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And best of all: more COHERENT and therefore a lot better. That was the biggest problem with the previous album, that several songs sounded a bit underdeveloped and poorly constructed, thus losing a lot of coherence and character and therefore overall enjoyability. However, even the weaker parts showed promise in places; and after all, the circumstances were that 'Master of the Rings' was recorded just one year (or so, I don't have the exact dates) after the pop-metal "experiment" 'Chameleon', and this with two new members on board, so the result could have been much worse. I guess all Helloween needed now was to reload and refocus for the follow-up, this very album.
They did. On this album, the band just sounds a lot more comfortable and focused, creating a much clearer "identity"; something that the previous album really lacked in places. The songwriting is still every little bit as fresh and original as the previous album, though, still making the band difficult to compare with any others. Actually, I've often heard this album being described as a return to their roots, but I find that a bit hard to agree with, as I generally hear more 'Master' here than either Keeper or even Walls. There's ONE important thing it does return to in places, though...
...namely the SPEED!! This album has a fair share of straight-up speed metal blazers; the previous album had pretty much none, at least nothing of this caliber! This album therefore belongs a bit more in the power/speed metal vein than the pure power metal one of 'Master', and add to that the heavier and more vicious guitar tone and it's noticeable that the band has shifted up a gear since two years earlier. However, including a few speed metal songs does not automatically make you 'Walls of Jericho', so with all things considered, this album being a full return to their old sound is quite far from the truth. It's still a NEW sound they're working with - but a really good one (and just as fucking METAL), mind you.
There's just this one thing that unfortunately forces me deduct a point or two - namely the production. I did write "rawer" in the title, and as 'Master' wasn't really all that soft-around-the-edges either, that doesn't necessarily have to mean a good thing (it's just seemed a bit synonymous with "darker" and "heavier";)). I mean, it's not quite raw in that said sweet, balls- out 'Walls of Jericho' sense, but rather in an "awful mixing" sense. The hi-hat tends to completely bury the guitars quite often, especially when they're playing really fast - in which the BASS becomes more audible, in fact! Actually, EVERYTHING on here sounds rather low-budget and technologically backwards, but at least the guitar tone carries enough punch to fit the heavy nature of the riffs.
There are twelve songs on here, making up over an hour of music in total, but with the exception of a couple of clearly skipable tunes, this is an album that completely keeps my attention from beginning to end. There aren't just highlights everywhere, there are also a number of absolute fucking CLASSICS that stand out even more, deserving special mention.
For example, "Power" just plain fucking rocks. Flowery as fuck and equally fun, it's Helloween doing what they do best - inventive, but no bullshit power metal. Check out the amazing lead after the second chorus - this has been turned into some silly sing-along section at a few live shows, probably because it's MEMORABLE as fuck!! Not quite in the raw, heavy speed metal vibe of some of the other tracks, though...
like "Before the War", for instance!! Holy shit, is this one aggressive, but still with an extremely good sense of melody, like in the chorus and of course THE SOLO!!! Hell fucking yes, best solo since "The Chance", if you ask me - Roland Grapow is indeed more than Kai's shoe-filler (I think he's the one doing that first solo, yes?).
You want more speed? The two first tracks really blaze as well, with the second one, "Steel Tormentor", probably being the highlight of the two. Can't miss that fast vocal delivery in the verses!! Then, "Kings Will Be Kings" is solid too, but unfortunately a bit like a watered-down "Before the War" and VERY hurt by the terrible mixing, more than any other track. At least it's a bit epic and memorable.
The two Uli Kusch (drummer)-written tracks, "Wake Up the Mountain" and "A Million to One" are a bit slower and more experimental, but both are surprisingly awesome and surely among the true highlights on here. "Wake" has an especially amazing verse - Andi truly takes it away here. "Million" has this really interesting and extremely catchy chorus, nice emotional verse and also that super-nifty lead at 2.52...Helloween are doing just FINE w/o Kai Hansen, thank you very much!! Happy power metal works for them, aggressive speed metal too, also slower and more melodic stuff, even ballads...
Well, not quite this time. Both ballads on here are more in the overblown, almost symphonic vein rather than the said country-esque "In the Middle of a Heartbeat" on the previous album. "Forever and One" isn't bad, but...it's just kinda movie-soundtrack cheesy, but admittedly works just fine when played live, as the sing-along-ability is undeniable. "If I Knew" is also pretty OK, I guess, but definitely overlong and just kind of uninspired in places. Anyway, to me none of them really come close to "In the Middle...", but ballads in this vein are usually what you can expect from a German band;).
But don't go just yet, there are more highlights up ahead! "Mission Motherland" is one of the heaviest numbers, if maybe not the fastest, but some of the riffs just plain crush, in a fast chugging while not-quite-generic groove sense, while still not sacrificing anything in the way of melody. At around nine minutes, it's "teh epic" on here, but unfortunately it really feels more overlong than epic and thus not quite as good as it could have been. Maybe it was made for nostalgia, just to make some old fans happy by trying to sound a bit like "Halloween" or "Keeper of the Seven Keys" just by making the song a bit long. It does not succeed in that, but oh well. "Anything My Mama Don't Like" is the obligatory goofball track ala "The Game Is On", but actually, it's almost a bit like a recycled "Why?", as the main riff is quite similar. Not bad by any means this time, though; the pre-chorus is excellent, the chorus is mindless fun and the verse riffage is still fairly heavy for what it is.
Finally, the title track - HELL FUCKING YEAH! Amazing dark, epic and EVIL fucking power metal tune here...you thought 'The Dark Ride' was dark? This makes whatever the darkest track on that album is sound like Freedom Call in evilness and Europe in heaviness, even though this one DOES incorporate keyboards, as well...but even they are surprisingly evil too, making the "Mr. Crowley" intro sound like "Jump"! Holy shit, this track just has to be the high water mark of Roland Grapow's career as far as songwriting goes - the riffs are dark, heavy and convicting, the atmosphere is thick as FUCK and the vocals sound eerie, torn-up but also soaring at the same time. All this, finely crafted into a perfectly written and constructed seven minute masterpiece of power metal. The best track on here and maybe the best Helloween track EVAR. That includes EVERY album with the "Helloween" label on it.
Yeah, I guess you can say that it was with this release that Helloween were TRULY back. Not back with the old line-up, not even back with the old sound - but back as one of the top power metal units in the world (though not with that much competition by 1996, I guess), a position they've upheld ever since. As I said, they're more comfortable with the new sound this time around than when they created it two years ago; pretty much everything that was wrong about the last album is now gone/corrected, and also, they're not afraid to throw in some blazing speed metal every once in a while, certain to make plenty a metalhead happy.
And YES, this album is obviously underrated as fuck. "'The Dark Ride' was Helloween's comeback album" my ass; THIS is the shit, kiddies. Get it. Now.