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Although their first album “Walls of Jericho” has earned a well-deserved spot as a metal classic, it was Helloween's sophomoric release “Keeper of the Seven Keys Part I” and its like-titled sequel that engraved their place as the kings and overseers of power metal. It would be blind to say that power metal as a style of music had not been around for a few years before this, but never before had the genre been defined so overtly. With that being said, it is an essential bit of metal history, and regardless of contemporary opinion positive or negative, anyone any bit interested in the speedier, melodic side of the heavy metal spectrum would do well to give it a good, intent listen. Even outside of its historical context, Helloween’s second album is a memorable, impressive record. However, in spite of its significance and defacto ‘masterpiece’ status, it is not an album without some faults to keep it from achieving that bliss I’ve experienced with some of metal’s other god-tier albums.
Since the album’s release, power metal has become one of the most popular (and yet infamous; funny how that works?) styles of metal out there. Love it or hate it, it’s likely you already have an idea of what the genre’s all about. Melodies, often neoclassically-influenced guitar work and cheese enough to feed France for a year tend to be the basics, and “Keeper of the Seven Keys” is in no short supply of any ingredient. To modern ears, there is more of a traditional, anthemic heavy metal pomp at work, but from the album’s post-intro opener “I’m Alive” onward, Helloween’s best elements tend to be the ones that influenced the power genre later on.
The most evident change in the band’s sound since the debut is the introduction of vocalist Michael Kiske, whose high-pitched wails and falsettos would be integral in crafting the power metal formula. Although Kai Hansen’s gruff vocals fit “Walls of Jericho”s quasi-thrash approach, Helloween’s updated sound on “Keeper of the Seven Keys” is far more refined. Giving the impression at times of a neoclassical heavy metal symphony, Michael Kiske’s fully-fleshed falsetto is a perfect companion. It’s made even more impressive by fact of his youth during the recording of this album; although there are arguably a few power metal vocalists that managed to perfect the singing style even further, I can’t think of any that did it when they were 19 years old! “Twilight of the Gods” is Kiske’s brightest-shining moment on the album, particularly during the soaring chorus, where his high register is complimented gorgeously by a subtle choral backup.
In terms of performance and production, “Keeper of the Seven Keys Part I” is impeccable. Unfortunately, there’s a point where the album’s excellence runs out. It’s not necessarily the songwriting itself that is the problem, so much as its inconsistency. “Keeper...” never quite hits the level of true filler, but there’s a significant gap between the songs that melt faces, and the ones that don’t do so much. As mentioned earlier, “Twilight of the Gods” is one of the best things the album has to offer, beautifully integrating melody and neoclassical metal- two things that rarely work so well together. “I’m Alive” is effective in its straightforwardness, and the epic “Halloween” has enough brilliant ideas to make a track twice its length interesting. It’s granted and forgiven that the intro and outro are fairly forgettable, but that leaves two songs that don’t do nearly as much for me. “A Little Time”, and particularly the lame power ballad “A Tale That Wasn’t Right” are not terrible, but lack the sophistication and cleverness that the rest do. Perhaps not so coincidentally, these are also the only two tracks that guitarist Kai Hansen did not write. Perhaps it’s not fair to the Hansen-penned tunes to rob “Keeper of the Seven Keys Part One” of a ‘masterpiece’ declaration on the demerit of these two, but it’s difficult to give the album the commendation when half of the album’s first side consists of relative mediocrity.
Regardless, “Keeper of the Seven Keys Part One” deserves its classic recognition, and in spite of a couple of less brightly shining stars among the sky, Helloween’s second album remains an excellent staple for epic, cheese-infused listening. Kai Hansen’s guitar work is brilliant, and Kiske’s vocals are an inspiration to power metal wailers everywhere. If you haven’t already, don’t wait as long as I did to check it out, and do so as soon as you can!