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]