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Show Us the Way - 87%

Sekrys, September 15th, 2020
Written based on this version: 1997, CD, Reef Recordings

When one takes a gander at the songwriting credits of Helloween's most masterful album, Better Than Raw, there is a notable absence of one Mr. Roland Grapow, perhaps the most adroit guitarist to ever stand by the side of Michael Weikath in the band. It is quite easy to come to the solution that Mr. Grapow was just loafing around, his indolence making him unable to be bothered to write anything. Indeed, this was a component of why Grapow and Uli Kusch were kicked out of Helloween, according to some interviews of the band. Apparently, Grapow "was not giving his all" to Helloween by pursuing his solo career and Masterplan; this is, of course, in spite of the fact that Andi Deris released two solo albums in the late '90s, and Markus Grosskopf delivered a heavy metal album in 1999 under his band Shock Machine. Nevertheless, it is correct that Grapow contributed no songs to the Better Than Raw album. Instead, his songwriting talents were going into writing his first solo album, The Four Seasons of Life. So, the question is then, how do these songs compare to Helloween, and could they have appeared on a Helloween album?

Maybe. Many of the tracks that showcase on the album are fundamentally rooted in European power metal. Take the opener, "The Winner," for example. With its speedy tempo, soaring vocals, and trenchant nature, it is not aberrant to conclude that it easily could have fit on Better Than Raw. However, there is a discernible neoclassical tinge to "The Winner," evident in the melodic tremolo picking that leads to the verses and the sweeps and whirls that Grapow adds to the solos. The lead work is rather deftly woven into the rhythm work This trait manifests itself especially on the faster songs on the album, making them somewhat different than what could be construed as typical Helloween fare. Consequently, this is the main deviation that Grapow takes from what was his main band. Luckily, the factor that is not different between Better Than Raw and The Four Seasons of Life is quality. "The Winner" provides the sweet melody and frenetic pacing that one would hope to find in a power metal track, with the following tune "No More Disguise" being a bit more subdued in its refrain, yet still bountiful in its constitution and quick in its speed. "Searching for Solutions" is the most unembellished in its makeup. There is even a reprieve from the barrage of metal in the song's mid-section, which shows off Markus Grosskopf's bass. Yes, Grapow brought with Kusch and Grosskopf for his solo album, both of whom performing admirably and with distinction. I do wish Grosskopf were louder in the mix, as his basslines are always a pleasure to discern and hear. Speaking of performances, I have ignored mentioning Roland Grapow's vocals on The Four Seasons of Life so far. The most divisive component of this album is his clear yet nasally voice, which can be unappealing especially when he hits his high notes (he actually has a pretty great vocal range, however). I do generally enjoy his vocals and his execution of them, yet they may put off some listeners. There is a reason as to why he did not perform vocals himself on his next solo album, Kaleidoscope. Nonetheless, I would say that they aren't far too different from Kai Hansen's more clean vocals he has done in Gamma Ray, so most should be able to endure them.

Not everything on the Four Seasons of Life is just European power metal, as Grapow balances out the speed with some more mid-paced, dramatic tracks. In "Show Me the Way," Grapow pleadingly implores the Lord to reveal to him the correct path he should take in life, its tense chorus showing the urgency of his prayer. The shear emotion packed within this tune makes it the most satisfactory to listen to on the album. There is a similarity with this song to "Why?' off of Helloween's Master of the Rings, with both sharing the critical cry to God and stead pacing of the music. "Strange Friend" also hits a similar vein as "Show Me the Way," and is an excellent song in its own right, it seemingly being about the killing and violence that soldiers undergo on the battlefield in order to stay alive potentially being blurred with murder and rape and a "do whatever you want because you can" type mentality. Going way off on the other end of the spectrum, "I Remember" is more of an excited and fun hard rock number, and it reminds of some of Bon Jovi's hit songs during the '80s, albeit more busy with the guitar work. Hell, the song's dynamic, sing-a-long chorus really doesn't deviate much from "You Give Love a Bad Name," though the latter is accusative and vitriolic in tone, while "I Remember" is thankful and glad for the love that kindled between Grapow and his lover. Grapow seems a lot more comfortable singing in a lower pitch on these songs, thereby making them easier to listen to in that department than the aforementioned faster tracks. One unfortunate facet of the Four Seasons of Life, though, is the underproduction of the album. It sounds rather clanky and tinny, and I can't help but wonder if Grapow will ever come back to this album and give it a modern production job with the skills he has now with producing and mixing (check out Sebastien playing "Headless Cross" with Tony Martin on Youtube and get a taste of Grapow's talent). As it is, however, the subpar production hurts especially the slower songs on the Four Seasons of Life when it comes to power and immensity, which diminishes their enjoyability. The title track, for instance, could have been and tries to be a heavy and mysterious behemoth in the same vein as "The Time of the Oath," but the feeble production tempers that latent strength in the songwriting. Don't get me wrong, these songs are all still entertaining, gratifying, and marvelous to hear, but they could have been better with a more adequate production.

If we harken back to the questions posed in the introduction of this assessment as to whether the songs on the Four Seasons of Life could have been under the Helloween banner, the answer is a reserved "yes." Though the style of power metal is pointedly more neoclassical here, it shares the same foundations that Helloween uses and pioneered. The slower, more traditional heavy songs are also not too dissimilar from Helloween's, and indeed the blend of these songs with the power metal is reminiscent of albums like Master of the Rings or Time of the Oath. Grapow probably could have contributed a song or two to Better Than Raw and made an already amazing album even better. In general, I wish he would have written more for Helloween, as his songs are usually included in the highlights of each of their records (Time of the Oath, The Dark Ride, The Chance, etc). Once touring starts back up again, it would also be nice for Helloween to include some of Grapow and Kusch's songs in their live set. Both of them wrote astounding pieces for the band that have easily stood the test of time and would be cool to see live. Or, better yet, invite them to the next tour. It has been almost 20 years since those two left the band, and if Helloween can make amends with Michael Kiske, they should be able to ameliorate their relationship with Grapow and Kusch. Anyways, the Four Seasons of Life is a pretty great record, and I recommend it to fans of Helloween, Stratovarius, and power metal in general.