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Strong, but inconsistent - 78%

gasmask_colostomy, June 3rd, 2015

A band's classic period is a difficult thing to view fairly. On the one hand, you need to consider what makes such an album classic, including the skill of the players, the timing of the release, and the influence that it has had since its creation; on the other hand, you also need to judge the music on its actual merits and not just give in to popular opinion. After all, albums like Pantera's 'Vulgar Display of Power' and Machine Head's 'Burn My Eyes' are either essential or excrement depending on who you ask. More acute readers may perhaps have picked up the signs that I have my doubts about Helloween's classic era, and indeed I do, for a couple of reasons.

My personal preference for Helloween falls slightly in favour of their modern material (since 'The Time of the Oath'), because I enjoy the heavier guitars and broader writing palette, plus 'Better Than Raw' and 'Gambling With the Devil' are awesome albums in their own right, without having to rely on classic status. Another reason for this preference is quite simply Andi Deris's voice, or rather Michael Kiske's voice, which jars with me, horribly at times. There is much applause for Kiske's singing style on the Metal Archives, so perhaps I will be required to justify myself. On a song like 'March of Time', I agree that he has a great range and a soaring power metal style that Deris could never quite achieve, yet he isn't good to listen to for a sustained length of time: his voice sounds strained and he struggles to reach notes that he has no need to aim for, so that I can never purely enjoy his skill. However, on many of the other songs Kiske's voice is too weird and attention-grabbing, with awful phrasing and a tone that fights against the instrumentalists. This is worse in the verses, when he sings in a lower voice, though - to me - his vocals are all over the place and often sound not just out of time, but also out of tune. 'Rise and Fall' is especially awful, while the introduction of 'We Got the Right' sounds exactly like Bruce Dickinson. Additionally, the gang vocals on this album are not really my cup of tea either and seem overused.

Let me put in a good word for this album now, because I have another complaint to make in a minute. The other four musicians all perform superbly for the length of the album. Everyone provides memorable moments, especially the string players, although perhaps Ingo Schwichtenberg's contribution is upset a little by the production, which gives him less power and scope than his bandmates, not that he is poor. There are numerous highlights for Markus Grosskopf (I swear his surname translates as Bighead), including a little solo action on the first two songs and the last. His tone is always clear and strong, which helps the thin sound of the guitars. Both Kai Hansen and Michael Weikath are on fire for 90% of the album, with gorgeous melodies and stunning solos on every song, and plenty of riffs to boot. The range of styles that they manage to include in the power/speed/heavy metal template is impressive, particularly in their changes of pace and intensity, meaning that 'I Want Out' can stay slower and catchier without losing anything to the fury of the preceding 'March of Time'. The acoustic additions on the epic title track and the Spanish-sounding guitar in the background of 'March of Time' are well-judged and very interesting.

There are only a couple of songs that I could definitely call classic here. One is the fantastic 'Keeper of the Seven Keys', which the band throw everything at and don't make it seem overblown, overwrought, or over long. That song contains every element that made early Helloween great and remains a thrilling listen for its entire duration. I also enjoy 'You Always Walk Alone', 'March of Time', and 'Dr Stein', this last song being the strongest of the less serious numbers. 'I Want Out' and 'Rise and Fall' also have jokey themes, the former Hansen's resignation from the band (really, only Helloween would release that as a single) and the latter about all fucking sorts, including erectile dysfunction. I don't mind the humour that the band liked to throw into their music around this time, but when the song is turned into a joke by sound effects and so on (this is 'Rise and Fall', by the way), it is at the cost of the music and doesn't do the band's skills any favours. 'Dr Stein' works because it's a great song already and would probably work even as an instrumental. There is a good mixture of styles and paces on offer, though some of the songs fall a little flat despite their good individual parts.

What Helloween were trying to do with the 'Keeper of the Seven Keys' albums was admirable, but in the end the size of the concept defeated the band, because I don't end up feeling that these two albums are nearly as connected or focused on story as their nomenclature suggests. The band might have done better to think smaller, concentrate on their great individual talents, encourage Kiske to tone it down a little, and come up with a more cohesive set of songs that all took themselves as seriously as each other. I like some of the music on offer here, and I don't deny that this album is very important, though I also think that its quality has been exaggerated and its faults ignored in order to turn it into a pinnacle of early power metal. It's amazing in places, but it won't sweep you off your feet.