When German power metal institution Helloween embarked on the remarkable Pumpkins United World Tour the band became a seven piece metal juggernaut.
The resultant success of the performances led to a groundswell of support for retaining the unique line-up. Now, on top of fifteen previous studio albums, several live recordings and a 35 year career legacy, Helloween have expanded their musical horizons by recording a new studio album with the collective line up to create an impeccable album. The self-titled album, Helloween, is a bold statement and reaches a new level in musical achievement for the band, stretching them artistically, with all members enthused to contribute. It is highly probable that this will be topping annual album list polls in numerous countries.
Opening track, Out For The Glory, penned by veteran, band co-founding guitarist Michael Weikath, starts with a synth and guitar line that has hints of Slayer’s unnerving haunting introductions but soon whips up pace, into a galloping, seven-minute power metal beast. It has just enough pomp to appease power metal hordes but also enough grunt to appeal to fans of other metal sub genres. The vocals of long serving singer Andi Deris barrel out with recognisable shouting power whilst those from returning co-vocalist Michael Kiske have a more operatic feel.
Meanwhile, reunited guitarist, vocalist and additional songwriter, Kai Hansen goes straight for Rob Halford styled vocal embellishments even though he sees himself more as a sidekick vocalist in the current line-up. It all works beautifully against the very Judas Priest-inspired twin guitar attack from Weikath and fellow guitarist Sascha Gerstner, beefed up with Hansen’s rhythm guitar precision and the tight yet distinctively old school rhythm section of bassist Markus Grosskopf and drummer Daniel Löble, who used late former drummer Ingo Schwichtenberg’s full kit fitted out with long shells, throughout the recordings.
Playing to their strengths and a well thought out democratic process is how the vocalists and guitarists divvied up their parts on this ambitious release. So, generally for each track, the writer put down the main rhythm part, with the second rhythm part being one of the two remaining, followed by a third rhythm figure. Solos were more a case of the best fit in an alternating duties approach, with others contributing overdubs. For vocals, initially everyone sang everything then the band took several listens to decide on the main singer, overlapping additional lead vocals and backing vocals allocations. In all cases, any indecision, points of contention, or editing of excessive content was delegated to long term producer Charlie Bauerfeind and co-producer Dennis Ward, both of whom relished in the use of all analogue gear, giving this album’s sound an authentic 80’s vibe and spirit.
The second single for the album is the masterful Deris composition, Fear of the Fallen, which starts with acoustic guitar and one sentence sung by Hansen before cutting guitar riffs against sustained chords swiftly usher in a soaring chorus from the two main singers here, Deris and Kiske. It is somewhat reminiscent of Iron Maiden’s successful late 80s excursions into progressive metal and to further demonstrate that, when the solo rolls around, there are harmony parts and bluesy, hard rock trade-offs. The production dynamics are exciting. The way this track builds and swirls between dense parts and wide open interludes is brilliant. Some added subtle keyboard washes from the vast array of orchestral sounds that Matthias Ulmer offers here and there throughout the album, add colour and variation in this intricate, highlight of a track.
If Halloween is best known to a wider audience for the radio friendly, singer led songs I Want Out or Dr. Stein, then the Gerstner and Deris co-written track Best Time does the job with flair and should captivate listeners outside of the fanbase. Grosskopf’s bass parts bounce along with Gerstner’s slightly muted rhythm figure which bursts with ringing chords. Also, bolstering backing vocals, interspersed between Deris’ soaring, sustained delivery provides one of their most memorable choruses. Lyrically, the song captures the generally positive outlook of Helloween, which is in stark contrast to a lot of metal bands. This is one key feature of why Helloween are so widely appreciated internationally. You come away from a Helloween show and album with a new lease of life, not bummed out. Best Time is the perfect example of filtering that force and energy of Helloween.
Material gets heavier with Mass Pollution, a Deris written banger that will sit nicely in the live set with a singalong chorus. Some excellent trade-off guitar soloing soon ensues during a half time figure as Löble smashes cymbals, holding down the fort with Grosskopf’s thumping basslines. A bit of nifty analogue tape trickery adds to the old school vibe. Next track, Angels, has a solid, rock feel with a slight groove, and some great instrumentation including some harpsicord, organ and subtly orchestration. Vocal deliveries during the chorus reminds of Alter Bridge, rising and falling with climactic melody lines, backed by similarly ascending tremolo rhythm guitar parts.
Another Deris track near the halfway mark of the album is Rise Without Chains and it oozes energy with Löble harnessing the double bass drum figures effortlessly. The guitar interplay is melodic and harmonic, without overpowering the pace and layered sonic excellence of the song. Repeated listens reveal all sorts of subtle variants including a choked wah guitar sound that Schenker fans will appreciate. Still, the vocal line and rhythm section is what drives this song, and does so very well.
A little later in the second half of the album, Cyanide is another track by Deris that is suitably swift yet ranges between grandiose to straight ahead, thumping heavy metal. Lyrically, Deris pins the gullibility of the societal trend of embracing concocted remedies within healthcare and politics without question. It’s a slight departure from the usual but indicates they’re not the same people of thirty plus years ago and have no intention of revisiting that mindset.
It’s a similar construct with Grosskopf’s track, Indestructible, released as B-side to the album’s first single, the epic Skyfall. The song hits hard and fast out of the gate and celebrates the band’s longevity and unity against adversity. A soaring chorus segues into some rapid fire guitar trade-offs that soon meld into a harmony line before hitting the bridge and reprising the chorus. By Helloween’s expansive standards, it is short, sharp and tightly focussed. Nice work, indeed.
Michael Weikath is not just a great guitarist but also a talented songwriter. He also is not afraid of tipping his hat to contemporaries or influences, plus does not force his writing to fit in with current trends from less experienced artists. Two tracks written by Weikath in the second half of the album demonstrate this with both Robot King and Down In The Dumps offering variety alongside signature riffing styles. Robot King is a hammering track, with elements of Scorpions and Malice. Double bass drumming blasts away, merging with half time figures as neoclassical guitar lines mix with soaring harmonised guitar and vocal parts. In context of the other tracks, the placement works in maintaining the flow.
Down In The Dumps aches with brooding guitar swells and feedback howls before transforming into a galloping power metal track with all of the rich, signature aspects we’ve come to expect from Helloween, without being ridiculously overblown. The track is tight with riffing that Metallica and Priest fans will enjoy but operatic enough to have an epic Savatage feel weaving through the track.
The final track is something special with orchestration and scoring skills of Ulmer adding substantial gravitas to the aforementioned Hansen epic Skyfall, twelve minutes long and simply astonishing from start to finish. Orbit introduces the track, to set the tone with a minute of atmospherics and guitar volume swells before the bombastic Skyfall kicks off.
Again, like other tracks, repeated listens to Skyfall constantly reveal extra layers, subtle nuances and in this case, musical perfection for what puts the icing on the cake of an exceptional album. All three vocalists contribute with glorious power and the long song format is the staple of an old school metal band. This isn’t the abridged version required for the recent video release, which is a necessity of promotion budgets. The full album version is the best way to experience this track.
Skyfall is epic, empowering, poetic, entertaining, well balanced and not surprisingly required considerable work for Hansen to tweak the song to the final mix. The story arc of the track delves headlong into science fiction, involving an unfairly pursued alien visitor, whereby their home planet is obliterated. Hansen has also infused a variety of musical and lyrical references that keen ears should hear such as a nod to Bowie’s Space Oddity several minutes in, Deep Purple, and a poignant tribute to the Rainbow era of Ronnie James Dio with a recognisable phrase from Catch the Rainbow, hinted at with guitar lines and then sung beautifully by Deris at the song’s fade out.
Solos are also varied with some neoclassical, fast metal with a wah pedal and wide vibrato, and plentiful harmonies. There is also a real Moog solo in the track recreated from the demo by keyboardist Jens Johansson. If you need any proof of how good the new Helloween is now, this track, in all of its unedited glory, is the unquestionable masterpiece.
It is fairly clear that this project would not have happened without a tour to iron out any differences or possible conflict scenarios resurfacing. So, it is somewhat ironic that this has all come about in a backwards way of sorts, by reuniting with a tour before considering writing anything new together. In that light, it is evident that all the band members have matured, are aware of their different key talents and eschew past antics to instead focus on bringing purpose and artistic weight to the band’s new songs.
It’s amazing to consider that after decades in the business and now with their sixteenth album, Helloween have set a new benchmark, not just for themselves, but for power metal globally. The Pumpkins United tour promised something special and this long awaited epic album has delivered accordingly, and done so in spectacular fashion. Helloween is virtually guaranteed to be the metal album of the year.
1. Out for the Glory
2. Fear of the Fallen
3. Best Time
4. Mass Pollution
6. Rise Without Chains
8. Robot King
10. Downin the Dumps