without Internet Explorer,
in 1280 x 960 resolution
Back in the 1990s, something brewed in the waters of Europe and spat out a legion of bands mixing classic 80s speed and traditional metal with something like the lovechild of ABBA and Europe’s “Final Countdown.” What resulted was an oft-controversial subset of metal that made waves in the scene and even burst the entire metal genre back to a reasonable status of popularity. One band in particular took the style to its sort of logical end – I am of course talking about Freedom Call, and their debut Stairway to Fairyland.
The whole basis for this sound is pretty much just to be as uplifting as possible. I haven’t really chronicled this, but I’m pretty sure it’s impossible to be depressed when listening to an early Freedom Call album. The base of their sound is German power metal riffing a la Gamma Ray, which is then laid over with colorful, romantic swathes of orchestrations and keys, and the high pitched vocals of singer Chris Bay. The songs are miniature epics that build up with marching tempos from the rhythm section and staccato riffing, and then explode into the trademarked Europower Chorus that has become a cliché over the years.
Freedom Call was right there at the beginning, though, and along with Edguy, Gamma Ray and Stratovarius, mastered the art of chorus writing. There isn’t a weak chorus on the disc. Part of the artistry of the whole thing is how Freedom Call builds up to the choruses. They take their time and put in a lot of build-ups with multiple verses and bridges, waiting for the right time to explode into the money-shot chorus. It’s a very well written album for its genre, incredibly tight for a debut. You wouldn’t think a debut would be this polished and pro-sounding, but Stairway to Fairyland is really well done overall.
Pretty much all these songs follow that formula, without any real diversions from it. They keep it interesting by changing up the tempo – you get pounding epics like opener “Over the Rainbow” and “Tears are Falling,” and then also more drawn-out, elaborate tunes like “Tears of Taragon” or the semi-titular track “Fairyland.” “Holy Knight” is an outlier in that it’s fairly heavy and riffy, with a more traditional metal bent. The whole sound is reminiscent of a more bombastic Helloween circa Keepers albums – it would be easy to call this derivative beyond belief, especially on songs like “We Are One,” if this album wasn’t actually better than the Keepers albums in the long run. I'd name standout tracks, but really everything here is great. Maybe "Graceland" is a bit weak, but even that's far better than some of the filler tunes on Freedom Call's later albums.
On their best moments, like the shimmering majesty of "Shine On" or the sweeping "Tears of Taragon," Freedom Call absolutely burst with energy and enthusiasm like a newborn sun. The greatest thing about this album is just how feel-good it is – it’s so uplifting. You can listen to this and feel like you’re on top of the goddamn world. The band sounds jubilant and happy beyond belief. There’s just a real joy in listening to it, and the band intended that. It’s supposed to sound this happy. It’s meticulously, laboriously crafted happiness that in turn leads to it actually accomplishing all its goals. I have fun with this every time I put it on. Go hear it if you haven’t.
Anyone who’s read a few reviews for their stuff can see that Freedom Call is one of those love ‘em or hate ‘em bands. Here is their debut album, Stairway to Fairyland. Judging by the title, song titles, and album art we can reasonably (and correctly) anticipate a power metal album filled to the brim with catchy, sing-along, overblown anthemic choruses, fantasy lyrical shenanigans, and more cheese than a jar of Cheez-Whiz. For the power metal fans out there like who think like me, this sounds like it could be promising. You probably won’t headbang to it and it probably won’t leave you in awe, asking yourself “how is this the work of human beings?”, but it’s a load of fun. For metalheads who don’t like power metal, you won’t like it. If this doesn’t sound like your cup of tea by now, then get out of here and forget about listening to the album because that’s exactly what you’re getting here.
The album has its silly moments that might make you chuckle a little bit, but overall this is something that power metal fans don’t want miss out on. Freedom Call is goofy as hell, but it’s unashamedly goofy, and that’s part of the charm. Anybody who has ever watched them perform live should know that (look up their performance of “Land of Light”…it’s pretty hilarious, but forces you into a good mood). They know what they like and they know what their listeners like. We’ve all got that 15 year old nerd inside who would like to get out of here and get to some fantasy dimension on the other side of the universe, and Freedom Call is playing for that guy (or gal). They’re not playing for death metal fans, just like Nile isn’t in business to attract Rhapsody of Fire fans.
The first track, “Over the Rainbow”, is very nice, starting off with a bit of dark-sounding, sorta spoken narration. If I understand correctly, this album tells a fantasy story about some people who go somewhere (presumably Fairyland). It doesn’t really matter, because the story is probably poorly developed in what was written in the span of ten minutes, but the story isn’t really what matters. The music still takes you to Fairyland whether you know what’s going on there or not. Like lots of other power metal bands, the lyrics are vague and manage to conjure up some cool images and emotions without saying that much. The lyrics just supplement what’s already there in the music. All the songs on the album work to create a colder environment, is a bit atmospheric, and is lots of fun. Onward! What we really care about is the music, and it delivers! Back to “Over the Rainbow", it’s fast, catchy, upbeat, and has great melodies, so if you’re a power metal fan, you shouldn’t be complaining. The album powers onward with plenty of speedy numbers that mix it up with some slowed down, heavy sections (as heard in “Tears Falling”, for example). Two mid-paced numbers, “Hymn to the Brave” and “Tears of Taragon”, work very well and make for some diversity without venturing into the dreaded realm of ballads.
Nearly everything on the album will stick in your head and you’ll doubtless be singing along if you like this kind of stuff at all. I say that with total confidence. The tunes (and instrumentation, as generally required by the power metal genre) are superb and work together really well to bring you right into the middle of the magic.
“Shine On” is the highlight of the album for me and is a real gem in the power metal genre. This is how it’s done! It starts off with a ballad-type section with some Christian sounding lyrics with a small bit about a child in a “virgin’s hand” (or as Chris Bay mispronounces it, “wirgin”…remember they are a German band!) Then the track kicks into gear with a great verse and an absolutely amazing chorus. It’s also got a little bit of a slow, heavy guitar riffing section which isn’t exactly thrilling but works well making the track a little darker before jumping into the triumphant chorus again to create some contrast.
All of the songs are quite good without any tracks falling into the weak category. However, the last third of the album isn’t quite as good as the first two thirds. “Holy Knight” has got some heavier, Gamma Ray-esque riffing, which isn’t all that surprising given that Freedom Call is something of a Gamma Ray offshoot. “Another Day” is the last song on the album. Two things are especially prominent on this song. The chorus is excellent and it also has what is possibly the worst lyrical moment in power metal history (it’s probably tied with a couple of DragonForce and Rhapsody lyrics). “Sky forces ride horses”? Seriously? Is this some kind of a sick joke? Aren’t these actually men writing these lyrics? And what are they doing with horses up in the sky anyway? It would make a little bit of sense if Earth forces were riding flying horses to get to the sky, but they’re already up in the sky! Unless the only way they were able to get there was by riding flying horses…but who said the horses were flying horses? Or maybe I’m reading too much into it. It’s a good song anyway if you ignore that part. I imagine that if the guys have any intelligence or sense of poetry at all (which I believe they do), they were chuckling to themselves when they wrote that lyric because they were fully aware that it was absolutely awful and hoping we would realize it and be able to laugh about it as well. They’re just having fun.
I personally liked this album a lot and apparently some other reviewers dig it too, so if you’re into power metal, by all means, check it out! It’s a worthy debut and a good chunk of quality cheese. Enjoy!
Highlights: “Over the Rainbow”, “Tears Falling”, “Shine On”, “Hymn to the Brave”, “Another Day”.
Freedom Call is a band that has, over the past couple of years, grown in popularity. As usual, growing in popularity is not indicative of growing in talent. In fact, for Freedom Call, this is exactly the opposite. While their new albums* are just tentative attempts at hard rock and jokes on what music should be about (think new Edguy), Freedom Call gets progressively better the farther back you look. I think the reason for this is that this was originally a side project of Dan Zimmerman (drummer for Gamma Ray), who wanted to try a new side of power metal. Over time, this grew from a side project into a legitimate band of its own, and they tried to gain their own sound rather than just be a variation on Gamma Ray. This, we can agree (judging by the reviews on this site), led to disastrous results.
But enough band history, lets get to this album. I give this album a review in the 90s, not because it is good in comparison to other releases by this band, but because it is great within the confines power metal as a genre. This is not a "their best work ever" review, this leans more towards the side of "one of the best power metal albums ever". I choose this approach because I hope that this review will help introduce a great album to power metal fans rather than validate the opinions of existing Freedom Call fans (which, if they wish to, they can do by themselves on their own time). I will, then, not compare songs to other FC (Freedom Call) songs and I will not make obscure references to band members other than founders Chris Bay (lead vocalist) and Dan Zimmerman (drummer).
So after an admittedly long (but hopefully necessary) preamble, lets talk about the music, and why it is one of the great power metal albums of the late 1990s. The album, thankfully, avoids one of the mistakes that many metal bands (including later FC) make: painfully pretentious intros. This album instead goes straight into the first song. Don't get me wrong, some intros can set a mood very well, but in the end, they stand in the way between the listener and the songs and in power meta, the individual songs are more important than the album as a whole. Now, there is an intro to this album, but it is included in "Over the Rainbow" (the first track), it is short, and it actually works within the track rather than from the outside (it transitions well into the song itself to the point where it becomes part of the song).
There are two things I will talk about in this review: First, why this is a solid power metal album (pretty much what it sounds like). The second is why this is an original album (how it is refreshingly different from other power metal). To start off with, this album is pretty intense. Expect a lot of double-bass drumming, fast guitar parts, high pitched vocals in the style of Helloween for the verses and big choral performances (with every member in the band singing) for the choruses. Expect pre-choruses that involve lower pitched harmonies that lead into fuller choruses with everybody singing. I have been told that the vocals are an acquired taste, but to me they are very similar to Michael Kiske (old Helloween). Expect a dense German accent and lyrics that make as much sense as Dragonforce's. Expect also a few slower songs (Hymn to the Brave), that still keep the big chorus concept but don't go at lightning speed.
At this point you have two options: If you are convinced that this album is worth a listen, go and get it. If you are still not sure if it's worth your time, keep reading. Next is a more detailed description of the aspects that make this album original and not just "another power metal release".
The song structure deserves to be mentioned, since it is slightly different than that of many power metal bands out there. First, I should mention that FC is not reinventing the wheel in power metal. It still has fast riffs, epic and catchy choruses and a simple verse-chorus-verse structure. The differences are minor, but important enough to make this album stand out. The first thing we note in song structures is that in several songs the choruses are introduced very late. For songs like "Over the Rainbow" and "Tears Falling", we get a verse, the pre-chorus, and when we expect a big bombastic chorus we instead are led back into another verse. We effectively end up with a verse-prechorus-verse-prechorus-chorus structure. For "Over the Rainbow" the chorus doesn't come in until the 4th minute (of a 6 minute song). This allows FC to build up tension and expectation, allowing you to enjoy the moment of the chorus much more (pretty much the musical version of foreplay). This also allows the listener to enjoy repeated listens, since they will now be expecting the chorus to come in and are kept on their toes throughout the entire song.
Another difference in song structure is the use of small breaks. "Tears Falling" is a perfect example when near the end of the song all the instruments stop, the chorus is sung 'a capella' and the instruments come in in an epic fashion to continue to the end of the song. Personally, I enjoy the break because it allows the song to repeat the effect it had in its first chorus, by suddenly exploding into it. I also understand the practical benefit to having a small break in a fast song: give the drummer a well deserved rest.
I mentioned the big choruses idea before, but I think it is necessary to expand on it, since it is one of the signatures of this band. All choruses involve an epic performance where every single band member sings his own part and the lead singer just becomes part of the group. The best moment in Freedom Call's choral history comes in at the end of Holy Knight. This song ends on a five part vocal performance with a level of technical precision and originality that I have never heard any other power metal band even approach. All songs make great use of the range and quality of vocalists in the band, with the baritone singers being a definite highlight.
But what about the riffs? Lots of people complain that most power metal bands are lacking when it comes to riffs, and I will not disagree. You will not find complex tech-death riffs or crushing doom riffs in this album, but FC has come up with their fair share of original and power-metal riffs. The opening riff for both "Holy Knight" and "Graceland" are probably the highlight guitar-wise of a band that is much more focused on vocals. I do not claim that FC's riffs are the best out there, just that after listening to the album, you will agree that more complex riffing is not only unnecessary but would also be detrimental to the sound of the band.
So why are you still reading? Go and listen to the album already!
Highlights: Over the Rainbow, Tears Falling, Fairyland, Holy Knight.
Songs to Avoid: We are One (just a cheap copy of Helloween's "I Want Out")
*up to Dimensions; as I write this review, Legend of the Shadowking has not come out yet
Freedom Call has been something of an interesting phenomenon within the melodic power metal umbrella. Although their sound is pretty much German in character, mostly resembling its better known founder Helloween and drummer Dan Zimmerman’s other project Gamma Ray, there isn’t really anyone out there quite like them. Their music is very light and happy sounding, but simultaneously it’s incredibly fast and the guitars often have a good amount of punch to them. Granted, the high and extremely clean sounding vocal work and the strongly present keyboards temper the sound into something that is pretty far removed from US power metal, not to mention that most of their choruses are of such a catchy fanfare nature that they dwarf Dio’s “Sacred Heart” album in this respect.
Of their various works, “Stairway to Fairyland” presents the band as the least confined artistically, and within a very formulaic structure are quite successful at changing things up. Anyone who doubts this should listen to the epic “Tears of Taragon” and the simplistic choral fanfare “Hymn of the Brave” back to back, then tell me that they don’t hear any variation in style. Chris Bay and Dan Zimmerman definitely put a lot of work and likely most of their spare time into this, at times getting as gratuitously fast and melodic as Dragonforce, but also giving us more than just one token ballad as a contrast to keep the entire listen from being one-dimensional.
Although the next two albums would also be concept oriented, this one listens the most like a concept album, putting forward a good amount of thematic similarities between several songs to give the entire listen a sense of unity. There is a recurring pipe organ that marks a couple of significant points in the album, the most memorable of which is an extremely epic sounding prelude that is built right into the opening song “Over the Rainbow”. For a song that is under 6 minutes, they definitely managed to cram a lot of good ideas in, and end up with a solid epic speed metal anthem with one of the most catchy choruses ever conceived. If you feel funny singing along with a song titled “Over the Rainbow”, just remember that in Viking mythology the rainbow held an import role in the lore of some very scary guys, not to mention that one of the forefathers of metal Ronnie Dio sings about them often.
A good amount of the album sees a recurring method of putting together epic speed metal that makes good use of interludes to give Dan Zimmerman a break from thundering away at the double bass. “Shine On”, “Tears Falling” and “Holy Knight” all characterize this approach that would be standardized on the next two albums, each approaching it a little bit differently between the fast and slow sections. “Holy Knight” is the most riff-oriented of the three, while “Shine On” has an effective half ballad approach trading between a slow piano driven intro, a couple of descending swing-like lead breaks, and a solid chunk of speed metal majesty. Meanwhile, “We Are One” doesn’t bother with slow sections at all and just cooks through the whole thing, trading between a verse and chorus that are only separated by a chant and lead vocal response during the chorus highly reminiscent of Helloween’s classic “I want out”.
It’s difficult to pick a highlight out of so many equally powerful and catchy songs, but a couple are so melodically compelling and ambitious that they can’t help but tower over the rest. “Tears of Taragon” doesn’t bother with any double bass pedal madness or any contrapuntal harmonic guitar work and just rocks out at a slower tempo in a cheesy melodic fashion befitting of Saxon during their heyday. The closing epic “Another Day” takes the same epic speed metal approach as “Over the Rainbow”, but elects for an extremely catchy yet simplistic bell theme and a simple 4 chord piano progression that has been reused by the band on every subsequent album since this one. You combine all of this with a nice chunky bottom ended verse riff and some large as hell sounding backup chorus work and you have an instant recipe for success.
Although I’ve been a pretty consistent fan of this band’s work, this album is the best and most varied presentation of their sound. There aren’t any real weak links on here other than maybe a slight bit too prominence of the vocals over the music during a couple of the choruses, which is often an unavoidable pitfall if you play in a genre that calls for 4 musicians to attempt to sound like a full orchestra. If you are not allergic to cheesy, and if you like epic power metal, this album is one of the best and most unique representations of its potential when married with the Queen/Styx ideal of catchy and big sounding choruses to sing along with at either the club or the arena.