By Carl Begai
When former Helloween vocalist Michael Kiske announced the launch of his new band Unisonic in 2009, the buzz that followed was minimal at best. Having ex-Gotthard guitarist Mandy Meyer and the Pink Cream 69 rhythm section of Dennis Ward (bass) and Kosta Zafiriou (drums) on board did little to sweeten the pot, largely because Kiske had built a dubious track record for lack luster solo albums and making one-shot guest appearances on other projects since his 1993 departure from Helloween. Add to this his rather vocal disdain for the metal scene and many of his fans felt they’d been stabbed in the back. He redeemed himself somewhat with the Kiske / Somerville album in 2010 and his continued participation in Edguy frontman Tobias Sammet’s popular ongoing metal opera band, Avantasia – dating back to 2001 – but expectations surrounding Unisonic remained painfully low.
Enter former Helloween bandmate Kai Hansen, a long standing friend and fan of Kiske’s vocal talents. Hansen infamously left Helloween mid-tour in 1988 and went on to form Gamma Ray a year later, calling on Kiske to do guest vocals on the song ‘Time To Break Free’ for the Land Of The Free album in 1995. Since then the pair have crossed paths on various projects, with things coming to a head on Avantasia’s world tour in 2010, when Sammet called upon them to reprise their studio roles for the stage. Both Kiske and Hansen agreed, doing a string of shows together for the first time in 20 years. A few months after the tour Hansen announced he had joined Unisonic as a full time member.
“I didn’t actually expect this to happen,” Hansen admits, “mainly because Michael’s way of being in contact with the scene, saying that he wasn’t active in the metal side of things. I always liked the idea of working with Michael again, but when I heard him say things like that I thought ‘It would be nice, but forget it.’ When he formed Unisonic, I was very happy to hear it because I always thought it was a waste of talent when Michael did his little side-projects. But, I still didn’t seriously think about the two of us doing something together. Honestly, I never considered it. When we did the Avantasia tour together in 2010, it felt good working with him, and I could see that Michael was happy being on stage. He’s loosened up a lot towards metal. We had a lot of time to talk and enjoyed performing together, and we eventually started considering doing something together very seriously. And it wasn’t only talk, saying ‘Yeah man, we’ve gotta do something…’ and then nothing happens (laughs). This time it was for real and we started discussing the possibilities we had. There were three options: a new project, bringing him into Gamma Ray, or bring me into Unisonic. Since the first two didn’t make sense, Unisonic was the logical choice.”
Kiske’s return as a full-on frontman has been a long time in coming when one considers the number of metal-oriented side-projects and guest appearances he’s made over the last 10+ years. At the same time, he’s caused plenty of confusion in doing so by simultaneously badmouthing the metal community in the press.
“I was always wondering about that a bit,” says Hansen. “I think he just got it wrong for a while. Maybe he was trying to provoke people in some way, I don’t know (laughs). It’s cleared up now, but I think there are certain things in the metal scene that Michael just doesn’t get along with. That’s basically everything worshipping violence and all that kind of stuff.”
For his part, although Hansen came in well after the band had been formed, he’s responsible for tying all the loose ends together and kicking Unisonic onto the path they’re taking now.
“The songs ‘I’ve Tried’ and ‘Souls Alive’ were actually done before I came in, and there wasn’t anything about the songs that needed to be changed. I added some heavy guitars and some solos, but there was nothing more to say about those two tracks. Beyond that, there were three million ideas and rough cuts and bits and pieces to sort out, and that’s what we did. There were some rough demos, sometimes not even half a song, and we went through the stuff together to decide what was cool and what wasn’t. That was one of my points coming in; I told them I was going to be quite strict, and that I was going to say what I like or don’t like, what I think is shit and so on, and if they could accept that I was in. They were happy with that because it’s actually what they wanted. We eventually found the songs and ideas we wanted to work on, brought them to the rehearsal room, and parallel to that I started writing songs myself.”
If not for Hansen coming aboard, it’s quite possible Unisonic would have remained in Kiske’s basement. The band certainly wouldn’t be getting the buzz it is now.
“Michael has put it nicely, saying that I was the missing link in Unisonic,” Hansen laughs. “They had planned to put an album out in 2010, but Michael says the reason it didn’t happen is because the music wasn’t ready. Something was missing, and that was me, because when I came in things really started moving forward. It felt really good working together, so when we found something in the material we liked we focused on it to nail it down.”
“It was kind of refreshing” he says of stepping away from Gamma Ray for a while. “Things are great with Gamma Ray, but you get into a certain routine after a while and you burn out a little bit. Honestly, it happens. With Unisonic it was a different thing because it was new and the people I’m working with are different when it comes to creativity. Dennis was my man on this; we played ping-pong with a lot of the song ideas, which was absolutely brilliant. Mandy joined in with his ideas on the side because he lives in Switzerland, so he couldn’t always be with us when we were working.”
Hansen remained conscious of the fact he wasn’t writing for Gamma Ray or Helloween and censored himself accordingly.
“I actually did pull myself back a bit. The first idea I had was for the chorus of ‘Never Too Late’. I was coming home from a Gamma Ray rehearsal and this idea for a song came to me, and it had Michael’s voice. I started producing demos at home and getting my shit together, and for sure, I tried to avoid getting into the Gamma Ray vibe or copying what we did with Helloween. It was a new approach for me, and the cool thing was that, at that time, things were completely unclear. The only thing that was clear was that the music shouldn’t be too metal. It was meant to lean in a rock direction, have some pop elements, and I took it from there. I do have ideas going in that directions, and sometimes they come out in the Gamma Ray stuff, but with Unisonic I have more freedom to jump on it and go in that direction.”
In other words, Hansen can write songs for Unisonic that don’t have that aggressive Gamma Ray edge and not feel guilty about it. Courting a rock direction under the Gamma Ray banner, he agrees, would get him crucified.
“Yeah, in some ways it is like that. If somebody says to me ‘Unisonic is not real metal!’ I can say ‘Well, this wasn’t planned to be real metal, so fuck you…’ (laughs).”
‘Never Change Me’ is the perfect example of a Hansen-penned feelgood rock song…
“That’s a cool song,” says Hansen. “When I first joined the band and heard the ideas for it, I thought it was very cool on the one side, but on the other hand it could be a Miley Cyrus song. Maybe that has something to do with my daughter because she liked Hannah Montana for a while and used to watch it all the time (laughs). Maybe something from that got stuck in my head.”
On the other side of the coin, the ‘Unisonic’ single was a blatant tip of the hat to Hansen’s and Kiske’s past.
“This production was done in a way that says we’re not forcing anything, but we’re not really avoiding anything, either, except for 180 beats per minute and growling vocals.”
With Hansen and Kiske sharing the same airspace once again, some media outlets have been hinting at the possibility of a full-fledged Helloween reunion. Kiske shot down the suggestion in a recent interview with Greece’s Rockpages, stating that there was no need to reunite seeing as he had “the best part of Helloween in my band.”
“I’m thankful for his credit, but sometimes he’s a bit overenthusiastic,” Hansen laughs. “I still feel the chemistry we had back in the old days, though, but it was only partly me. The other Helloween guys also did a lot to make it what it was.”
“Michael’s voice inspires me,” he continues, “so when I write songs I can have his voice in mind. Just like when I write for Gamma Ray, I have my voice in mind. When I wrote songs for Gamma Ray while Ralf (Scheepers / Primal Fear) was in the band, it was still my voice. The way I write for Michael has changed a bit, because in the Helloween times it was his voice that inspired me to come up with those melody lines. Now, since I’m a bit more experienced as a singer, I can’t avoid putting myself into it, so when I sing the demos it’s kind of for me as well. But, for some reason, Michael has got a great way of doing an interpretation of that in a different way. I do hear his voice when I sing those parts, though.”
Speaking of Kiske’s voice, he sounds just as good as he did during Helloween’s ‘80s heyday with the Keeper albums. Unlike a lot of aging singers, he still has the chops that earned him a loyal fanbase.
“Isn’t it amazing? I actually think his voice sounds fuller now, more mature, but he can still do those high parts. He was doing that in the rehearsal room just for fun sometimes when we were working on the album, and it’s like ‘Fuck you, man…’ (laughs). He put it on the album in a couple places, like on the extra track ‘Over The Rainbow’ at the end. I just have to take a look at myself. I could sing higher when I was younger, but I think the 3 million cigarettes since then had an affect on my voice (laughs).”
At this point, Hansen is looking to divide his time evenly between Unisonic and Gamma Ray, with this year dedicated to the former and 2013 focusing on his Rayniac responsibilities. Some folks are doubtful Hansen will be able to stick it out for the long haul, however, given a similar scenario played out in the late ‘90s with vocalist / guitarist / producer Piet Sielck’s band, Iron Savior.
“I thought of that, of course, but this time it’s a bit different. Iron Savior was Piet’s band and I was just sidestepping into it. With Unisonic it looks different. It’s not anybody’s band, it’s our band, so there really isn’t a mainman or a leader. I’m doing this with Michael, which makes it very special for everyone, including me, so I’m going to try to continue dancing at two weddings and see how long I can actually do it. I hope this lasts a long time because I’ve seen that other people can balance being in two bands – like Peter Tätgren (Hypocrisy / Pain) and Tobi Sammet (Avantasia / Edguy) – and they’ve proven that it works as long as you take enough time with both instead of rushing things.”
For the present, Hansen’s plate is full with Unisonic live dates booked for the course of 2012, with more to be added along the way. Old school Helloween fans, Hansen says, won’t be disappointed.
“Of course we’re going to play some old Helloween stuff; only material that Michael or me wrote at that time. It’ll be a welcome thing to play it, especially for me. I’ve been playing ‘Future World’ and ‘I Want Out’ with Gamma Ray for years, I see Helloween doing those songs as well, but when it comes to the voice Andi (Deris / Helloween) and I can compete, but it still has to be Michael. When I hear those songs done by Michael, they’re done right. They’re perfect.”
And in spite of his initial misgivings, Hansen believes that for all the hype surrounding his reunion with Kiske the fans will embrace Unisonic for what it is rather than past glories of its members.
“In the beginning I was a bit skeptical, and I remember saying in a few interviews in the beginning that if people are expecting to hear old Helloween they might be disappointed. I don’t see it that way now, because I think Helloween at that time was about doing something different all the time. If you compare Walls Of Jericho, Keeper I and Keeper II, they were so different from each other. Even if I’d stayed in the band, there’s no way to tell what the next album would have been like. There’s a lot of great music on the Unisonic album, and I think even an old Helloween fan can really enjoy it.”
Check out the video for the first single, ‘Unisonic’, here.