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Holy shit, does this have its moments or what?! - 78%

Bloodstone, January 9th, 2005

I'm going to review every Helloween album starting with this one and forward, as I have very little to add to what's already been said about their three first. Starting with the speed metal beast that is 'Walls of Jericho' they later evolved into what was, and still is, arguably THE most influential power metal unit of all time, not mentioning that the stuff they wrote was also some of the BEST ever written.

So, following the departure of Kai Hansen, they released a couple of downers in 'Pink Bubbles Go Ape' and 'Chameleon', with the latter sounding absolutely nothing like Helloween of the old, losing quite an amount of followers. With a couple of more members leaving shortly after, including popular vocalist Michael Kiske, we arrive at this album, where the band attempts to bounce back a bit from the two previous clunkers. Without key songwriter Kai Hansen and characteristic vocalist Michael Kiske it seems like a difficult task - do they manage it?

Well, both yes and no. The heaviness, and more importantly the QUALITY, is certainly a step in the right (i.e. Keepers, etc) direction, but as for actually SOUNDING like the glory days? Nope, no siree Bob, not by a longshot. In the end, this album really resembles the 'Keepers' about as much as 'Pink Bubbles' - some riffage and occasional goofy attitude is there in both cases, but overall, there are several occasions where you are hard pressed to tell whether this is even the same band or not. It's like when you throw a ball as hard as you can on a hard surface - sure, the ball is going to bounce UP again at some point, but by then the ball is probably located SEVERAL fucking meters from its original position.

Setting badly done and stretched metaphors aside, I've always thought of this album as extremely "inconsistent" - but having spun it a few times recently, I've realized more and more that words like "underdeveloped" and "poorly constructed" fit the weaker stuff on here a lot better. The inspiration AND also the direction is there - it's just that in a few songs they tend to throw in about three directions, like for example a rockish verse, a really epic pre-chorus and then a happy, fun sing-along chorus to top it off. The MOOD changes in the individual songs are sometimes kind of poorly done, in a sentence - this also concerns the two following albums a bit as well, but not quite as much. This is, after all, their first "return to the old sound" attempt and in looking at how wrong things can go in other cases (*cough*The World Needs a Hero*cough*), it's very excusable.

It's just a bit DISJOINTED at times. That's the word I'm looking for. But there ARE also times when the inspiration is just entirely missing - either they're just fucking around ("The Game Is On") or the songwriting ideas are just kinda boring ("Mr. Ego"). The funny thing I've noticed is that if you'd switch "Mr. Ego" with "In the Middle of a Heartbeat", you could tell EXACTLY when the album falls apart - namely after track six.

As for the new guys on board...vocalist Andi Deris I'm having trouble comparing with anyone else. He sure as fuck sounds different from his predecessor, as he isn't nearly as clear-throated and he mostly prefers staying in his low-to mid range. His vocal STYLE actually reminds a bit of Geoff Tate as times, especially in his low-range moments, but since his actual VOICE isn't similar in any way, that is most likely a stretch. Anyway, in my honest opinion he's just as fucking godly as the mighty Kiske, albeit different, but his technical capabilities are largely competent and even though he rarely delivers any of those German shrieks, he generally gives an admirable performance. New drummer Uli Kusch sure as hell delivers too - maybe even a bit TOO much, as he rarely lets 5 seconds go by without playing either some simple or completely over the top fill, which occasionally detracts a bit from the flow - but hey, rather him than that Dokken drummer! Not quite as "precise" as Ingo, but still very respectable in himself.

The production is FAR rawer sounding than any of the Keeper albums, and unfortunately a bit poorly mixed in places. It's not absolutely terrible, as every instrument is heard and all, but it just lacks that 80s, kinda "catchy" production that the Keepers had. Oh well, at least the guitars carry plenty of punch and while they, and also the drums, are a bit on the raw side, they don't detract from the actual music.

So anyway, there are ten songs on here and exactly half of those I am willing to point out as actual highlights. The good thing is that, when this album gets going - oh fucking monkeylord, FUCKING HELL YESS, this is pretty much on par with the Keepers in sheer quality. The two opening tracks, "Sole Survivor" and "Where the Rain Grows", are just plain CLASSIC. I say that, because both are really unique and inventive, yet they work terrifically and therefore end up as two of the most memorable tracks Helloween has ever written.

"Sole Survivor", makes a very competent transition from heaviness and aggression in the verse (reminding a bit of "Mr. Torture" in overall riffage and speed) to absolute melodic ecstasy in the pre-chorus, with the actual chorus even throwing in some underlying keyboards - subtle but extremely effective! "Where the Rain Grows" is faster, but probably more of the same - nice heavy-to-melodic shifts, except this one probably stays more melodic for the most part. The opening riff is one of the few moments on the album that resemble the Keepers sound a bit, and also you can't miss that little lead 30 seconds into the song! Both songs display amazing songwriting and nice, fast fucking lead work too (just check out that "Where the Rain Grows" solo...DAMN!) - this album definitely has something going for it at this point.

Then "Why?" is a bit experimental - not in the sense of the disjointed and therefore weaker tracks on here, but rather because it's very unlike anything else Helloween has ever done earlier. It's mostly keyboard based and not particularly heavy, yet it is surprisingly effective as fuck!! It's midpaced, very atmospheric and especially CATCHY as hell - and man does Andi deliver that chorus or what! "Why, lord whyyyy?! Tell me why-y-y!!" It's far better than it looks, believe me. "Perfect Gentleman" is perhaps a bit similar in that it's very keyboard based, but admittedly a lot heavier. It has a bit of a "swing" beat or whatever it's called and as you can expect, this displays Helloween's tongue-in-cheek style, and does so in a fine fashion. The weakest of the highlights, however.

Finally, as for remaining highlights, we have "In the Middle of a Hearbeat" - I don't what anyone else says, this song just completely kicks ass. Yes, it's an acoustic love ballad with some country-ish overtones, but it's just AMAZING how well it works and the inspiration is oh-so-there. The chorus alone makes it the best ballad Helloween has done up to this point, it's that fucking good.

As for the rest, I can't help but to admit that the ideas are there at times - but as I said earlier they're just very poorly connected. This especially concerns closing track "Still We Go", to a degree that it truly frustrates me. The opening riff is probably the most Keeper-ish moment on the whole album, it's one of those fast riffs the Freedom Call and others like to rip off - but what happens next? We get some strange, awkward passage, before we arrive at the midpaced verse, which has some interesting riffs and melodies - but the MOOD of it just seems out of place when placed before the far more melodic pre-chorus and chorus. And that chorus suffers a bit too, from being a bit forced, except I can't help but to point out that soaring last line: "On the metal highwaaaayyy!!!" DAMMIT, there are so many good ideas in this song - that's not even including the stellar solo - but the way they are connected? Doh! Apparently, good songwriting ideas don't always make up good songs.

"Secret Alibi" - same problem here, except this one is plagued by being a few ideas short in the first place. After a decent but unspectacular intro including some flowery keyboard, we get a pretty solid rock riff, later switching over to a really silly and awkward verse that does NOT work in this context, before switching to a very solid power metal-ish pre-chorus and a not so solid chorus that features some REALLY fucking stupid almost helium-pitched vocal layering. You see where I'm getting with this?

"Take Me Home" - I think this song is trying to be Iron Maiden's "Running Free"; if so, it completely fails. The bass and drums sort of remind me of that song, except on crack and completely lacking the punk-ish attitude of the first Maiden album. The verse is totally unmemorable and out of place as usual, while the chorus is just insipid and far too repetitive. However, this time it's the pre-chorus that saves it from being a complete waste: "I got that feeling to need more and more attention!" Nasty, infectious, fun as fuck!!

"Mr. Ego" could've been a pretty solid but mediocre track all around, but clocking in at over seven minutes it's just far too fucking long for it's own good, as it doesn't have nearly enough good ideas to make up for it. Add to the fact that those ideas are average at best and really fucking mediocre at worst and you've got yourself a complete loser of a song. "The Game Is On" has a chorus that seems to be based on the "Game Over" melody in the game "Tetris" - yup, this one completely sucks. The other parts are just too generic and forced; Helloween can do far better than this when going for humor.

U-N-M-E-M-O-R-A-B-L-E, now that's another word that can sum up the whole second half of the album, minus "In the Middle...", plus "Mr. Ego". Just before writing this review I may have spun this one three times and even when taking into account how many times I've spun the whole thing before, I am still unable to actually remember things like the verses of "Take Me Home" and "Still We Go", the various passages of "Mr. Ego", and so on, off hand. The highlights are much moreso, probably because they always stick to ONE style and mood each - but seeing as they're all very different from each other in style other than the two opening tracks, making a short description of the album in general is made nearly impossible.

Comparing it to the Keeper albums, I can at least say that it's not nearly as FAST - that's for sure. The riffage isn't nearly as german speed metal-derived either - in fact, I'm having trouble comparing any the three first albums of the Deris era to ANYTHING out there in metal. It's power metal - that's for sure, but the styles displayed are simply far too many to just ONE particular band. The Keeper albums I guess are actually the closest comparisons I can think of, but that's not really close at all.

The band's definite return to the metal fold is to be revered - but because of the difficulties they're having at this point, trying to get their act back together, this one still ends up as the third weakest Helloween output. The highlights aren't to be missed, though; I'd say get it for the five super-highlights on here alone. It's just that there are far better Helloween albums, of course including those other with Deris on vocals.