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Hard Rockoween - 68%

Ridley, November 6th, 2014
Written based on this version: 1994, CD, Castle Communications

Everyone knows the story of Helloween's fall into pop music in the early 90's, which resulted in the eventual loss of founding member Ingo Swichtenberg and later the firing of vocalist Michael Kiske. Master of the Rings is, put quite simply, a reformation album without the band having ever broken up. After what Helloween went through as a whole with Chameleon, it's actually quite surprising in retrospect that Weikath & Co. didn't just give up and call it a day. There obviously was some spark left however, and only a single year after fumbling out of Chameleon and all the drama that came with it, they pushed out Master of the Rings. Guess they were just dying to run right back to the upbeat, epic power metal of olden days, right?

Well, not exactly. See, some bands explode right out the gate with these sort of "Return to form" albums, but most of the material Helloween put forth on this album sounds more like half-heated microwave dinner in that respect. This is mostly due to the songwriting and stylistic choices, along with some incredibly sterile lyrics, but I'll get to that in a moment.

One thing this album does get right is the production and individual performances. This is easily the best production the band had up to that time, and while it isn't "Perfect", it definitely gets the job done. The double bass is audible unlike before, the guitars have the necessary "Punch", and everything is mixed well. The vocal production is alright, but I can't help but feel as if too much was done in that department. New singer (at the time) Andi Deris has a very unique and recognizable voice, but the amount of effects and layering that happens on this album at certain times just sounds absurd. Speaking of Deris, he does an excellent job fitting right in with the band and delivers an excellent vocal performance, which is very surprising considering how different he is from Kiske and how little time he had been with the band before they started recording this album. Other new Helloween recruit Uli Kusch behind the kit also delivers an excellent debut performance, showing off a level of playing ability surpassing the late Swichtenburg in every aesthetic. The mainstay trio of Weikath, Grapow, and Grosskopf aren't slackers by any means here, and put out an impressive performance.

With all this going for it, it's rather disappointing the songwriting as a whole isn't up to par. Sure, it blows the last two out albums out of the water with class to spare, but it isn't anywhere near the level of songwriting mastery presented in the Keepers albums. This could likely be attributed to the loss of head songwriter and guitarist Kai Hansen, but Weikath had showed his incredible songwriting competence (especially on Keepers II), so I don't really know what happened here. I mean, it isn't a bad album at all, and it opens up quite promisingly after a humorously titled pseudo-early romantic era classical overture. Sole Survivor and Where the Rain Grows are both choice cuts of power metal beef, showcasing some brilliant songwriting and memorable choruses. Where the Rain Grows is especially good and one of the best songs these guys have ever written; everything from the gentle acoustic guitar strumming in the chorus to the excellent guitar soloing section is a good reminder what Helloween can be capable of. After that opening, however, the biggest issue with this album is presented: indulgence in mid-paced, hard rock styled tunes. This album just DRAGS it's ass towards the end, and I found myself just waiting for them to explode with a up-beat riff monster like the opening track... But it just never came until the final track, and it's a pretty mediocre closing tune at that.

Some of these mid-paced songs work surprisingly well, such as Mr. Ego (Take Me Down) with it's interesting 6/8 chorus and atmospheric, open sound, and Perfect Gentleman, which is so cheesy you can't help but love it. On the flipside, we are also presented with horrendous filler tunes such as "Why?", "The Game is On" (The humorous lyrics can't save this one, sorry), "In the Middle of a Heartbeat" (Shameless Bon Jovi rip off), and the absolute joke that is "Secret Alibi". Special mention goes to the latter, which at first sounds like it's going to erupt into a power metal fury. You get your head banging, you throw the horns, and... You curse at your CD player when you're yet again listening to what you believe is Helloween playing more generic hard rock, with some of the stupidest lyrics ever penned on a power metal album to boot! I mean, listen to this:

"Ding by ding can you dig my dong
It may come short but it might come long
Limb by limb you're climbing up my tree
Making things more fun for me"

Like, what the hell? Is Deris an adult musician or a 12 year old writing down his sexual fantasies on the back of his school notebook during math class? Helloween are generally known for having a goofy or humorous tune or two on nearly every album, but this is just juvenile and actually makes me want to punch a baby fox in the face. Another thing this suffers from is that it's a very top-loaded album; that is, the first half of this album is disproportionately better in every way than the second half. The only saving grace in act II is "Take Me Home", which is as odd as it is good. I mean, when's the last time you've heard a 1950's blues-rock inspired tune turned power metal?

So in conclusion, Master of the Rings formed a sort of half-baked return to form after their pop-flirting meanderings in the prior two outputs. The best was yet to come in the 3 proceeding albums before the band again experienced yet another shake up, and although Master of the Rings dwarfs in comparison, there's still enough good aspects to keep it's collective head hovering above mediocrity.