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Label: Nuclear Blast / Release date: 18th June 2021
Self-titled album by German power metal legends Helloween is perhaps the most anticipated metal release of 2021. And rightfully so. In order to understand the magnitude of this release we’ll start off by trying to explain what this band has been through in course of their almost four decades long career. Describing it might be an overwhelming task in itself, but then just think about actually going through all that.
Helloween formed in Hamburg, Germany in 1984 as four-piece consisting of singer/guitarist Kai Hansen, guitarist Michael Weikath, bassist Markus Grosskopf and drummer Ingo Schwichtenberg. By 1985 the band has released the self-titled EP as well as their debut album Walls Of Jericho.
Handling vocals and guitars proved to be bit of a great task for Hansen and band decided to enlist a singer in form of local 18-year old Michael Kiske. With him the band released genre defining two-part saga Keeper of the Seven Keys part I and part II, which also served as band’s major breakthrough.
Shortly after, Hansen left the band and formed Gamma Ray where he once again handled vocals and guitars. He was replaced by Roland Grapow, and with that line-up the band released Pink Bubbles Go Ape and Chameleon, both of which failed commercially and critically. At the time especially Chameleon, caused harm from fans due to it mellow and anything but heavy nature. The album however, included number of very strong songs, that have aged very well as did the very good production by Keeper…, producer Tommy Hansen.
Afterwards the growing conflicts in the band resulted in Schwichtenberg and Kiske being dismissed, with Helloween moving forward with former Pink Cream 69 singer Andi Deris and drummer Uli Kusch of Kai Hansen’s own Gamma Ray. Shortly after the release of first album of this era, Schwichtenberg, who has been battling with substance abuse and mental illness, committed suicide. Following the tragic event Helloween, Gamma Ray and Micheal Kiske dedicated their following albums (or parts of them) to the late drummer.
The new Helloween lineup released four rather solid albums focusing on band’s heavy metal roots., with especially Master of the Rings and Time of The Oath, standing tall. This era of the band also exhibited the strong song-writing qualities form the Kusch and Grapow, but by 2000 the two were dismissed, allegedly due to their focus on their new side-project band Masterplan. The two have since continued releasing music with Masterpan until Kusch’s departure in 2006. To this day Grapow still releases Masterplan music with a revolving door of musicians.
Sascha Gerstner joined Helloween on guitar and after some issues with finding the right drummer the band settled on Daniel Löble. This line-up remained steady for a quiet a long time, but in general this era of the band is marked by overall weaker releases with Rabbit Don’t Come Easy and 7 Sinners standing as the strongest of the six-album stretch. All this resulted in additional pressure on the band and Deris in paticular, a pressure that was always rather present. Ever since he replaced Kiske fans have been rather vocal about craving his return. Ironically this pressure seemed to grow the longer Deris was in the band, but this was most likely due to the generally dropping quality of the albums the band was releasing. They even tried to use the glory of Keeper… albums by releasing Keeper of the Seven Keys: The Legacy in 2005, a double album which not only failed to match the quality of original Keeper …albums, but also massively failed to live up to some of the strongest albums of Deris-era.
At the same time Kiske’s solo career which was marked by softer poppier approach has proven to lack success or acclaim and he was slowly getting back into metal world, resulting in forming of Unisonic, in which he joined forces with Kai Hansen. This further ignited the demand and rumours of reunion of some sort.
Then in late 2016 it was announced that Kiske and Hansen will be re-joining the band for “Pumpkins United World Tour”. This meant that Helloween’s important former members Roland Grapow and Uli Kusch, were not part of the reunion, which seemed like pity. Nothing against Gerstner and Löble, but Grapow has been part of the band for a long time and also in the band when they were fronted by Kiske and by Deris. Kusch managed to fill late Schwichtenberg’s shoes admirably and both were an important part of songwriting squad of the band.
Still the band, now fronted by Kiske, Deris and Hansen and featuring three guitarists managed to make a rather strong figure on their tour which also took them Copenhell festival in 2019, where they played one hell of a show.
And now … off to the review of the first new Helloween album since 1989 to feature band’s founding member guitarist Kai Hansen and first to feature vocalist Michael Kiske since 1993. It’s also band’s first album since 2015’s disappointing My God-Given Right.
Looking at this band’s history and constant demand for some kind of reunion, expectations for Helloween are colossal. And like it or not most of those expectations are one way or the other connected to Kiske and Hansen era of this band.
And off the bat, the band seemed to recognize many of expectations: recording analogue at the studio where they recorded number of Tommy Hansen-produced records, recording drums on Schwichtenberg’s old drumkit, packaging it in an amazing classic artwork created by Eliran Kantor, which truly pays homage to Keeper… and Master Of The Rings albums and even releasing 12-minute long Hansen-penned “Skyfall” as a first single, which is also track that focuses heavily on Kiske.
With this in mind, many speculated and perhaps expected that the album would be produced by Tommy Hansen, who produced some of the most defining Helloween records. Instead, the band went with Charlie Bauerfeind who was involved in producing last seven Helloween records. He’s joined by Dennis Ward of Pink Cream 69, Unisonic and Magnum.
What this means is that the album’s sound bears lots of Bauerfeind’ trademarks. Unfortunately, one might say, because his production style is more sterile and sharply compressed, which does take some of the vibrancy, warmth, and vitality from the songs. Something that doesn’t characterize Tommy Hansen’s style – just give Keeper of The Seven Keys II, Chameleon or Master of the Rings a spin. So, with the first release of partial classic line-up reunion the sound on Helloween, resembles more last few of band’s album then it does some of the classic ones, which basically serve as ground stone for this reunion and this release. Peculiar choice, one might say.
Another peculiar fact about this album is that most of the songs were written by Deris and Weikath, with only the first single “Skyfall” penned by Hansen and not a single song written by Kiske, who has during his time in Helloween written number of memorable tunes.
Looking at all this it seems that band has not taken the advantage of all the aspects, which were basically grounds for this reunion.
Nevertheless, there is plenty to be excited about on this new album, so let’s dig in into this epic release.
There is a modern feel to the album’s sound, and this is without the doubt a very good sounding record. But as mentioned before the compressed sound and polished quality do take some of the feel of the record with especially drums, sounding generic and faceless despite them being well-produced and big sounding.
On paper this reunion consists of three vocalists, but Helloween sees Kiske and Deris delivering absolute majority of lead vocals with Hansen popping up here and there and basically mostly delivering backing vocals and important harmony work. And it’s a positive thing because his vocals do have hard time matching the other two’s, but also because heaving three singers share the vocal duties equally could very easily result in somewhat of a mess.
Kike and Deris have split the vocals duties fairly equally and on the songs where they both sing as much, they work well. Deris’ vocals are in a good shape these days, but compared with Kiske’s they just can’t match. Few singers in the genre can. Not only because of his technical abilities, but perhaps even more so because of the unique tone and warmth of his voice. All this makes him come across as superior when placed to almost anyone in the genre.
The three guitarists don’t feel like too many, because Helloween’s approach to guitars was never really that of less-is-more. Hansen, Weikath and Gerstner take turns in delivering anthemic solos, that at times might be bit too predictable, but are nevertheless rock-solid and even entertaining.
Löble is technically extremely strong drummer who does the job expected from him and he does it with ease. He has proved that in the live setting as well. What his performance on this album lacks are those breathtaking displays of the overall understanding of the songs. Schwichtenberg’s and Kusch’s had that overview quality to their playing and that would result in some truly memorable moments as well as creative performances in general.
Musically the band does as they’ve done on most of their albums. It’s Helloween’s brand of power metal, extremely melodic and fast. As suspected the band left the experimenting back in early 90’s and focused fully on that which the band is known for.
Some of the songs that work best are those where Deris and Kiske share the vocal duties somewhat equally, such as “Rise Without Chains”, “Skyfall” and “Fear Of The Fallen”. Mid-tempo likes of “Best Time” and “Indestructible” are infectious and deemed to do well in a live setting. Elsewhere there are also some well-executed solid fillers in form of “Robot King”, “Angels” and “Cyanide”. The limited edition reviewed here consists of two extra songs, one of which, “Golden Times”, eminently displays the quality and beauty of Kiske’s lower range vocals and has it been slowed a bit down, with less hectic instrumentation it would work even better.
But overall, the band does deliver a massive album packed with Helloween DNA and it’s an album that is unlikely to disappoint any existing Helloween fans, regardless if they preffer Kiske og Deris era of this band.
The album does take several spins to really get into, partly because of the level of details in the songs, but mostly because it takes several spins to allow this album to unfold and put the massive history described in the first half of this review, to the side. It’s then that the overall qualities of this album start to shine. And despite this not being the strongest release of this band’s era with either Kiske or Deris fronting, Helloween have managed to live up to the colossal and perhaps even idealistic expectations.