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The final longplayer from Attack is a bashing, accomplished set of compositions which serve as a sendoff for one of power metal's more mysterious multi-instrumentalists and songwriters, Ricky Van Helden. Full of tight rhythms and expert musicianship, this slab of unadulterated power will rock you to hell and back, and then leave you asking the inevitable question: what happened?
Opening with the traditional power rocker Light in the Dark, the CD takes no prisoners from the start. After a brief forlorn keyboard intro, the CD kicks into full gear. What I love about The Secret Place is the production, combined with the perfect marriage of the guitar, bass and drums on every track. Everything is pushed right to the limit, red lights all the way. Athough probably not as loud as newer CDs when played side by side, it sounds to me like the signals were pushed right to the limit of clipping and held there. The effect is interesting, giving the overall sound an overloaded feel. It's different sounding than today's slick, perfectly-balanced productions, that's for sure.
And through it all, Van Helden's distinctive, European-tinged everyman vocals preside over the top, never generic, never contrived and inaccessible. Yes, sometimes I even detect a sour note -- it's true -- but he's Van Helden and no one else. He owns this material and it shows. He *IS* Attack. You know this is his baby. In addition, Ricky places various string interludes and touches into the mix. But he always does so tastefully, to add to the power metal, never to overwhelm it.
Let's progress from the opening track to I Know, a post-apocalpytic Nostradamous-inspired atmospheric rocker that brings to mind scenes of darkness and ash, shrouded in double-bass blasting and more Van Helden magic. The keyboards and strings in this song are extremely well-placed in my opinion, never overbearing but adding the necessary atmosphere in the right places. The breakdown also freaks me out every time. It's just fantastic, the exact change of pace at the exact perfect time, with Van Helden's voice trailing off in the background.
Then we hit the true highlinght of The Secret Place, the overwhelming Forgotten Dreams. If you haven't noticed the uncommonly steady, masterful drumming of Zacki Tsoukas yet, here is where you will no longer be able to ignore what is happening on the back end of the production. Tsoukas drives the pocket throughout the entire CD, but in Forgotten Dreams he stands out, throwing in the perfect double-bass inspired, yet delightfully altered and interesting rhythms in the business. It's not like he's trailblazing the art of percussion -- but he's so confidently driving the attitude and tenor of the song, you simply have to tip a cap to the guy. I'd play with Zacki as my drummer any day of the week, and twice on Sunday.
I do knock points off The Secret Place for the uneven writing that happens on the latter portions of the disc, but not much. The Prophecy is another tightly woven power tune carrying the theme of upcoming annihilation. Walk Alone falls into the category of power ballad, with a dinstinct European tinge provided via Van Helden's unique vocal stylings and some interesting flute work. Tsoukata -- titled for the band's fantastic percussionist -- is an instrumental interlude played with variance and passion, showcasing some fine classical distorted guitarwork serving to give way to Zacki's solo drumming.
Mortal Energy is more traditional power metal fare -- with a very nice pocketed breakdown in the middle. The Warrior hits you with a sly, creeping guitar rhythm giving way to staccacto picking and a cyclical song structure, complete with an anthemic chorus, and another interesting string-laden interlude in the middle that seems to come out of nowhere and disappears just as fast. The outro on this song freaks me out. Fantastic, my goodness. That's how you do an outro!
And now for that question. What happened to you, Ricky Van Helden? It seems that the man simply decided it was time to move on. Believe it or not, this does happen. Personally, I'm thankful for this little gem, a CD which I never expected to contain anything special, but which has provided some great entertainment through the years with it's fine craftsmanship and unique sound. Cheers!