Thursday, April 11, 2013

Helloween - Chameleon (1993)

Released in 1993, this is generally considered to be the low point in Helloween's career. It envelops a difficult part of their life - burned out after the Noise fiasco, with member cohesion and friendships crumbling, and the loss of Kai Hansen's genius. Like the lizard that gives it its name, it is an eclectic album, experimenting with a range of styles and rhythms. For all that the metal fans dislike it, it did receive rave reviews in NZ mag Rip It Up and it also finds favour with me. My musical tastes are nothing if not a little avant-garde, and my habits are nothing if not contrary. Whilst I would not consider it a necessity in every metal maniacs collection (mainly cos it ain't metal),  it holds a certain nostalgic appeal, combined with a level of insanity and genius. Helloween more recently did something equally experiemental, with the excellent "Unarmed" album, which is probably my top pick of their Deris days. But that is in the future, and this is the present, so let us now begin.

The cover sucks.
It's possibly the Worst Album Cover Ever. It's like they're not even trying. Four stripes - yellow, red, blue and green smeared across an otherwise white page. Pathetic. At least the little pumpkin cartoons that add a whimsical charm are still present, decorating every song. Although I have to confess, they look better in the smaller size of the cassette cover than enlarged for the cd.

At the back it says "Through hard times you find out who your real friends are."
I'm not sure if this is a barbed comment or not, given the turmoil in the band at the time, I'm thinking it may be so.  It was the last album with Kiske and Ingo.

This eclectic masterpiece is in fact the works of three of the band members, each of them creating music and lyrics for the rest to play. This is possibly what gives it its versatile, chameleonic, feel.

For the record:
Michael Weikath wrote: The First Time, Giants, Windmill, Revolution Now
Michael Kiske wrote: When the Sinner, In the Night, I Believe, Longing.
Roland Grapow wrote: I Don't Wanna Cry No More, Crazy Cat, Music, Step Out of Hell.

The album opens with a song about sex. This is "The First Time" that Helloween have a song with sexual connotations and innuendo. It begins with a squeal of feedback before the rock n roll rhythms take over. The chorus is nice and catchy. Drumroll to end it all, complete with distorted guitars and chimpanzees getting lively.

Then we sink into the opening beats of "When the Sinner". No idea how you'd categorise this song. Rock? It has quite dancey beats, kick horns. Kiske's vocals are damned fine, soaring up and down with youthful enthusiasm. The whole song contains the sort of vibrant energy that should have drawn in a wider audience. Jolly good guitar solo and a touch of piano.

Now into a powerful ballad, with enthusiastic acoustic guitar. "I Don't Wanna Cry No More" is Roland's song to his brother Rainer (presumerably deceased). Kiske's voice portrays the emotion well, combined with the light instrumentation. This is a song that is somehow both sad and celebratory at the same time.

And another switch, as we get jazzy with "Crazy Cat". The beginning sounds disturbingly like a dot matrix printer, before the kick horns rip in. The rock n roll rhythms transport you back to another era, maybe there are elements of Elvis here? Kiske is a big fan (but this is Roland's song). Lyrics are quirky and weird:
"Addicted to chicks! He's got a rental tree near the nudist beach, yeah!"
 It's energetic and crazy and probably about Fritz the Cat.

Now, for something a bit more emotional and powerful and downright METAL. "Giants" is possibly the only genuine metal track on this album, and what the others lack in majesty and power, it more than makes up for. From the soaring guitars, and dramatic music build slide guitar and then Kiske's voice, soaring high on currents of emotion and passion. This song is pretty damned epic.

A whistle-bang-whistle-bang follows on as the last chords fade and the "Windmill" begins turning. Piano, tinkling across the keys, Kiske's voice a gentle sussuration. Folk ballad? Vocals with acoustic guitar, a song that evokes memories, nostalgia, a feeling of peace and serenity.
"Don't feel alone and depressed, someone willl come at last. To soothe your stumbling mind to keep it away from the evil storm."
I always loved the lyrics of this song. I was 15 when it was released, and it gave me hope for my future. There's some pretty instense acoustic guitar strumming too. It's a very nostalgic and moving piece for me. Making me think of golden fields, and blue skies.

Now it's time to step back to the 70s, and time to put some flowers in your hair - because it's time for a "Revolution Now". The last of Weikath's contributions and with aspects of Sabbath and Trouble - that somewhat slow, slightly trippy, somewhat sludgy, psychadelic-doom sound (stoner metal?). The chorus is epic. The guitar solos are jolly fine. Fade out includes record scratching noises and grunting pigs. I am not sure why.

The acoustic-but-energetic "In the Night" really does do justice to Kiske's vocals and contains some very nice lyrics:
"When I wake up early in the morning, I catch a book and jump inside...."
And Kiske does his "Elvis voice". I love it when his vocals drop down an octave. Gives me shivers. The guitars are animated and filled with a playful joy.

Now, time for some "Music". Well, more music. This is a very powerful piece, building from a soft, almost haunting vocal line and with elements of classic rock. The stirring nature of the music and the power of the vocals, as they rise, soar, in celebratory harmony. It's slow and dramatic. The additon of the orchestra really helps improve the power.

"Step Out of Hell" is a song about drugs to what would be best described as dance-rock. Some reviews speculate that it's about Ingo and the lyrics centre on trying to help someone with a drug problem. The guitars are a little more energetic on this one, and Kiske's voice is as powerful as ever, but the cheesy keyboards feel awkward and a bit out of place. It is probably my least favourite song on the album.
Sadly, it's also prophetical:
"... go on like this you're gonna be dead..."
RIP Ingo.

Following on is the epic and beautiful "I Believe". Written by Kiske, this is him coming out of the Christianity closet in glory and triumph. It is a powerful and stirring song, even for a non-believer like myself. The rising melodies, the share jubilation and celebration in his voice and the full-on orcheastrations make me wish Kiske could perform with an orchestra all the time. And then he does his low-sexy-voice, except faster, and somewhat sinister. This is almost a song to inspire me to believe. But it's not preachy. Not really. Sure, he's singing about how important God is, but it's about his personal choice - not trying to inflict it upon the listener. Pure epic majesty.

Gentle strumming, provides acoustic support to Kiske's "Longing", it starts slow, but then the strings come in and then it becomes a thing of beauty. A song of loss, of love. Of longing. That final triumphant, symphonic blast...
"Here is love and there is pain; it's all around it's all the same".

You know what? This is a damned fine album! In fact, it's probably the most accessible Helloween album to the not-metal-fans and the structures and blend is an eclectic masterpiece. If I ignore the terrible cover and the internal band dramas and just concentrate instead on the extremely polished and brilliantly eclectic blend of music, that really deserves better recognition*.

I'd have to give this album 9.5/10.
Do you know what I want to see? Michael Kiske performing with an orchaestra. That would be amazingly awesome.

* Even the band pretend it does not exist - to the best of my knowledge, they no longer play ANY of these songs in any of their sets.

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