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A time (in)appropriate retrospective? - 75%

hells_unicorn, September 13th, 2017
Written based on this version: 2017, CD, AFM Records (Digipak)

Whenever a band or individual artist decides to revisit past material and give it the updated studio treatment, the protestations tend to be deafening, and often also quite grating. Rhetorical questions speaking to what the point of such an endeavor is tend to be the order of the day, and occasionally are accompanied by a side-order of accusations that the band is "running out of ideas". One would not be entirely remiss to speculate that many of these voices came to these objections before the music was even played, and would likewise be tempted to answer the rhetorical questions and criticisms just for spite's sake. Nevertheless, the timing of Roland Grapow and company's decision to rerecord select contributions that he made to Helloween's history is a tad suspicious, given the hype surrounding the recent reunion of his former band with Michael Kiske and Kai Hansen for a string of live performances, effectively seeing both his replacement (Sascha Gershner) and the one he replaced (Hansen) occupying his former position.

It goes without saying that PumpKings is a goofy name for an album, and speculating as to Roland's motives in doing a release like this at this time (be it as a means to cash in on Helloween's notoriety or to remind everyone that he was a part of said band during both their down years and their resurgence to prominence) are not out of bounds, but in the end the music is what determines an album's merit, and there is definitely some to be found here. The whole idea of taking a smoky, gritty and highly soulful voice like Rick Altzi's and applying it to select Helloween songs, particularly the Kiske material, is an interesting one, almost as much so as hearing David Coverdale perform live versions of Deep Purple classics like "Highway Star" and "Child In Time" way back in 1975. Likewise, many of these songs, and particularly the stuff from Pink Bubbles Go Ape and Master Of The Rings were not the subject of a terribly brilliant initial production job, leaving at least some room for them to be improved upon.

Interestingly enough, the fact that Roland either wrote or co-wrote most of these songs plays quite well to Masterplan's format, almost as if he'd written these songs more than a decade ago for this very project. Some songs come out better than others, but collectively this album is a solid effort that listens fairly close to a typical Masterplan offering, save smatterings of musical quirkiness that was injected into some of these songs collaborating with Michael Weikath or otherwise imported from his influence, particularly in the cases of "Take Me Home" and "Mr. Ego". The pacing is a bit quicker than even the speedy eponymous debut, with speed metal fests like "The Chance" and "Someone's Crying" leading off the pack and being chased by similarly high octane numbers from the Deris years like "Still We Go" and "The Dark Ride". Altzi tends to fair slightly better with the material from the Deris years, and makes his most powerful showings on "The Time Of The Oath" and "The Dark Ride", but he manages to nail every note that Kiske put to the original recordings as well, even though his timbre and vocal demeanor is world's away from Kiske's.

The positives don't end with the faster and longer-running numbers either, as the reinterpretations of slower and heavier songs from the Helloween years prove to be even more palpable to the Masterplan sound. Of particular note is the re-polished gem "Mankind" off of Pink Bubbles Go Ape, which has been modified to sound equally as heavy as the Roy Z produced crusher from The Dark Ride "Escalation 666" (which also appears on here) and reminds quite heavily of the mid-paced bruiser "Take Me Over" from Masterplan's back catalog. Likewise, the two offerings off of Chameleon in "Step Out Of Hell" and "Music", arguably the two least metal songs that Roland has ever written, come off much heavier and improved. Truth be told, the primary thing that holds this album back and keeps it from being amazing is that other than the updated production and the vocal contrast, there aren't any more updates to speak of, and the whole listen sounds more like a great tribute band rather than the original artists remembering their respective pasts.

This is an overall good listen, but falls a tad bit short of that true magic that can sometimes occur when a band updates a song or group of songs, such as the recent studio retreads that Rhapsody Of Fire recently unleashed in Legendary Years. For anyone asking what the point of this was, the best answer would be a reminder that Helloween is a band with an extensive history, all of which is not represented in its current incarnation. Granted, Grapow's songwriting tended to be a bit quirky and different from that of both Weikath and Hansen, which probably explains why he was axed for trying to push Helloween in a darker direction following their one-off success with Roy Z at the production helm on The Dark Ride. In many ways, Masterplan was born out of said album, and even the material that preceded it that is represented on this release points towards the same basic sound. Not all Helloween fans need apply here, but those of Masterplan definitely should.