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For OG fans of mine and long time review readers here at the good ol' Encyclopaedia Metallum, y'all may remember that I used to have about six or seven reviews for Running Wild up here, and then them all mysteriously disappearing around the time Rolf decided to hang up his robe. What had happened was that I decided to review each and every album in a tribute to my favorite band, and in reading my own reviews, I decided they all sucked and just deleted them instead. Well two years later here, I'm finally getting around to making good on my promise. And instead of some long winded series like I had planned, spanning their career chronologically, I once again decided against my initial wishes and instead figured it'd be best to just do them in whichever order comes to me.
Now that my self referential, expository masturbation is out of the way, we're gonna start our journey with one of the more controversial albums in Running Wild's catalogue, 1995's, Masquerade. If any average listener were to explore the vast, wonderful backlog of the German speed metallers' exploits, they might be hard pressed to explain why this album is such a big deal to so may fans of the band. Well for some reason, a few folks (idiots) seem to feel like this is the album where they fell off the wagon and began to stagnate. There aren't enough words in the English language to accurately express how much I disagree with that sentiment. One reason I've been given is that this album marked the precise point they ran out of ideas and just started ripping themselves off senselessly. The truth of the matter behind that is that this is simply a continuation of the style they were playing on Black Hand Inn, which was a continuation of Pile of Skulls, which was a continuation of Blazon Stone, et cetera and so forth. Running Wild had this amazing ability to write albums that didn't sound too different from one album to the next, but worlds apart if you look back a mere three or four albums. They were always changing, ever evolving, and this is one of the traits that made them such a special band. Why this particular album catches shit for doing what literally each and every album before it had done, I'll never understand.
Master ride! Evil is dumb!
So to counteract my claim of logical continuation, this is also the album where Rolf starts reaching back and combining past efforts with his new ambitions. For example, tracks like "Soleil Royal", "Black Soul", and "Wheel of Doom" could have easily fit on Black Hand Inn with their similar riffing ideas and slight power metal tint at times, whereas "Men in Black", "Demonized", and "Rebel at Heart" carry a more hard rocking and traditional heavy metal bent than the others, sounding akin so something that wouldn't be out of place on Blazon Stone, and still we have tracks like "Underworld", "Lions of the Sea", and "Masquerade" that are straight up speed metal through and through and really would have sounded right at home on Pile of Skulls. So yes, I can concede that Masquerade explores less new territory than previous efforts, but I counter that it's a beautiful amalgam of what made the last three albums, (and really, their entire 90s era) so great, while still pushing forwards into new territories.
Really, every trademark of Rolf and crew are still just as mighty as ever, no matter what people may try to tell you. They lyrical concept is a bit different than what fans may suspect, as this album kicks off a trilogy of "concept" albums, so there's less piracy and history here in favor of some obscenely loose concept of rich people being evil and controlled by Satan or something. Really, nobody knows what the hell the idea is, but there's supposed to be one here, and if my little between-paragraph gimmick hasn't been clue enough, Rolf's hilarious accent doesn't make things a whole lot easier. I've listened to each and every Running Wild album more times than I care to recount, and there are still several, several verses and passages I don't know the lyrics to simply because his voice, despite a great gruff delivery with a powerful sense of melody, carries such a mangled understanding of how to pronounce damn near anything in English that it's fairly close to impossible to decipher what the hell he's saying most of the time. This is just one of those bits of character that really makes the band so legendary, if you ask me. Nobody can imitate Rolf's voice nor his unique enunciation, it belongs to THIS band and no other.
Master ride! Trees in the night!
And speaking of which, this is indeed a band, and not just Rolf + cronies. I've alluded to the contrary in the past, but the supporting cast always does bring their own little bit of flavor to each new record. The long, melodious bass passages vanished with Jens Becker, and the drumming has gotten considerably more intense since the mighty Jorg Michael took his place behind the kit. This is the first album where the lineup did not change in anyway from the previous album, so perhaps that's another reason certain fools seem to feel the band started stagnating around this time. Just because there was no new member to inject his personality into doesn't necessarily mean that they all just got content with where they were and decided to churn out an album just like the previous because that's what they're used to. Black Hand Inn was and remains the closest to power metal Running Wild ever got, in my eyes. On Masquerade, there's a much stronger traditional heavy metal presence. There's much less double bass insanity, and much more fist pumping, anthemic choruses with huge, punchy riffs. The trademark tremolo melodies are here in spades and every bit as upbeat and catchy as they have been ever since Port Royal shoved them to the forefront. On the whole, the entire atmosphere of this album is much darker than pretty much anything they'd done apart from their debut up to this point, with a much more aggressive pace than before. Many of these songs focus on the idea of evil and its many forms, and while this isn't dripping with the malice and occult of their first two records, it contains some of the most overtly vicious venom they've ever come to spit.
I will admit that the album slows down a bit too much when the band takes their foot off the gas on tracks like "Demonized" and "Rebel at Heart", which are still good songs, but don't much fit with the high energy tempo of the rest of the album. I've always found this to be Running Wild's Achilles heel, to be honest. The tracks that are less speed metal and more traditional/hard rock never seem to be as captivating, regardless of how awesome Rolf makes the chorus (like "Rebel at Heart"). It's really only a small bump in the grand scheme of things, fortunately. I can't help but feel like the popular opinion of this being the band's turning point is completely and utterly wrong. Every element that made the band special is still abundantly clear and the biggest difference between Masquerade and the fan favorite of Black Hand Inn is that the former is more direct and less epic. Whatever story is being told here takes a back seat to a collection of hard hitting and exceptionally catchy heavy/speed metal, and that's exactly what Running Wild is best at. I wouldn't change a thing.
Master ride! Punish the Hebrew rite!