Swing of a Fallen World" is another contender here with a groove to it that felt fresh and unique amongst the Helloween canon, and "Creatures in Heaven", "Claws" and "Living on the Edge" will take you surprise once you arrive there...totally hook-laden and formidable.

When this one first dropped, I wasn't too terribly impressed when comparing it with a lot of their other post-millennium works, but it's certainly more than merely solid, and repeated listens have continued to reward me, so it's kind of a shower AND a grower. Then newer Helloween guys Sascha and Dani have really settled into the lineup at this point, and the former even writes a bunch of the songs and lyrics, so we're faced with a group that hasn't really had much of a misstep since the earlier 90s, and they just keep laying it on with quality effort after's almost the point that its become exhausting. Even where I don't fully connect to a track enough that its going to possess that timeless quality in my collection, there is no possibility I could sit there and listen through this one without thoroughly enjoying it. Approved!

Verdict: Win [8/10]

Saturday, July 3, 2021

Helloween - Rabbit Don't Come Easy (2003)

Rabbit Don't Come Easy is probably the only 21st century album in the Helloween catalog that I've seen some smack aimed at, and I can't quite fathom why, because I think it's for the most part another satisfactory expedition into that modern, anthemic style they launched into with the Andi Deris era, Master of the Rings and Time of the Oath. Do I like the tunes as much as those? Probably not, but certainly there was no effort spared here to come up with an impactful, well-performed set of tunes. I also realize that, next to Pink Bubbles Go Ape, this one has the silliest title and cover artwork, but it's not really all that bad...judging by this band's sense of humor, the title kind of makes sense and the artwork does at least fit it, my only question is the robotic hand and android look of the magician, but I'm sure there's some 'deeper' meaning to all that.

One of the best things about discography reviews is forcing myself to get back in touch with those albums from some of my favorite bands that I probably never spent enough time with, and this is absolutely one of those cases. Bought it day one, listened to it a fair amount at first, discussed it a little but it just never quite left the same mark on me as some of their others. Revisiting it now, though, I think it's pretty sweet, with some tight and powerful tunes like "Just a Little Sign", "The Tune" and "Never Be a Star", the last of which is cut from that same uber-catchy stock as a tune like "I Want Out" or "Perfect Gentlemen", in fact it does sound probably a little too much like the pacing and melody behind the latter, however the way the lyrics and vocal harmonies are fit over it is quite different, so it's not too big a deal. As I sit listening to it again, though, I can't say there are too many weak numbers...I mean the power ballad "Don't Stop Being Crazy" is no "In the Middle of a Heartbeat", but it's not so bad that I feel the urge to skip it. Even as deep as "Listen to the Flies" I'm hearing some vocals that turn my head. Some of the lyrics are rather generic and weak, but I think they're at least delivered with conviction because Andi has a ton of great melodies and harmonies throughout, and this is a solid exercise for his full range.

The guitar riffs are generally good, and it should be noted that it's the first album with ex-Freedom Call string-slinger Sascha Gerstner, who brought some youth back into the fold, and I think it shows with all the energy they embedded into this and its successors. Roland Grapow is not an easy man to replace, and I don't think this is the album where we can say we were definitively satisfied with that change, but this guy is beyond competent, and I can only imagine the thrill of transitioning from an act that many consider a bit of a Helloween-clone to the genuine article (not to sell Freedom Call short, they've got some good stuff), and as you'll see from future offerings, the guy isn't just here to fill a seat on the bus and dance around a stage, he's also a huge writer and contributor going forward, and he fits this squad like a glove. But overall, all performances are's not their most varied attack, and it's not as good as The Dark Ride, Keeper of the Seven Keys: The Legacy or Gambling With the Devil, but so what? Not much is, my friends.

Verdict: Win [7.75/10]

Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Helloween - Treasure Chest (2002)

Treasure Chest is a massive 'fan package' sort of collection which aims to at least give the band's core fanbase something they haven't heard before, in the form of some remixes or alternate vocal takes on familiar tracks. The value of this one is somewhat debatable though; if you're picking up the 3CD version, there's a bit more to recommend, but even if you just grab the 2CD, at the very least you are getting all the tracks as remastered, and then some of those are ADDITIONALLY remixed. I am no fan of the long form 'greatest hits' sort of compilation, as is well documented, so I had to approach this one with some hesitation, but the promise of a few rarities put me in a moth/flame situation. I just hoped I wasn't going to get shocked too badly...

The remasters actually sound quite decent, smoothing over some of the production edges folks might have had with albums like Master of the Rings, Time of the Oath and The Dark Ride, but for the newer stuff this obviously comes with only minor adjustments. "Mr. Torture" never sounded brighter, but what I get a little confused by is that the levels and power of the tunes from different records don't really balance out here all that much, so if you're blasting through this on a good stereo it's just a smidgeon jarring. More interesting are how the older tracks like "Future World" or "Halloween" are approached, and they sound fine, but I think it'd be easier to judge them all on fully remastered original albums; the really early choices with Kai singing still sound the roughest and don't really benefit from being surrounded by the more contemporary material. As for the remixed stuff, you're getting a lot larger difference, especially on something like "Starlight" because this version is done with Kiske's vocals instead of Hansen's. I prefer the original because it just had the craziness and atmosphere, but this one's also a treat, whereas the remix of "Ride the Sky" actually also sounds pretty decent and loses little of that earlier aggression.

So it's a case by case basis, and I don't really want spend over 2nd a half hours on that, but most of the tunes are not at all unpleasant to listen to in these incarnations. Probably my favorite of the remasters was "Kings Will Be Kings", it just seems a little more powerful and atmospheric. Of more interest (initially) was the 3rd disc in the Limited Edition which is full of B-sides and rarities...some aren't really that rare when they were included on bonus discs on pretty common versions of the albums, like the stuff from the Master of the Rings bonus disc, and there are other tracks here like "Shit and Lobster, a bonus track from Pink Bubbles Go Ape which kind of sucks, and sucks even more to lead this off. The vocals sound way off, too loud, and while it's definitely metalized it seems like its got dull hard rock roots to it. The same could be said for "I Don't Care You Don't Care" and "Ain't Got Nothin' Better", the former of which is fucking terrible. The cover of "Electric Eye" is good, and "A Game We Shouldn't Play", a bonus track for Better Than Raw, is awesome, with those little symphonic and synth swells, great guitars and vocals, but these are at the end of the third disc and it's just too little too late.

I'm rather indecisive over all on this one...clearly it's the best 'greatest hits' OR 'rarities' package the band had released since The Best * The Rest * The Rare, but by no means is it necessarily worth tracking down unless you really wanna hear a few of those B-sides, and in every case I'd say get a version of the CD that already includes them. But I'm not going to trash it, because when you include all the work that went into the remastering and remixing, its clear that this as a product had some love put into it, just a lack of consistency when you take all three discs into account.

Verdict: Indifference [6/10]

Sunday, June 27, 2021

Helloween - Straight Out of Hell (2013)

Straight Out of Hell is another of Helloween's modern albums to mix the familiar with the new, and to benefit creatively from the merging of the two. It's another album that I feel goes underappreciated if only because these Germans are an embarrassment of riches...they're a band so great in general that I don't know if most can process them at an appropriate level. Take just about any random song of this album, and you'll find it's extremely catchy, involved and technical, dynamic and varied, unafraid to pull from the wells of traditional heavy, progressive and power metal, or even to add in a few other modern strains of aggression like some of those almost djent-like chugs in "World of War". It's great to hear them so embracing the heaviness and not drifting off into the distractions that a lot of their hard rock roots often used to inspire.

I mean this shit is on fire, gunning for the 21st century just like they once conquered in the late 80s and then again in the mid-90s (in my opinion). Is there a power metal band in Europe with this much talent? Lost Horizon was on the way, but folded. Rhapsody went from two fantastic albums to a long catalog of over-processed sounding symphonic pap that, while still fun, sort of runs together too much. I mean the Germans still rule the roost: Gamma Ray, Primal Fear, U.D.O., Grave Digger, Rage, Stormwarrior, Blind Guardian and probably at the top of the heap is Helloween. If you don't believe me, I repeat again, just take nearly any track off this album and be wowed at the balance of ferocity and melody that they conjure up so effortless. "Nabatea", "World of War", "Waiting for the Thunder" and the title track bring literally EVERYTHING to the table, in spades. There are a couple songs here that step out of the mold, like the power ballad ("Hold Me In Your Arms") or the Queen-like arena thumper "Wanna Be God", but even these are very well constructed and the production is fucking insane. But the metal is where this one is at, and to that extent it rules...

I mean one tune is called "Asshole" which has totally goofy and terrible lyrics like 'Asshole/typical human being/you motherfucker/stupid shit you make me flee', almost to the point that I wanted to cringe, but the music itself is so amazingly performed, the melodies and vocals sound brilliant, and even that level of unnecessary stupidity I found memorable. Helloween just couldn't fuck this album up no matter how hard they tried to ruin it for themselves, because they're clearly on a musical mission to show that bands going into their fourth decades are by no means slouches. With experience comes great responsibility! I shit you not, this was an album that I once thought was pretty damn good on arrival, but has continued to grow on me to the point that I think of the 13 tracks, it's about 10-11 deep with sheer excellence, something for just about any of their fans, regardless of the era, and the audacity to actually say 'Hey, we've still got a few ideas left.' 

Verdict: Epic Win [9/10]

Thursday, June 24, 2021

Helloween - Better Than Raw (1998)

Even though the haze of nostalgia in my brain always equates this band with my favorite season of the year, the Autumn, I've realized that they have such a virile Summer energy to them, with very little mystical or spooky, and that's alright. Even the cover art of Better Than Raw, easily the best of their career, which just SCREAMS that this is going to fit that Halloween aesthetic, does not exactly come across in the music beyond the color, the fun, and the sexiness. Better Than Raw is another gorgeous, sexy beast of an album for the Andi Deris era, and it's yet another one that has actually grown on me through the years. You've seen me mention the same for stuff like Straight Out of Hell and Rabbit Don't Come Easy, but this one probably had the steepest incline.

It's essentially a beefier, burlier take on the style the band set out with Master of the Rings and Time of the Oath, but I think many of you would agree that the production here just sounds better. Not all the songs are quite as explosive or melodically intricate, but it's damn solid and offers an array of weaponry that keeps it interesting. The classical prelude is fun, and then "Push" levels you with the tremolo picked heaviness accompanying the shouted backing vocals, plus its melodic picking patterns remind me of stuff like "Sole Survivor". The album does get catchier though, tunes like "Falling Higher" and "Hey Lord!" scratching out some simple but really effective melodies that instantly infect. It's probably the later reaches of the album that took longer to grow on me, but I'm glad they did, because this is for the most part a dynamic and consistent and heavy album that retains its accessibility. If you were a newcomer to the band or even just the Deris era, I think most of this material would immediately sell you on the band's embarrassing riches of talent.

A couple cuts like "Time" and "Lavdate Dominvm" aren't among my favorites, but even then I can appreciate the care that went into them, the former a place for the record to chill out, and the latter a mix of their more driving classically-imbued style with some variation from Andi between cleans, growls, screams and backing choruses that almost sound like some weird boys choir at some holiday celebration. I'd say though, that about seven of the tunes here are just fucking awesome, with none of the remainder being bad. There are also some bonus tracks out there on some versions called "A Game We Shouldn't Play" and "Back on the Ground", which are exceptional, for my money just as good as any of the tracks that made the cut (although I had to experience one of them through the Treasure Chest compilation, but if you're tossing this album up on iTunes or something, edit those tracks onto the me.) All in all, another fucking knockout for this era, 3 for 3, maybe not as immortal as the 1985-1988 album trio, but further proof that this version of the band was just as worthwhile, AND ALSO IT WAS GOING. TO. KEEP. GOING.

Verdict: Win [8.75/10]

Wednesday, June 23, 2021

Sordide - Les idées blanches (2021)

Normandy's Sordide occupies a go-between niche in which their material could be considered heavily steeped in the traditional black metal medium, with a few slightly more modern chord choices, and cultivating enough atmosphere that they can just as easily titillate fans of the post-black end of the spectrum, without dipping too far into the more purely blank-faced or navel-gazing pretentiousness or ennui. There's a heft and a force behind their riffing, to which they apply cascades of chords that often have that addictive, whiny post-punk or droning feel to them that makes this a band with a more instantly urban appeal than one you'd have howling at you from a wooded hillside, and when you pair this up with the bands social and political lyrics I think this is certainly a band very firmly and comfortably rooted in the 'now'.

Unlike a lot in the genre, the aggression here is driven more by the violent passion of belief than the cold iciness of evil and isolation. The compositions reflect this with their pumping, mid-to-faster paced gait, the vocalist howling along in a raw blend of rasps and growls that are well-fused to the thundering drums and constantly surging guitars. The bass on this one is also notable, it's got the weight and the volume to do more than merely anchor the other strings, and it adds a level of propulsion. The band does vary things up a bit with some slower tracks like "Ne Savoir que rester", and this is where they get a little cooler and more atmospheric, the vocals created with more effects and the measured guitar lines spiking in a little more sorrow; yet structurally you could even trace some of the rhythms back to the old lineage that ran from Hellhammer and Celtic Frost through Darkthrone...

Though they do sound great in doing so, and have just enough tricks to keep you guessing what might come around any corner, a few of the riffs do border on duller ideas that could use a little more to drive them along. The title track is quite good with this, arguably the most bewitching on the album, with some of those jangly, slightly off-center guitars splayed across its atmospherics, but sometimes as I'm listening to these tracks I constantly feel that there is just this hovering expectation something a little catchier will show up, and it rarely manifests. Still, for the relative simplicity of its structures, Sordide keeps each of the tunes just interesting enough to keep the mind occupied, and they're yet another band with a fairly distinct, if not wholly unique approach against the backdrop of a broadly diverse and ever fascinating French BM scene.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Monday, June 21, 2021

Helloween - The Time of the Oath (1996)

The Time of the Oath basically takes the ball that Master of the Rings kicked out onto the field and then maintains possession for well over an hour with another set of inspired songs that help prove that this is, score-for-score, one of the greatest bands that humanity has ever produced. Nope, the Andi Deris era was not going to be a fluke with just that one-off, surprising new LP that pulled Helloween from the brink of oblivion they had teetered on just a few years prior with Chameleon or Pink Bubbles Go Ape. The cover art was a little unusual, combining the Keeper from the earlier Kiske albums with the field of stars and rings from the previous album, I'm wondering if it was recommended to them to do something like this to try and help bring back the fanbase that might have abandoned them in the earliest 90s, a statement that the ship had been righted?!

As it turns out, such a thing wouldn't be necessary, because The Time of the Oath stands wholly on its own merits, or at least the ones the previous album established. Lots of heavy, thundering songs spiked through with the traditional melodies and harmonies on the guitars, and Andi Deris' voice which some might consider more fragile sounding until he starts hammering out the high points on opening numbers like "We Burn" and "Steel Tormentor". This is another album, though, that does not exactly hit you with the strongest numbers up front. Personal favorites include "Wake Up the Mountain" with its face-melting shred intro and an incredible progression through verse, glinting melodic pre-chorus and then a potent chorus which has never left my memory since. "Power" does bring back a bit of a Keeper of the Seven Keys vibe, but with that Deris magic replacing Kiske, and "Kings Will Be Kings" is an absolute scorcher, another chorus that just fucking flattens me. Even the goofiest track here, "Anything My Mama Don't Like", which might aesthetically seem like an error among these more majestic and epic power metal tracks, is really goddamn catchy despite all its flashier hard rock pizzazz. Nice little rebellion anthem though even if I was past my teens.

There is a little bit of a washed out feel to the production on this album, and it's one I think might have benefited from some further clarity, however don't let me mislead you into thinking that the instruments and vocals aren't front and center. There's a lot going on here, much like any modern effort in the Helloween catalogue, and I'm psyched that it all translates to my ears, but I remember thinking there was something in the mix that wasn't quite right. Ultimately, though, it's a nit pick, because the music is so wonderful that it more than compensates, and I was just so ecstatic at the time that we were getting this new era of the band that absolutely ruled...the 90s were of course a huge era for death metal, black metal, nu metal, alternative, grunge, and all that, but to hear heavy/power metal bands modernizing themselves to not only run with the changing landscape but also to CONQUER it...I'd take single riffs off this album over Pearl Jam and the fucking Goo Goo Dolls any day!

Verdict: Epic Win [9/10]

Friday, June 18, 2021

Helloween - Helloween (2021)

I think it says just as much about myself as this album, that it can be so damn well put together, and yet I'm still mildly underwhelmed by the result of something I was so anticipating. Is it simply the embarrassment of riches Helloween has provided me through the last three decades and change, that this labor of love hasn't quite connected with me as well as I had hoped? Are my expectations too high? Perhaps its the sense I've gotten that they've chosen to write a burlier, heftier sort of heavy metal record, with slightly smaller flashes of the technique and intricacy I've come to love, and a heavy reliance on the anthemic formulas that they, to their credit, were a huge proponent in devising in the first place. And it's an unquestionably strong record, of that I can assure you, maybe just not the unforgettable atom bomb of melodic European power metal that I'd suspected might champion its genre into the next era...

...which, to be fair, it might prove, for a lot of people. Note that 'underwhelmed' in the context of Helloween and myself, still means its better than the majority of what I've come across in its field, and I think that the main goals of what this record intended have been achieved. The eponymous title feels like an apt statement at this stage of their career, and not merely a self-assurance, even though they already used it on the 1985 EP. Eliran Kantor's artwork and its not-so-subtle callback to the early years is quite wonderful, perhaps belonging to that iconic pantheon that includes the first three full-lengths and Better Than Raw. The studio mix for this is absolutely bright and huge, with a lot of meat to the guitars, a near seamless balance of the multiple vocalists, and one of the highlights for me is picking apart who is doing what, where, because its fascinating. Yet the production still captures a lot of the smaller details and musical footprints on the edge of perception, that both crawl and vault around the brazen, boldness of the straightforward power metal elements that dominate the songwriting. Every musician sounds great, and what's even more impressive is how the egos have been displaced, all these guys sound like they're getting along so well together, complimenting each other without overshadowing. When it comes to the manifestation of the idea they set forth a few years ago, Helloween is a raving success, and I was never once distracted with any thought to the contrary.

No, for me, the sole reason this one hasn't climbed to the top of their catalogue is simply that the songs aren't always as memorable as they are 'on fire'. You've got your obvious attempts at writing proxies for past hits, like "Best Time" which is trying to play around in the "I Want Out"/"Perfect Gentleman" court, or something like "Out for the Glory" which feels like it should have been a lost track of Keeper of the Seven Keys Part II, something I'm sure a lot of fans were looking forward to, but it just doesn't have the stickiness of those older tunes, and has perhaps an all-too-familiar, ascending anthemic vibe that often feels like a mere shadow of an "Eagles Fly Free", despite sounding so much more meaty due to the modern production standards. Now, having said that, neither of these is a bad fact I loved the riff in the latter where Kai spits out his impish lines. But surely enough, I found most of my favorites here came with a lot of the Andi-led tracks like "Robot King" and "Cyanide", which are quite awesome, but don't sound too different than what they've been doing for the past decade. "Angels" is another gem, a more symphonic and sweeping piece which uses both Kiske and Deris to great effect; and I had already been impressed with the advance single "Skyfall", which closes this one out, but once again inhabits a lot of safe terrain for those wanting a late 80s Helloween revival.

Helloween is very often 'good', and occasionally 'great', and certainly no expense was spared in terms of effort or its construction. There are 3-4 cuts here I'll happily add to my Helloween rotation, and not even one of the dozen that I'd consider even orbiting bad. I for one hope they can keep this giant lineup in place, that it's not just a one-off for an album and a couple shows, that they'll persist with these great personalities and voices of the past around to help flavor new ideas. This is no ultimate masterpiece, perhaps, but a positive proof of concept and a production marvel that shows a great love and respect for its audience, not merely the 80s gatekeepers, but those of us that have hung around the entire time. It's not exactly daring, it doesn't take many risks, and it lacks novelty beyond the multiple-singers, but this is still one of the greatest bands on Earth. So buy this, enjoy it. Buy a second copy and force it upon your friends and family, or even total strangers. Let them experience Helloween! And then toss their Billy Eilish records in the bin when they're not looking.

Verdict: Win [8.25/10]

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Helloween - Keeper of the Seven Keys Part II (1988)

Keeper of the Seven Keys Part II is the back book-end for a time in Helloween's career that was and will always remain unique, over just a couple albums and as many years. There's a shared, optimistic and appealing style to these, with just a hint of silliness that didn't really ever become too stupid or get in the way. This album was also the home for the Germans' biggest breakout hit, and some of the most melodic earworms they'd ever pen, but it also doesn't lack the sense of ambition you felt on the first half, which was a fairly enormous transition from Walls of Jericho. Not only the presence of Kiske on these albums, which has an entirely different effect than Kai's style, but just the way the tracks are written. The fiery, rough-edged power/speed metal of their early years might still INFORM some of the songwriting, but this is quite a different beast, and while we can toss out 'the next Iron Maiden' platitudes all we want, this band really only shares a few characteristics with the British legends: part of Kiske's timbre, sure, reminds one slightly of Bruce, and the way they use a lot of mellower parts where you can hear the bass, while guitars are focused entirely on melody rather than heavier chords...but otherwise, this was its own thing.

Now the first Keeper is my favorite Helloween album to this day, for me that was where the magic intersected with my metal nerdiness the most. If I get that one 100-CD binder to bring to the desert island, that one is going in first. But this is a superb set of tracks to follow that one up, let by the supreme melodic overtures "I Want Out", "Eagle Fly Free", "March of Time" and another track that isn't talked about so much, "You Always Walk Alone", nearly as worthy. These would imprint upon hordes of European power metal bands that would later build entire careers out of sounding like that or at least using that as their core. Glorious vocal choruses where he hits his upper range, but still loaded with dextrous and varied riffs that would be entertaining to listen to even if it was the guitars playing alone. Grosskopf is also quite amazing here, the guy has such a confident tone and even in the more neo-classical bits, which are woven legion into so many of these tunes, he's plugging away with a lot of prowess. Ingo's drums are powerful and he's incorporating a lot of that double-bass that, as I've mentioned, really helps define 'power metal' for me away from the NWOBHM where this wasn't the focus. As fluffy and flowery as this niche gets, that thunder down under assures it still gets taken seriously.

I even like the silly songs. "Dr. Stein" is really the only dive into the 'Halloween' territory but it's also a little self-referential and endearing, where "Rise and Fall" is also tongue in cheek but just insanely catchy with those Queen-like vocal harmonies that still don't sound like much else they've done since. Of the entire 50 minute track list, there isn't anything I dislike, but one of my faves is obviously the swollen follow-up to "Halloween", which would be the title track of the duology of albums. I'll be honest, I don't have a fucking clue what "Keeper of the Seven Keys" is really about beyond the rather stock fantasy good vs evil tropes and maybe applying them a little to all of mankind's existence, but this is the track that's grown on me the most, from its acoustics to the 'epic metal' moments that escalate into the faster parts, the pompous narrative parts, the nicely flowing and elaborate chorus with those choir-like keys in the background. I like all the little melodic callbacks to "Halloween" in there too. Excellent, ambitious track that you can get lost might not match its predecessor for me but I really appreciate it.

In terms of the overall response and exposure created by this album, I'd definitely point to this one as 'Patient Zero' for the exhaustive European power metal movement first joined by bands like the spin-off Gamma Ray and then may more into the 21st century. No, they didn't create it per se, Priest and Maiden and Accept and a number of others had their stakes in that, and many of those even took on elements inspired by their own descendants later in their careers. But in terms of taking those parts and putting them together into a single entity, stitched from myriad influences' flesh, these guys were the first off the slab. Perhaps "Dr. Stein" itself was prophetic! Keeper of the Seven Keys Part II, just like the first half, is undeniable, its charms inescapable.

Verdict: Epic Win [9/10]

Saturday, June 12, 2021

Helloween - Keeper of the Seven Keys - The Legacy (2005)

While I think I've communicated that a number of Helloween's later era albums have grown on me through the years, the opposite has actually happened for me with Keeper of the Seven Keys: The Legacy. Don't get me wrong, I still think it's a damn good album, ambitious and with a lot of songs to recommend, but it's not exactly the masterpiece I thought the first six months I had it. I also find the choice of title a little strange, I think it creates a certain expectation which this album is not interested in living up to, and maybe even an unfair expectation. Sure, there are a couple epic length tunes on here similar to "Halloween" or "Keeper of the Seven Keys" itself in "The King for a 1000 Years" and "Occasion Avenue", but the overall sound doesn't really reflect those classic LPs, and it might have been a better idea to wait for that potential reunion with Kiske and Kai and then released a Keeper of the Seven Keys Part III, not that they still can't do it, but the existence of this album with this title might muddle up such a trilogy.

That's really an aesthetic nitpick, however, because it doesn't dampen the quality of the tunes written for this. I've always likened this one to Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence: The Helloween Edition. Two discs, quite a risk to take since each is under 40 minutes, and with a little editing they could have just fit it on one. It's a 'double album' that didn't have to be. I also make that Dream Theater comparison, because this is clearly some of the more proggy or prog-minded Helloween material they were putting out in the 'Oughts, if only because all that space across 13 tracks begets a little experimentation. Now, that doesn't take on the form of using really bizarre song structures, or endless masturbatory instrumental sections where each member struts his supremacy over his craft, but there are a few new synthesizer tunes, riffs you haven't heard them use in the past, and other ideas which they were toying around here. Having said that, most of this is still a full-blown modern-day Helloween power metal album, it has a cleaner and less propulsive and powerful tone than Better Than Raw or The Dark Ride, but the emphasis is on heavier tunes that just incorporate a lot of the interesting new melodies, and then a couple of the more mid paced metal tracks aimed at radio play like "Mrs. God", which while quirky, is one of my least favorites here with the goofy funk bass line and clean Nirvana-like guitar at the end. Not funny! I also thought the "Light the Universe" duet with Candice Night was a bit sappy, but it does at least deliver once it picks up.

Of course, the double album's few mild missteps are easily forgiven for catchy ragers like "Pleasure Drone", "The Invisible Man", "Silent Rain", "The Shade in the Shadows" and the impressive "Occasion Avenue". Andi Deris spits out a lot of melodic chorus parts that really hooked me, and the musicianship of the rest of the band is as usual impeccable, even if it's a little more understated than some other records where the band is just blitzing on all levels. Production is professional and clean, but when I was listening to it recently it seemed slightly laid back. I'd say Keeper of the Seven Keys: The Legacy has about 10 very strong tracks, and while the rest of them don't suck whatsoever, it could have used a little trimming to be more emotionally impactful on me for the long term. As a Helloween album, it's strong and worthy of the exceptional run they'd been on since 1994, but as a 'double album', it feels padded out a good 10-15 minutes, and the title ends up feeling more like a marketing ploy since the content doesn't really tie back to the first two Keeper albums, at least not for me. Almost like the band wanted all the stubborn gatekeepers to crawl back to them, 'See, we're still good, guys!', when such a thing would be so unnecessary, because Deris era Helloween is fucking awesome. The double digits of great tunes here are just more proof into that pudding, but through the years it just hasn't quite held up for me like The Dark Ride or Master of the Rings.

Verdict: Win [8.75/10]

Wednesday, June 9, 2021

Helloween - The Dark Ride (2000)

A lot of folks seem to get hung up on the title of this album, as if Helloween was suddenly about to put out a thrash or death metal album just because the word 'Dark' is in it. Sure, the cover art seemed rather ominous, the inky splashed logo and title font, and the earth circling around the massive obsidian pumpkin which seems ready to devour it at any moment, but in truth The Dark Ride has all the staples of the modern Andi Deris incarnation of the band, with the same penchant for glorious, emotionally resonant chorus parts and melodic guitars flying everywhere. In fact, over here in my neck of the woods 'A Dark Ride' refers to a haunted amusement park attraction, and even if that's not their intent with the title, it really fits how this one sounds. Yes, the lower end on the record is quite heavy, maybe the chugs or mutes pound a little harder than some previous albums, certainly on "Escalation 666", but it's not like they were about to take the stage in corpse paint and eat a baby. It's not macabre or evil, maybe just a bit determined.

This album fucking slays, and it totally exceeded even the high marks that were set by records I loved like Master of the Rings, The Time of the Oath and Better Than Raw. Most every track on this one burns itself directly into the brain and hangs out there for me just as long as a lot of their golden oldies in the Hansen and Kiske eras. As the swan song for Roland Grapow and Uli Kusch in the band, it's quite the achievement, and has arguably the most potent production of anything in their post-millennium era. "Mr. Torture" and "All Over the Nature" bring back that anthemic Helloween feel with their guitars and choruses, and while a lot of folks probably dislike "Escalation 666" for that gut-turning down-tuned chugging in the verses, it erupts into a great, proggy, atmospheric chorus which is one of the most engrossing on the album. "Salvation" and "We Damn Night" are both underrated masterworks, and then you've got one of the most radio-sellable songs they've ever written in "If I Could Fly", which I almost want to hate, but cannot, because its so obnoxiously catchy from the steady groove of its rhythm guitars to that little peak in the solo.

The Dark Ride is front-to-back exceptional sounding, with a thickness to the guitar tone that still manages not to obscure the considerable amount of melodic licking that Weikath and Grapow can shred into juts about anything. Uli Kusch also gives a beastly turn, and Grosskopf serves to really moor this whole thing in that lower, punching tone, which honestly isn't totally unique to this album...certainly I felt it on Better Than Raw and some of the albums after this. Andi by this point became my favorite Helloween vocalist, not because I don't love his predecessors, and not because he's 'technically' the best, but he had by this point shown the most consistency across the four albums, and he's always pleasurable to listen to because of the characteristics of his voice which can range from decaying fragility to a higher, siren-like plane of execution. He wasn't just chosen for his looks and stage personality, the guy is a powerhouse, and what way to honor the previous front men than by hiring someone just as unique. Kiske had four albums too, but two of them left a lot to be desired...nothing so far in the Deris canon left me dry at all, and The Dark Ride is hands down one of my favorite albums they've done.

Verdict: Epic Win [9.25/10]

Sunday, June 6, 2021

Helloween - Gambling With the Devil (2007)

I really do like the idea of the 'dark carnival' with regards to all of Helloween's aesthetics in general...quirky and silly but with a more sinister and aggressive edge to it, and that very accurately describes the songwriting for Gambling With the Devil. Just don't look too closely at the cover, because from afar it looks good, but when you scrutinize the details it looks like pretty crappy digital art. Just think if they'd gone with a more classical, colorful illustration using similar imagery, in the style of Better Than Raw. Would have knocked this one out of the proverbial amusement park. However, graphic aesthetics are pretty much where my complaints end, because Gambling With the Devil is another hard-hitting wonderwork from a lineup that just won't quit.

Okay, the intro bit is dumb, but the rest of the songs proper rule. This album features what MIGHT be my favorite Helloween track of all time in "Paint a New World", which is for me the perfect example of taking those traditional power metal aesthetics and making them fresh for the 21st century. Passionate, fast, and moving in both its lyrical matter, heavy riffing, and fucking astounding vocals from Andi Deris. This is what it's all about with this genre, the ability to elevate you into a melodic plane so emotionally overwhelming that you want to fight, cry, and explode at the same time. THAT is the value of power metal to me, and while I don't say that I necessarily favor it more or less than the other sub-genres I enjoy, this is the uniqueness it brings to my collection, the void it feels, and I'm always happy to call upon it. Having said that, this one song does sort of leave the rest of the album in the dust, but as a testament to the quality of the album overall, I still love it, because matching an anomalous eargasm like that is just too tall an order for anyone, really. Tracks like "Final Fortune", "Falling to Pieces" and "I.M.E." all more than deliver the goods with memorable chorus, raging riffs and the same sort of viral energy. "Kill It" grounds us to dust with some of that showoff speed picking and very brief, hilarious 'extreme metal' growl, and "The Bells of the 7 Hells" has some weird stuff in it that leads to another climactic chorus with great backing vocals.

The album just has it 'together' more than Keeper of the Seven Keys: The Legacy, nearly an hour of awesome-sauce; there's really no chaff to be had anywhere, and I dig listening through the whole thing (first minute aside), even though you'll have to restrain me once "Paint a New World" starts, a Helloween track hadn't hit me quite that hard since "Sole Survivor" in 1994. The mix sounds great, with lots of synths and chorus vocals mixed in very well to accent the potent riff-set and lead guitar flares being set off all over the dark landscape. Andi has never sounded finer, and he even contributes quite a lot to the songwriting on this from the notes I've read. The newer members Sascha and Dani sound like they've already been in the ranks for decades, and this is the sort of performance which leads me to believe, that if the old-timers like Weikath, Grosskopf and even Andi had to retire from the band due to old age, as unthinkable as that is, Helloween might even be able to move forward in a positive way if they can round out the roster with newer talent like this. Helloween forever? Humanity could do much worse.

Verdict: Epic Win [9.25/10]

Thursday, June 3, 2021

Helloween - Walls of Jericho (1985)

To try and drive home just how great Walls of Jericho was at the time it was taken off the leash, take a look at what else was going on that same year in traditional European metal. You had Running Wild's Branded and Exiled, Warlock's Hellbound, Grave Digger's Witch Hunter, and Stormwitch with Tales of Terror. All albums I dig, by bands I dig, one of which would even go on to put out a couple albums worship even more than anything Helloween has done, if you can believe that...but not in 1985. When I compare this record to anything sort of the outbreak of thrash metal around the same time, they almost all fall flat, whether it's that German scene of the time of heavy metal abroad. The iconic cover artwork, still one of their finest to this day, makes a great analogy for this album running up against the others in its field. There's both a raw intensity and level of songwriting polish here that must have been the envy of so many other metal gods in its day, and an atmosphere that one just doesn't simply forget...I will be in 2' wide, 6' deep afterlife and my skeleton will still be jabbering out "Ride the Sky" until it becomes dust.

Amusingly enough, while the style is largely comparable to the EP preceding it that spring, I'd say they had already lost a fraction of intensity. Not that the results are any less well-written or well-rounded, but there's clearly a more grounded approach that flirts more with conventional metal rhythms and then spins them off in its own direction with Kai's vocals, a sparse and effective use of keyboards, and a lot of fist pumping anthems like "Reptile" to go along with the EP-level onslaught of "Ride the Sky" or "Metal Invaders". The bass playing here is off the chart for its time, clearly Grosskopf was a fan of Steve Harris and Geddy Lee, who really made the instrument count, and Markus is all over this thing, and ever curve he takes, every fill STICKS THE LANDING. The drums might not have gotten as extreme as what was starting to emerge out of the newer, more sinister underground sub-genres, but Ingo Schwichtenberg sounds like a living storm, and when you combine the high impact percussion with that washed out 80s style of atmosphere created through the reverb and recording process of the time, Walls of Jericho just has a magic about it that isn't produced much if at all these days, one that's really only present in some of the formative works of other German power, speed and thrash metal acts like Rage, Paradox, Scanner, etc. This is one of the records that put Harris Johns on the map, and deservedly so, because the guy just had an ear for keeping metal honest and vicious without leeching it of its melodic potential.

The album is nowhere near as dynamic as its two better-known successors, but that's alright, this is the one you turn to when you want the molten steel Helloween and not the radio-ready version. It's like a more hyperactive Iron Maiden, all sped up but using the same penchant for triplets and melody, with this anthemic side to it which would prove almost as influential as the English legends. Certainly you take a track like "Ride the Sky" or "Guardians" and there are like a million other bands that would go out hunting for those same exact styles of chorus builds, only they'd probably lay on the cheese with more orchestration and a more 'professional' sounding singer. But that's another thing that stands out, beyond his excellent guitar playing, Kai Hansen's nasally, unique vocals. Plenty of range, but he sounds like he's a soldier battling his way through the apocalypse. I mean Andi Deris can get fairly aggressive with his own style later on, but Kai's just had an 'attack' to them, when merged with the meaner sounding riffs, that really immortalized him, and that aesthetic does persist with his own band Gamma Ray; he's awesome in general, but the nastier and more intense the riffs, the better the voice works.

People...this album has a badass song about a fucking PINBALL MACHINE from I have to say anything more? They also took the intro from the Silver Shamrock "Happy Happy Halloween" jingle, which is based on "London Bridge is Falling Down". How cool is that for myself and the other fifteen people on Earth who enjoy Halloween III: Season of the Witch? What I'm essentially getting at is that anyone who doesn't like Walls of Jericho is not your friend, and you should not trust them.

Verdict: Epic Win [9.5/10]

Saturday, May 29, 2021

Rage - Perfect Man (1988)

It's telling that even among the creative output that shaped and defined Rage on their earlier records, Perfect Man stands unique. For example, I could match up Reign of Fear and Execution Guaranteed, or Secrets in a Weird World and Reflections of a Shadow as aesthetic pairs, to a degree, but this third triumph is sort of its own thing, and has always remained as such. Not only does this album introduce the 'Soundchaser' mascot in a simple cover image that inspired I don't know how many apocalyptic steampunk dreams, but by contrast it also has this interesting working class metal vibe to it that sounds like a bunch of guys tired from their 9 to 5 at the steel mill meeting up for a few beers and then hitting the practice space at a nearby abandoned factory. It's also the introduction of Manni Schmidt and Chris Efthimiadis into the lineup with Peavy Wagner, and to think the trio could pull off an album this good, their first time out together, is nothing shy of shocking.

Largely gone here is the thrashing edge that we found on the first two albums, and Perfect Man exists in a kind of nexus between grimy traditional heavy metal, power and speed. The constant striving and success at pulling off memorable verse-chorus structures here reminds me a lot of the NWOBHM years, although Peavy has an arguably higher range than all but the legends out of that scene. He metes out a fairly even distribution of his melodic wailing, which always seems to be hitting his target and going just a little bit over the top, and then the more raucous mid-range heavy metal barking. When you combine this with the timbre that his natural German accent brings, it creates a distinctness to his voice that I just wasn't hearing from any other vocalist in these years, even his own esteemed countrymen like Rolf Kasparek, Chris Boltendahl or Udo Dirkschneider, all also possessed of unique styles (though Rolf and Chris operate in a similar wheelhouse). He goes a little Alice Cooper shock rock with some wicked laughs here or there, and honestly seems like a big goofball, but man is his performance on point for this album.

His bass playing, too...this album, more than any other in their canon, reeks of the 'Power Trio' tag, and that's because that straightforward blue collar feel of the production depends a lot on his low end pump supporting the very adventurous rhythm and lead guitars. He might not be a pioneer on the level of a Steve Harris, but he can play circles around most in his position, and the fact he's singing too, and always has been, puts him above the top. One of the top power metal bassists without question, and the clear and thick tone in the mix just rules. Doesn't hurt that Chris is such a great drummer too, with a forceful, fluid command of his kicks and fills that is the perfect fit to the generally faster pace of the material; and yet as good as all these aspects are, it's Manni who is arguably the highlight on this album. His riffs are loaded with all these moody, atmospheric and occasionally grimy sounding chords that were a brilliant matchup to the rhythm section, and then constantly finding ways to add just a little extra finesse or melody without ever taking it too far. The leads feel natural, bluesy in spots but just as adept as most you were hearing in hard rock or metal in the 80s, and I think it's easy to listen through this and feel like his presence is understated and singular throughout.

Twelve tunes. ALL of them excellent, a couple going beyond that to the level of transcendent for me. I'll never forget when I first heard "A Pilgrim's Path" on the local metal show at WJUL Lowell, it was my first exposure to Perfect Man although I'd heard some of the earlier tracks. I was completely absorbed at the time by the glinting acoustic intro which bursts into that mean riff and lead, and then the song has such an awesome flow to the verse vocals and epic, screaming chorus. I had to buy this album immediately, and have never looked back. "Don't Fear the Winter" is another with a similar melodic style, with amazing, driving guitars and drums, and that escalating scream into a chorus that you just cannot forget. Those are great entry points, but honestly there is nothing weak here, songs like "Round Trip", "Supersonic Hydromatic" and "Between the Lines" bring the awesome screaming lines, and there is not a single riff, bass line or drum beat over the entire 44 minutes that I would ever displace, because it's all fucking genius. And that's a pretty compact length for twelve tunes. The CD bonus tracks are also a nice addition even if they're not quite as good as the material that ended up on the album proper; "Neurotic" is a little TOO silly, but at least the music burns with some great ideas.

Even the lyrics to this album are fairly elaborate, musings about daily life and human progress and mostly fit into the consciousness of the 80s, though many of its concerns persist. It's another of the qualities that gave me that impression above of the worker, the everyman, trying to get by in the face of mass social and technological change. I almost find it hard to go on describing Perfect Man, I'd just rather play it for you so you can hear what I love about it so much. I find these sorts of reviews the hardest to write, because I can't ever do it enough justice. I can't ever give this album back what it's given to me. We all need a hill to die on, and this is easily one of mine. Its my favorite Rage album, and one of my favorite Noise Records releases in general, which is saying a lot if you're familiar with the godlike pantheon of bands that once called that label home. Along with records like Keeper of the Seven Keys Part II and Running Wild's Port Royal (another masterpiece I need to cover one day, and not the pirates' only one), Perfect Man hinted at the broad and diverse platform that power metal could one day become. Whether it succeeded on that front, or occasionally failed us with its tackier stereotypes, we can debate another time, but in 1988 this shit was ON.

Verdict: Epic Win [10/10]

Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Borgne - Temps Morts (2021)

Industrial black metal acts of note are few and far between, and even when you do encounter them, they're not often the most clever hybrids between the two styles, usually focusing on some superficial elements of one of those constituent genres and then leaning into the other. Enter the creepy Swiss Borgne, a project of the ever prolific Bornyhake and keys player Lady Kaos; and while I cannot tell you that they are approaching this combination with the utmost nuance or uniqueness, their albums have become increasingly more entertaining experiences, peaking with ineffable Y, an album with which his latest, Temps Morts, pairs up quite well. A similar mix of aggressive programmed drumming, eerie tremolo picked notes, grisly vocals and eerie synthesizer atmospheres which is highly satisfying if you're the sort to close your eyes and imagine dystopian wreckage.

I'd actually say that this album is slightly more accessible than its predecessor, in that a lot of the guitar and synth lines seem more immediate to hook onto you, but don't mistake that for some sort of sellout, because this is still frightening and hostile. The beats here range from large, clanking splashes of dilapidated machinery to double bass or blast patterns that seem almost as if the guy is trolling us, only then to lay on the mesmerism through the immortally spooky guitar patterns in pieces like "Near the Bottomless Precipice I Stand" and "The Swords of the Headless Angels" (one of my favorite track titles this year). The atmosphere conjured up across this album is nothing short of revelatory, and while there does exist a fair degree of repetition, the music is so effective that it becomes a strength and not at all a weakness. Whether he's firing on pure industrial drum segues or even the more bouncy groove of "To Cut the Flesh and Feel Nothing but Stillness", there's an urgency and violence to this music that demands your respect, and I'm not sure there are many others out there doing it at this level...certainly this album hit me a lot harder than anything the comparable Aborym has done in many years.

To top that off, Temps Morts is enormous...73 minutes across nine tracks, and extremely consistent in the desolate mood it creates, which I have to say is a perfect fit to the bleak cover art of its industrial looking cathedral and nightmarish landscape. There are a few pauses in the aggression, like the softer piece "I Drown My Eyes Into the Broken Mirror" which relies more on piano lines, smaller scintillating synths and spectral whispered vocals rather than outright harsh rasps, but even there the album retains that sense of a consistently unsettling mood, and it's just another of the many surprises that will hook you throughout the album's considerable depths. Like those long cinematic experiences you patiently sit through because you realize you're getting more bang and quality for your bucks, Temps Morts is a pleasure to experience and then to revisit, even to read through lyrically, and though there's a lot of worthwhile material throughout their 20+ year back catalog, this is yet another of the most impressive albums the project has produced.

Verdict: Win [8.75/10]