Friday, March 1, 2013

Helloween - Keeper of the Seven Keys Part II (1988)

As promised, now it is time for the glory that is Keeper of the Seven Keys, part two, the follow up to tbe wonderful Keeper of the Seven Keys, part one and one of the definitive metal albums of all time. Here is where Power Metal began. That's not to say that Helloween are technically Power Metal, nor that they are the only band that can claim the honour of being the root of all that is awesome, but merely that this is one of the major contributing albums to the slightly pompous, extravagant genre of Power Metal. Helloween are more straightforward, but no less epic and this album is AMAZING.

When I was younger, relying on a fairly small allowance to afford the extravagances of cassettes, my brother and I bought a fair amount of music. I bought part one, he bought part two. This was a pity, because it meant that I could not really listen to this album. Since he preferred to sit in his room, door closed, music loud, burying himself within the immensity and engulfing himself fully in its richness, I could not easily join him. It is actually rather an awkward feeling sitting in your siblings's room, trying to sink into a sort of meditative, music induced state. Thus, I didn't really get to hear this album as much as I would have liked. I distinctly recall sitting outside his bedroom window one evening, whilst the power of the music poured through the window, listening. At this time, I also had a number of penpals and we exchanged cassette recordings around the world, sharing each others mix tapes. This, my friend, was how you learned about new bands before the interweb - before you could touch a button and hear samples from every single cd you can think of. Via snail mail... and mix tapes.... anyhow, I had a lovely penfriend in Sweden and he recorded this album for me so that I could listen to it too.

Of course, eventually, I purchased the CD. Along with Helloween's entire backlist, half of which I have on cassette tape as well as CD. Hey, you cannot have too much of a good thing - and at least I can listen to them in my car!

The cover is beautiful, moody and somewhat fantasy-esque. In the foreground, a hand inserts a key into a lake (from which faces stare out), whilst gnarled green hands grasp at it. The robes indicate that this may be the seer of visions - the cloaked figured from part one. The background is split in two by dark and brooding clouds - on one side, a monolithic rock formation glows in the mid day sun, in the other fires burn over a desolate and forboding, spiky black landscape. The cover is bordered in a chain of autumnal leaves. Inside it is all plain black text on white paper - very straightforward and simplistic, but pratical and easy to read.

This was Helloween's last album with Noise - a company that basically screwed them over. This cd went Gold in Germany, made it to #108 on the USA charts but despite being a highly successful album, they did not see much in the way of profits from it. Shortly after this they broke their contract, got into terrible legal battles (with Noise), weren't able to tour or release in the States for some years and not only that, but Kai Hansen left, not wishing to deal with the pressures of being in such a big band. Funnily enough, his band, Gamma Ray sort of took over the power and glory of this album with their "Land of the Free" release in 1995.

An eagle soars over forlorn, windswept cliffs in "Invitation" as the instruments rise in power and might, beckoning us onwards.

It swoops and strikes, charging in to the speed metal anthem of "Eagle Fly Free". The guitars are a wild and reckless beast, the vocals untamed and melodious. The drums... well the drums are slamming, beating a rapid and, at times, slightly monotonous, slightly tinny beat. Kiske displays his immensely powerful vocal talents, holding the note, unwavering for a good 15 seconds.

Then it is in to "You Always Walk Alone". I love the rhythms and structure of this song, it's so lively and inspirational, it fills my heart and soul with such empowerment.
"... the strength we have inside yourself is so more than you will know."
The highly entertaining "Rise and Fall" follows it up. It starts with rockin' beats and wooden laughter. You also get to hear Kiske say "bullshit" which is worth it in itself. The shifting rhythms and quirks of the backing music add to the somewhat comedic, fairy tale feel - as do the lyrics:
"A little dragon could spit fire, but never sought for something bad. He didn't know the knight's desire to throw a lance into his head."
It does make you ask two questions, however: How is luck like a ball? And what exactly did the queen of Los Angeles do with a chair? Sometimes I wonder if Weikath is on something when he writes his quirkier tracks. I mean, sheep?

Another quirky number is "Dr Stein" - a song about Frankenstein. For anyone who has heard Helloween as much as I, the opening chords are unmistakeable. This is probably one of their most famous songs - but there was no video made until it was re-released as part of the "Unarmed" album. Also written by Weikath, the lyrics are somewhat silly and rather fun. The guitars rise and fall in a complicated duet, with the keyboards arcing around them.

The anthemic "We Got the Right" follows. Kiske's voice is in fine form, a powerful tool with less support from the instruments in this piece.

Then it is time to get back into the speed metal with the raging "Save Us".  It is followed up by the equally powerful "March of Time". Two very fine examples of the speed metal genre, back to back. The racing guitars, the clanging drums, and above all, Kiske's voice soaring like the voice of a god, filled with power and glory. I have heard the chords and the rhythms of Helloween's music described as "happy sounding" and it is. I'm not knowledgeable enough about the technical terms to be able to tell you WHY their melodies sound positive whereas others do not, but the lyrics certainly help:
"Life's too short to cry, long enough to try..."
The final normal-length track is "I Want Out" which has an entertaining video. With its enthusiastic rhythms, catchy choruses and charismatic frontman, this track became a hit. Once again, the drums seem a little too high pitched on this piece, not sure if that is intentional or a result of not such great production. Once you start noticing it, however, it becomes a little annoying - and I don't want to be annoyed by this album. It's Helloween - it should be awesome! Everything should be absolutely perfect.

The final track is the epic "Keeper of the Seven Keys" and is a piece so majestic that it inspired me, in my teenage years, to write a highly derivative and pretty cliched fantasy novel. But not one that will ever see the light of day, I promise*.
And just to prove that nothing is ever original and that Helloween inspired other people to do the same thing - here's a D&D comic inspired by the same thing. Seriously, my characters even had similar names!
Anyhow, clocking in at over thirteen minutes long, it almost deserves an entire blog post of its own - but "The Seven Angels" didn't get one, so it isn't going to either.

It starts with light guitar, and Kiske's beautiful low vocals, soaring behind it are classical instruments, rising with power and might. This might be where the roots of Symphonic Metal began.
Our hero ("you") prepares for his coming Quest.
And off he sets, with the drums and guitars keeping pace.
The chorus rises, filled with power and ambition.
 "You're the keeper of the seven keys, to lock up the seven seas. And the seer of visions said before he went blind 'hide them from demons and rescue mankind'."
The first key belongs in the sea of hate, the second the sea of fear.
"Throw the third key into the sea of senselessness and make the people hold each other's hands..."
Fourth goes into the sea of greed.
The fifth into the sea of anger.

Meanwhile, something wicked is stirring, the guitars thrash and race and below it you can hear something growling.

Kiske becomes more urgent and insistent - urging you to "throw the key or you may die...". After the frenzy, the music dies down, mellowing into a haunting echo. Has the key been thrown? Is this the calm before the storm?

And where do the sixth and seventh keys belong? Who knows, it's never defined.

The devil is waiting on the shores of the last lake.
It might have been better to have Kai sing the voice of the devil - Kiske has the voice of an angel.
(Then again, Kai's a dwarf, right).

The guitar heralds the throwing of the key and the ensuring battle between the devil and the hero.
Don't worry, the hero wins and an earthquake swallows the devil down again.
Now it is time to celebrate.

I have noticed that there is a rough edge to this album - it has a slightly raw, untamed feel to it - not the overly polished and produced feel of later albums - such as "Pink Bubbles". I think that is part of the appeal, as it makes you feel closer to the band, making them seem more visceral. Although the higher pitch to the drums gets a little irritating. Also, the quality is not great - I have it at full volume to listen to it and when I put in my new Unisonic CD instead, it almost blew my speakers - it was that much louder. I guess that shows what effect 20+ years has had on sound quality.

Overall, however, this is an awesome album and should be in the collection of anybody who considers themselves a true metal fan.

I'm going to give it a 9.5/10 thanks to those drums.
I'm sorry Ingo...

If anyone does want to buy these two albums - they are now available as a set. Which includes some bonus tracks. These tracks I shall be reviewing in a later post.

* Michael Weikath would totally sue my tail. And as much as I'd like to meet him, in a courtroom over copyright violation is not the time and place for that!

1 comment:

  1. Man, I remember this album being my entire musical world for a while; that early paragraph takes me right back - I pretty clearly remember the stuff you talk of. Kiske's voice is indeed lovely (and very clear in those high notes) and the songs were so bright and powerful. I should really look into getting it on CD (and Part I too, of course).

    I know what you mean about the production on those earlier metal albums though - thin bass, tinny drums, lots of rough edges. Mostly I figure it's because record labels back then didn't put much money into metal-genre recordings. Some of it works, but yeah...the drums. Early Cradle of Filth's are worse though - often sounding like an out-of-control sewing machine and in his very early days Bathory's guitars used to sound like broken electric razors.