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]

Sunday, May 23, 2021

Rage - Secrets in a Weird World (1989)

Secrets in a Weird World might not be my #1 top choice within the extensive and impressive Rage catalogue, but this is by far the album I think was most underrated, the one I thought could have achieved a high level of commercial success had it been given the exposure that a lot of lesser metal and hard rock albums were near the close of the 80s. In the age of flashy guitar heroes, it just makes sense, because Manni's playing here is the epitome of power/speed metal: intense fast riffing, great leads and melodies, and youthful passion that sometimes feels likes ramming you off the side of the freeway and then forcing you to watch as a bunch of other vehicles in the chase fly by. But it's also chalk full of great hooks, memorable Peavy shrieking, and loads of depth and creativity when compared to a lot of earlier 80s heavy metal.

The cover of Sergei Prokofiev's "Opus 32 - Nr. 3" is a brilliant little piano number to herald the flood that is "Time Waits for No One", a total scorcher and one of the very best Rage songs, witch riffs so good that 15 year old me used to sit in his basement lair and play them over and over and his little Peavey 10-watt amp (COINCIDENCE?) and congratulate himself when he'd figure one out. The screaming vocals were in full effect and I loved them, and the leads were well beyond me and even a little messy, but charismatic. And that's the thing about Secrets, it's not just this wall of force that gives you whiplash, but it has a sense of lightness and even humor about it ("Talk to Grandpa") that makes a nice contrast against some of the more dead serious subjects in the lyrics. But yeah, the first 'side' of this album was an absolute juggernaut, with four tracks that are caged lightning...I mean the riffs, vocals and choruses to "Invisible Horizons" or "The Inner Search"? Ridiculous. And "She" actually sounds like a tune that might have been on Perfect Man only with the slightly more wind-washed production that separates this album from that. Again though, Manni's playing in that one is ferocious, and its another tune that highlights a lot of the desperate, throw-caution-to-the-wind vibe to the power drumming and Wagner-Banshee wailing.

In fact this record goes nine tracks deep where I'd give it a perfect score, "Light into the Darkness" one of the most smile-inducing emotional good vs. evil power/speed tunes you'll ever hear, and the aforementioned silly number "Talk to Grandpa" still delivering the goods with a very unorthodox subject matter about mediums and seances, which is kind of fitting to the 80s era in which stuff like Ouija boards and Poltergeist was so huge (I guess it still kinda is). It's not until the 9-minute finale "Without a Trace", where the shine comes off just a fraction. Still a good song with an interesting arrangement and a number of cool parts, especially the vocal lines, but if I'm in a rush this is the one I'm definitely going to skip, there's a point where it hit the bridge and its felt as if its just gone on for too long. And that holds the album back a bit from perfection, also a little bit too snappy of a snare sound throughout that I think could have been mixed just a little better, not taking anything away from the performance itself. Minor issues, and Secrets in a Weird World is still Rage in its peak performance phase, at least for this early style they crafted in their first decade. If you can grab a version with the actual artwork and not the band photo, do so, but at least this is a decent photo with the guys exuding a kind of cool confidence at how much they know they just kicked ass. Because they did.

Verdict: Epic Win [9.5/10]

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Rage - Reflections of a Shadow (1990)

It would have been a terribly tall task to write a follow-up to Secrets in a Weird World and Perfect Man that could match them track for track, so Peavy Wagner and Rage just settled in to do what they do best...write a bunch of songs, and once again I was quite impressed with the results. The album doesn't look like much on the cover, but then, neither did the commercial release of Secrets over here. Strangely, the album kind of sounds like it looks, this is a more measured, mellow Rage that can still release the Kraken when necessary, but chooses here to attempt a more diverse slate of songs that are moodier, with a lot of tempos and riffs that felt pretty fresh even compared to their first four CD. Reflections of a Shadow is for me a closure to that 80s decade of excellence, perhaps the end of the streak of 'mandatory' early albums that I always revisit, but like its year of release might imply, the writing heavily insinuates that the band was ready to try new things for a new age, reinvent itself whenever needed without losing touch of its original identity.

This one has a nice, moody intro with brooding ambient synths and acoustics that leads into quite a contrast with the hooky, mid-paced and groovy "That's Human Bondage", which at least reveals to us that Peavy's screaming personality was well-intact, he hadn't run out of juice on the miraculous albums before it. The riffs are still ambitious and unique sounding, and the production doesn't sound all that different than on Secrets, its just that the cuts are a little more melancholic and almost depressed sounding than the joygasmic speed, riffing and chorus work before it. Take songs like "True Face in Everyone" or "Flowers That Fade in My Hand", they're more progressively paced, structured and simply go to places Rage hadn't really gone before, with awesome bass-work, judicious but tasteful use of synthesizers, and riffs that have to learn to titillate you with slower guitar patterns and more mixed cleans and electrics. Fortunately, this is not ALL the record has to offer, and you get scorchers like the title track, the crazy "Can't Let Go" and the INSANELY catchy "Waiting for the Moon", which should have honestly been a more popular breakout track for them on's metal, but has a hard rock edge to it that reminds me of Zakk Wylde-era Ozzy Osbourne, which initially I loved on No Rest for the Wicked. That chorus totally kicks ass, and I'm not exaggerating when I say I think Manni Schmidt could play right alongside with most of the Prince of Darkness' axe heroes.

"Saddle the Wind" is another catchy fast-paced tune, but the back half of this album is full or more sweltering, slower numbers like "Faith" and "Dust" where the band is keeping its pace to try and clout you with a lot more emotion than you might expect. The metal is still being threaded through all of these, with some righteous leads, lots of guitar effects and the same superior writing tear they'd been on since the mid-80s, but again there are more clean parts, Peavy does lower pitched singing for the verses, and you get some organs and other ingredients that almost give some of these a power ballad/rock opera feel. I also like that it swings back into a heavy, driving anthem "Nobody Knows" for the finale, which is a tune that would have fit right in on Secrets in a Weird World. Overall, it's a bit dimmer and more weather-worn sounding than the albums leading up to it, but these Reflections just don't go away, no matter how many years come along and try to dilute the waters. This is another gem on the crown of a band which has sat underappreciated for far, far too fucking long, among the not-so-secret-kings of that massive German scene whose steel has barely dulled in decades.

Verdict: Epic Win [9/10]

Monday, May 17, 2021

Helloween - United Alive in Madrid (2019)

Although the culmination of the entire 'Pumpkins United' concept for me will be whether or not they can pull of their new eponymous studio album, to take this idea FORWARD rather than just paying tribute to their laurels, I think it's completely understandable how many would find it this 3-disc live experience, with two of those discs recorded in the titular Madrid, Spain. Hearing the old voices again mixed with the newer voice, these singers selflessly entertaining the fans, having fun singing TOGETHER, and leaving their egos at the door is something I'd like to see and hear a lot more often from these legacy bands...and to be fair, it probably happens more than we know, with old band members doing live or recording guest spots, but Helloween have been one of the few bands in all rock to take it this extreme.

Now, having said that, and while United Alive in Madrid is indeed a solid product that will answer your questions as to how all this might sound, the risk of having too many cooks in the kitchen is certainly being run, and although Deris and Kiske and Kai do an excellent job of not cluttering up the lanes too much, the songs just aren't going to be the way you're used to them, and if you're seeking those pure performances of your favorites, you'll have to put up with an unexpected shift across the lyric lines, and it does sound a little too 'occupied' or busy at times. I mean that's kind of the point, this is a big silly party to celebrate a band getting near 40 years on Earth, and a fantastic band at that, but if you want the most ideal live versions of songs you're going to better off tracking down other releases like High Live, Live in Sao Paulo or even I Want Out Live, to hear the tracks as they were mostly intended. This is about going over the top, and so it does. But fortunately the instruments are on fire, the production is very clear, you get a lot of between-song banter, and the crowd is obviously eating this up. They love it.

As for the track selection, you've got the entire 2-disc spread from Madrid, with a blend of tunes that focuses largely on what you'd consider 'hits' in their catalogue, a lot of which are from Keeper of the Seven Keys I and II, with a smattering of great tracks from the Andi years. There is a 14-minute medley of the really old stuff for Kai and I think one other tune ("How Many Tears") from that era, and I don't like that they set it up that way, I think I'd rather they had more full songs from that 1984-1985 era spread about like the others. So you're getting "Halloween", "I Want Out" "Eagle Fly Free", "Future World" and all the mandatory 80s classics, and then the amazing "Sole Survivor", "If I Could Fly", "Forever and One", everybody is happy, they're not exactly about to dip into the archives for an event like this, so if you're expecting to hear Kiske singing on "Paint a New World" or more stuff from Straight Out of Hell (other than "Waiting for the Thunder", which they do include) and My God-Given Right, as cool as that would be, it's not going to happen. They gotta shake their moneymakers for all the old fans paying the big bux to come see the classics.

The third disc has tracks recorded from other dates around the world, and these are much more curious choices, like "Kids of the Century" from Pink Bubbles Go Ape, which I think sounds better here than on the studio album, and "Why" from Master of the Rings, a deeper cut than you'd expect, and that one actually sounds pretty cool with the multiple vocalists. It all closes off with "Pumpkins United", the new (for the time) studio track with all the vocalists, and that one sounds almost as energized and fun as it does on disc, and it's the best way to psyche up the audience for the future, even if it's not included from the bigger performance. 'We just did all these classics for you, but we wanted to let you know there are more memories to come.' Well done, and that's United Alive in Madrid in a nutshell, the spectacle and the successful realization of a project from a band that loves its history and loves its fans. It's not the greatest live record ever, but it's a good one, and with that novelty added on it's one that all Helloween fans should at least check out.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

Saturday, May 15, 2021

Helloween - Live in Sao Paulo (2007)

Metal is huge in South America. In Brazil. As it should be, because these people know their shit. Iron Maiden? Huge. Judas Priest? Massive. And Helloween? Why the hell not? Live in Sao Paulo captures the band on their Keeper of the Seven Keys: The Legacy tour from 2005-2006, and almost the entirety of the two discs and two hours of content was recorded in that very place, with the exception of "Halloween" and "Occasion Avenue" from gigs in Czech Republic and Tokyo...which is a little weird, because I always prefer to hear a band give a steadfast performance at a single gig, which would be the experience the concert attendee has, but at least they're open about it ('Live on 3 Continents') and they're tacked on at the very end of the track list.

This is one of their more lauded live offerings and for a good reason, it pretty swell and has a rather dynamic range of material, a broader spread than on High Live which in itself was pretty damn good. The band is reaching for a balance of their early classics as well as some of the new material off the excellent Keeper Part III, but it blends in pretty well together. It's got a pretty atmospheric sound to it, with a great deal of crowd noise that manages not to drown out the band, but it's almost like you can hear them singing along to a HELL of a lot of the lyrics, and it's pretty amazing...especially when they're in the midst of an epic like "The King for 1000 Years" or "Keeper of the Seven Keys". All of the tunes, new and old seem to mesh really well with the production and performance of this lineup, and it's all smoothed over into that modern fold they emerged with on Master of the Rings. The rhythm guitars and kick drums thunder quite intensely, while the symphonic keys blaze brilliantly against that heavier undertow. Andi's a monster on this one, his screams sound great and although he doesn't sound too much like Kiske on the oldies, I think he still does a knockout job, and so many other people are singing along that who cares?!

It's not always seamless, because the atmosphere often overwhelms some of the details and nuances of the tunes, but you just cannot beat the energy here between the band and audience, and for that reason it's surely the most EXCITING of their lives. You really feel as if you're standing there in front of the band, something I've actually done, and everyone is partying and enjoying that the Germans flew over to their neck of the woods to offer a professional pounding. It was great to hear selections form albums like The Dark Ride like "Mr. Torture" and "If I Could Fly", although I wouldn't have minded more of a representation from Master of the Rings, or the absent material from Walls of Jericho. The audio quality on the non-Brazil recordings is actually superior, almost studio level, so that compensates for the less ballistic audience participation, and this version of "Halloween" is pretty great, even if they're not the vocals you are used to. I don't know that I like it more than High Live, which was a little better focused on material that suits Andi, but it's certainly a positive and elaborate presentation.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

Friday, May 14, 2021

Helloween - High Live (1996)

As a big fan of the first two Helloween albums with Andi Deris on the microphone, I was actually pretty excited to hear how it would come across live. Not only the great new material which his voice was written with and molded to, but also how he might handle some of the classics in the catalogue that Hansen or Kiske tackled. Enter High Live, a double disc of tunes recorded in Italy and Spain where I'm assuming the powers and popularity of the post-Chameleon Helloween were a little stronger than they were here in the States. I picked this up back at Media Play near the University of Massachusetts Amherst, back when that chain was a thing, and remember promptly putting it my dorm room stereo, then giving it a few listens, being satisfied if not terribly impressed, and then putting it away for a very long time.

Going back, I probably favor this a little more than I did in the 90s, and that's largely because I've grown into an even bigger fan of the Deris-era material, and I rather like the atmosphere present on these discs, which reminds me a lot of 80s live album favorites like Live After Death. The guitars are good and clear, but still have a bit of classic metal dirtiness to them, even despite the highly melodic nature of the playing on their material, and the loads of little detail in the leads, squeals, and effects in tunes like the excellent "Wake Up the Mountain". Drums are quite prominent, bass is set just right, and so too are the vocals, which are spot on for at least 80% of the time. There are a few lines where Andi's silky vocals seem to swerve a fraction off the key you're expecting, but I think you could say the same of almost all frontmen when there aren't studio re-dubs available. For the most part, though, he is all business and exactly what I wanted to hear. The selection on this album is also quite awesome because it focuses so heavily on Master of the Rings and Time of the Oath, which have become evergreen titles for me in the Helloween backlog. "Sole Survivor", "Where the Rain Grows", "Steel Tormentor", "In the Middle of a Heartbeat", "Perfect Gentlemen", "We Burn", it's all here...

So the question is, how does he sound on the classics? We get the answer to that a little after half way through the first disc, when they tackle "Eagle Fly Free", and you immediately notice the difference, since his mid-range, whispered pitch is quite different than his predecessor, and it doesn't translate quite as well across the verse and pre-chorus...however, once that chorus arrives, he sounds quite good. There is that slight, wavering quality to his voice that I've always enjoyed...he's not the template power metal singer like Kiske before him, but to this day I still think Andi is the most unique, and it's actually fun to hear how he is going to approach each line, what he's going to inject in there. He sounds even better on "Future World" and "Dr. Stein" where he uses that crazier, high pitch, but there aren't a lot of older tunes to be had...perhaps there were in the full set lists, but for this recording I think it's probably a good idea that they stick to the material where he's strongest, which is quite good.

These days you've got a number of live album options for your Helloween collection, and I'll get into a few more of them, but High Live stands out to me as one of the best for the reasons I've listed. The musical performances are great, this was such a strong lineup (regardless of what became of it later), and it's a positive showcase for a new vocalist that some were probably skeptical of, which is silly to think of in 2021 since he's had by far the longest stint fronting the band. Very glad I came back around to this one because it's stronger than I remember.

Verdict: Win [7.75/10]

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Helloween - Unarmed (2010)

I suppose I can give Helloween a little credit for holding off a quarter of a century into their career before slapping us with the lame, obligatory acoustic album, which I'm sure I've ranted on about before as a major pox within the hard rock and heavy metal scenes. To go a little further, the Germans didn't just decide to sit around and record your bland and typical 'campfire acoustic' sort or album, but to render a number of cuts throughout their career into soft rock tracks. Sure, you get the cleaner and milder guitars as expected, but there are beats, horns, and whatever the group can muster to make these heavy metal classics sound like they belonged on major lamestream radio channels in the 80s and 90s. There is always this tendency to feel like such adaptations help a band reveal its more touchy, feely, kid-friendly emotional side, but the real rub here is that Helloween has already possessed those qualities in spades, even when they were plugged in and cranked up in distorted bliss, howling and screaming along their brilliant, anthemic power metal.

So this is basically what Billy Joel, Meat Loaf or Miami Sound Machine might have sounded like recording a whole record of Helloween covers, but with Andi still singing. It just doesn't function on any appreciable level other than comedy that NOBODY ASKED FOR. The songs can't decide whether they want to really go for that lighter touch, or maintain the intensity, so you've got the drums still pounding along and very little of the mighty guitar power or momentum over them to matter. Hearing a sax solo in the center of "Dr. Stein" is goofy as all hell, or a version of "Future World" which sounds like its being performed for a Country jamboree warmup to a Christian Rock concert. Tunes like the throbby soft rock "If I Could Fly" and the folksy jig version of "Perfect Gentleman" lack all the punch required of those amazing riffs and choruses. Where they get really dramatic, like the purer piano balladry of this "Forever & One", it does seem a little more fitting as an alternate, but then "I Want Out" brings you back to the realization that this whole idea is unnecessary and unwated.

Just because you're a popular, veteran band with a bunch of record contracts doesn't mean you need to work yourself up to something like Unarmed. Just because you CAN, does not mean you SHOULD. I am not one to scoff entirely at every idea to trivialize and make heavy metal into an amusing form...if Helloween had sponsored, say, an 8-bit chip-tune covers album of their material, that might actually be awesome. But who needed this plastic pop rock castration? Find them and bring them forward, so we may stone or waterboard them or whatever torture seems appropriate that they relent. The bonus DVD with a couple videos, or the 1-2 tracks here that don't go completely belly-up in their translations just don't make up for all the rubbish you've got to rummage through to get to them. This nonsense makes Pink Bubbles Go Ape sound inspirational by comparison. Fortunately Helloween is such an excellent band on a normal basis that this doesn't really dull my perception of the band other than as some sort of unfortunate, ironic gag that didn't stick the landing.

Verdict: Fail [3.25/10]

Monday, May 10, 2021

Helloween - Pumpkins United (2017)

First off, even putting aside the idea that I'm a long-term devotee of Helloween, I have to praise the band for putting together this entire idea for their fans, not only as just some one-off, but as a full commitment that involves live performances AND studio recordings. For a group of guys with repertoires like this to stow any egos and past differences away and come together to celebrate all these eras of this mighty band, and then not to even rest merely on their laurels...but to push it all into the future with new material, is stunning and rare. Do I wish it could have gone even further, and a serious talk could have been had with the 'missing', surviving ex-members like Roland and Uli? Of course I do, but not every bridge can be mended, and even if the lineup isn't 100% complete they've got all the most important chefs in the kitchen.

"Pumpkins United" itself is a superb realization of this vision, with the three singers contributing their strengths, never really stepping on one another's toes, and actually working in unison to the point that you can hardly tell it wasn't meant to be this way. It helps that they've got a thundering, loaded track beneath them that is worthy of the better crop of material on any of the band's albums since Master of the Rings, with a couple killer riffs, although you might certainly argue that this one plays it safe with the sort of flowery European power anthem that the band itself pretty much pioneered in the 80s. But it's a pretty damn good one, and although the silkiness of Deris' voice, and the Dickinson/Tate hybrid that was always Kiske's forte don't always gel perfectly in direct succession, they're still giving it their all and the track was a resounding success. The musicianship and added orchestration for the B-side is all top notch, and if the music on the forthcoming eponymous album is anywhere near this good, we'll be in for a smash success, I only hope that it's got even more variation between the tracks.

As for this single as a product, there's not really much to it...I don't know that the two versions of the songs feel that differently that it adds much value, but then again I'm not sure this is going to be included on the album or if it's a one-time release. I might have to reassess my rating later, but for now I'm going on the assumption that this will retain its uniqueness and is worth a couple bucks to experience. If you do love Helloween then it's certainly worthwhile, but it's two versions of a six and a half minute track, and that's the IMPORT single...otherwise I believe it's the one track on vinyl or you just listen online.

Verdict: Win(difference?) [6.99/10]

Saturday, May 8, 2021

Helloween - I Want Out Live (1989)

In 1989, as a steel-struck teenager, I was so hyped up on Helloween that I bought this live cassette the instant I first laid eyes upon it it. I can still recall digging out that $6.99 from my pocket paper route money, happily slapping down on the counter at Record Town in my local mall, striding proudly forth with my new-fangled quasi-mullet and thrusting it straight into my Walkman. It might sound like some stereotypical scene out of one of those awful TV shows or films that tries to thrive off nostalgia for the 80s, but in fact it was our reality back then. At the time, I didn't have a high opinion of live albums per se...Unleashed in the East pretty much brought me into the genre as a tyke, and Live After Death was still in a regular rotation, and when I looked at the track list here I thought it was a little skimpy, but fuck it, this was one of my favorite bands to emerge from my #1 label of the era, Noise Records, I absolutely worshipped at the feet (stalks?) of the debut EP, the first three albums and the Judas single, and I was going to follow them through thick and thin on all their major label adventures, and back again. And I always have...

I even remember at the time knowing that this one was put out under another title overseas, and I think the track list is edited just a bit different, and there's a cool cartoon cover of the band playing live, damnit all if I don't like our version a little better. I believe in Uncle Pumpkin. Well, I listened to this about 3-4 times and then quickly delegated it to the tape rack right beneath Keeper of the Seven Keys Part II, remember those old tape racks where you'd have to move all the tapes each time to keep them in alphabetical and chronological order because you were a huge dork that didn't plan well in advance? I guess it was just me. At any rate, I found the sound quality on this totally acceptable, maybe a fraction clunky in some of the mix, but for the 80s it definitely was clear and professional enough, I had just decided that I'd never listen to this at any point over the studio works that I so adored. It's now about 32 years later, and I'm breaking this thing out for the first time, and the memories of the experience seem to have phased me more than the recording itself.

The distribution of material here is largely on the initial Keeper duology, probably because they wanted to focus on songs with Kiske vocals and promote their RCA material, but they do manage to close out the B-side with an epic rendition of "How Many Tears", and if my ears aren't failing me it even sounds like Kai is doing some faint backups along Kiske's impressive take on it, and the bridge with those airy, open guitar harmonies sounds fucking fantastic. The guitars and drums sound tight, you get a fair helping of Markus' lines in there, and the leads really scorch. Stage banter is fun enough for what you get, silly schlager melodies, definitely sounding like some Germans a bit nervous to get out there in front of the international audiences (this being recorded in Scotland and England), and I don't think any of the tracks stands out as weak at all, from the silly "Dr. Stein" to title track, which was obviously the hotness at the time. Even in my High School, where only a select few of us hanging out on Headbanger's Wall near the cafeteria even knew who names like Armored Saint, Running Wild and Celtic Frost belonged to, almost all of the glam, Ozzy and Metallica-addicted student populace knew this damn song and walked around humming or singing it all the time (of course they all heard it from MTV).

Listening to it so much later, I rather think I missed out on giving this one some more spins when I was young. Helloween has had such a massive legacy since, with a lot of changes, but this brings back the innocence and amazing potential I once felt for these Germans...potential which they mostly lived up to, mind you. I don't know if it's on the level of Live After Death or Live Without Sense, two of the rare lives that I listen to on a fairly regular rotation. There's just not much meat on the bones of this one, but I promise I won't wait three decades before it shows up in the queue again.

Verdict: Win [7.25/10]

Thursday, May 6, 2021

Rage - Unity (2002)

I've had plenty of positives to say about the 90s Rage records, even if I had spent that decade mildly disappointed, but come 2002 and the sophomore of its new power trio lineup, I was confronted with what would certainly become my favorite of the Germans' albums outside of the first five. Wagner, Mike Terrana and Victor Smolski had written a storm of a record which accented upon many of the strengths of its predecessor but ramping up the musicianship and arguably the heaviness. Because, make no mistake, while Unity is as varied as some of its neighbors in their catalog, this is one hard hitting effort that absolutely helped redefine this aging act for a whole new generation, while keeping them current and distinct among the other burgeoning Euro power metal acts.

Lead by Peavy's vocals, which are definitely lower and angrier and less ranging than some of the old albums, but still perfectly sculpted to go along with this particular sound, Unity is a positive step forward. Victor's rhythm guitars here are beastly, iron-clad, with a bulky tone that works whether he's firing on the faster material or going into some of his complex grooves. And yet they're supported by loads of little details, from his unending tides of catchy lead-work to an impressive array of synths which serve as a further bolstering to the louder guitar tone. Make no mistake, this album is just as classically-inspired as some of the others which Peavy and Victor wrote together, but it's the way they integrate it here so that it's a part of the whole that really blew me off my seat. Usually, they'd have these pompous multi-track conceptual bits that were kind of a neo-prog-classical style, which little insertions of the Rage we known and love, but here it all blends together seamlessly and helps this one excel on so many levels.

Rarely does an album feel so all-over-the-place and yet coherent at the same time, but listen through the proggy escape of the instrumental title track finale, or the bombastic choirs woven into "Dies Irae", and how well they collapse into the band's riffing momentum and be stunned. There are literally about 150 or more great riffs on the album, and they're often busy as hell, with a lot going on, developing into one another with a level of foresight you don't hear from many guitar heroes. The first triple combo of tracks here, "All I Want", "Insanity" and "Down" instantly thrust into my top playlist the band has ever written, balancing off this new aggression with some classier hard rock and metal patterns that would have been legendary if they were issued in the 80s. Mike Terrana's muscular framework ensures that everything else proceeds effortlessly, he's arguably the main reason all of this ties together due to his consistent battery even during its more left field moments. The bass also sounds fucking spectacular here, pumping through the depths of the mix.

Not every track here is equally legendary, I grant you, and a few near the latter half of the disc do drag it down just a point, but nothing is bad, and I can promise there's at least somethin catchy on every single cut even if a few of them lag behind. The bio-mechanical Giger-like cover artwork featuring the Soundchaser is pretty awesome, and it's nice to see them bring that mascot back into some prominence, not that they'd ignored him much, but like their classic album covers to Perfect Man and (the real artwork for) Secrets in a Weird World, this one just transports you away into that same realm of imaginative nostalgia their classics have always conjured up. The lyrics are all pretty relatable and in that way it also reminds me of Perfect Man, and this really just has anything I could look for from a power/heavy metal album in the 21st century...a go for the throat attitude, gobs of dizzying musicianship and no sense whatsoever that this scene was anywhere near over. I'd argue Unity sounds modern even by today's standards, two decades later. What a statement.

Verdict: Epic Win [9/10] (I am a real survivor)

Tuesday, May 4, 2021

Cold Cell - The Greater Evil (2021)

There's a dichotomy on this latest Cold Cell album, on which I find the moments where they drift furthest away from the core considerations of their genre to be its most inspired, interesting and memorable, while a lot of the heavier elements end up feeling repetitive and less capable of putting me into a trance. That's not to say they are weak when they are piling on their largely mid-paced atmospheric black metal, which is likely the dominant force through much of the 49 minutes of material, but every time they drift in and out of some dream-like fugue, I am transported to a place that is more haunting and capable of getting under my skin in a shorter period of time. I think it's just a matter of the actual black metal riffing becoming a bit more commonplace and less able to offer the unexpected.

To be fair, they do balance out these two extremes at several points, but I found that overall my engagement with the material varied, and while we're not dealing with excessively bloated songwriting, most of these are around the 7-minute mark, which is long enough for the tides of tedium to begin to settle in if not to completely overtake you. But listen to that intro to "Scapegoat Season", with the guy singing in just an everyman's voice while the creepy, reverbed acoustic guitars and roiling ambience escalate, or "Open Wound" with the freaky swell of orchestration and desperate, open rasps, these sorts of things set up the band to just deliver an emotional juggernaut, and when it comes to the heavier riffs they just don't really honor the expectations. Sure, the pacing and the retained atmosphere do their job, and sometimes the vocals, when they're pitched at a more tortured intonation, but just as often you're getting these riff patterns that just sort of drone repeatedly and uninterestingly off into the distance.

I'm probably making it out to sound worse than it is, because by no means is this a bad or incompetent effort. In a few spots, it's outright transcendent. There's certainly a consistency to the graying, wasting mood of the album, and the sustained riffs over the busier but almost monotonous blasting backdrop, with its layered and eerie guitars. They set a mood and stick with that, so if you dream of black and white, decaying shores, or can imagine your own being disintegrating into snowy gray flecks in slow-motion, this is an appropriate score. I think, as it is presented, the album passes muster, but there were just a few parts where I thought they were going to absolutely crush my soul with some blazing riff or rhythmic pattern emerging form one of these lushly melancholic ambient-like passages and that just never really came about. But if you're into spacious, dissonant black metal with some surface similarities to the French scene circa Blut Aus Nord or Deathspell Omega, only not quite so twistedly adventurous or potentially explosive, then you could do much worse than to check out Cold Cell.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Sunday, May 2, 2021

Necronomicon - The Final Chapter (2021)

Although Necronomicon was once written off as a bit of a lower tier alternative to Destruction, it's amusing that such a comparison has become one of the real strengths of The Final Chapter. Almost from the beginning of this disc, you're belted with these meaty thrash riffs that sound a whole lot like that other band in their modern phase circa All Hell Breaks Loose and The Antichrist, and then the vocals arrive, in particular the chorus which sounds exactly like Schmier, and not a bad way, especially when pitching a chorus like "I am the violence!", which to my dumb American ears sounds like "I am the wiolence!" and just makes the whole thing all the more endearing. And this is actually a template for nearly the entire album, short and muscular tunes that definitely make you want to give or receive a beating.

And I'll tell you...I don't know that anything more is needed? For as aged as this band is, like their better known 'German Big Four' peers, they sound aggressive, driven, and quite far from the nursing home. Riff patterns here are exceedingly simple, and never quite original, but delivered with enough blunt force and then glazed with spurious leads, and even some functional atmospheric melodies as in "Wall of Pain". At some points, like in that same track, they'll graft the melodies even more directly into the verse or chorus riffs (like the intro to "Purgatory" which almost sounds like Running Wild for a second), and it just creates a well-rounded experience that proves there is some mileage left here. The vocals might indeed stay derivative, but if I'm being honest, that style of pinched, constipated snarl is a treat whether it's the original or not. Necronomicon also balances that off with some lower snarls and guttural barks to ramp up the heaviness, and they never sound too cheesy or ill-placed. The rhythm section on this one is just in perfect won't find a lot of interesting bass lines or drum breaks, but in order to drive the important factor of those riffs and vocals, it's 100% effective.

Could the tunes be more nuanced and interesting? Probably, but for what it's worth I listened through the whole album numerous times and never felt any desire to skip past anything, it's one of the more catchy and listenable efforts they've put out over their 30+ years, and nice and loud when the double bass batteries and carnal vocals start firing off in tandem. The cover art isn't the best with that samey sort of skull in the center and the font, but it's a minor complaint once you plug this in and start the headbanging. Necromonicon deserves all the credit for keeping itself alive and finding a consistent stride so late in their career, and of that lesser wave of Teutonic thrashers like Accuser, Darkness, Assassin, Exumer, and Vendetta, they seem to be one who has figured out what works and stuck to it, while leaving themselves just enough room to play around in. Good on them.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]