By Carl Begai
Rumour has had it for over a decade that Gamma Ray frontman Kai Hansen isn’t a fan of touring, yet every time you turn around he and his Rayniac bandmates are on the road somewhere in the world either as headliners or a support act. He added to Unisonic to his to-do list in 2011, which put him on the international live circuit in between Gamma Ray commitments and personal life in 2012. And at press time – well before the release of the band’s new album Empire Of The Undead – Hansen was preparing to take the band through Europe for a month. You have to wonder if Hansen started the “Kai Hates Touring” rumour himself for shits and giggles, just to see how far the press and fandom would stretch it.
“The things is, I like touring and I liked it back then as well,” laughs Hansen, “but I didn’t like to be on tour for too long. Two or three months in a row is a bit heavy for me, but I think I can cope with the whole touring business better now than I did when I was younger. In general I don’t like long tours.”
Hansen also isn’t a fan of the constant push-pull in the metal world about who’s playing what kind of metal, whether an artist is metal enough, or if a band/album/song even warrants the stamp to begin with. Some fans, for example, raked Gamma Ray’s previous album To The Metal! (2010) over the coals for not being heavy enough. Going back for a listen to refresh the memory, it’s a ridiculous complaint
“It’s very hard to find a definition of what metal is,” Hansen says. “I never made a big distinction when I was growing up with glam rock and hard rock, and then later on heavy rock and heavy metal. In the end, for me, it’s all hard music with distorted guitars and attitude. Of course all these bands sound different, but to me it’s one thing. The spirit is the same so I don’t see the necessity to make a distinction, so I don’t.” (continue reading…)
By Carl Begai
“Whatever we do with Iron Savior, we have to have fun. If we don’t have fun we don’t do it.”
Which is the reason Iron Savior is still alive and kicking some 18 years since vocalist/guitarist Piet Sielck had the wild idea of clambering out of his producer’s chair and forming a band with pre-Helloween bandmate Kai Hansen and ex-Blind Guardian drummer Thomen Stauch, both long departed. It’s also the reason a cover of the Mando Diao pop hit ‘Dance With Somebody’ appears on Iron Savior’s new album, Rise Of The Hero. Not at all what you expect of an outfit that fills the gap between Primal Fear and Gamma Ray and started as a dead serious hammer-and-nails concept band, but Sielck and his merry men couldn’t give a damn.
“We were just really tired of doing rather predictable old classic metal songs,” Sielck says. “Basically that’s a case of just re-recording the song and maybe giving it better production. I think we did a pretty good job with the Mando Diao song; it reminded us of the work we did with SEAL’s ‘Crazy’ (for the Condition Red album from 2002) because the outcome is definitely different from the original. Our version has a vibe of its own, and that’s actually the main reason we decided to have it on the regular album. It was originally supposed to be a bonus track for the Japanese release. It’s not really metal, it’s kind of alternative, but I actually like the original version and I like the guy’s voice. When the song came out on 2009 in Europe, I thought it was a great alternative to all the Top 40 stuff that was out at the time. It definitely stuck out against everything else.”
“The video we did for the first single from Rise Of The Hero, ‘Burning Heart’, this is us and this is the vibe we’re carrying,” he adds. “Some people may ask ‘Are they serious at all?’ but we’re doing this basically for the fun of it.”
This lighthearted approach to their craft seems to be paying off. Shortly after its release Rise Of The Hero hit the album charts in Germany, which Sielck admits was completely unexpected.
“I think Unification (1999) is the only Iron Savior album that hit the charts until now, and 15 years later we’re back on the charts. It feels awesome, and I never thought we’d achieve this again with Iron Savior. It’s no secret that it’s easier to hit the charts during specific times of the year, and obviously this is such a period. So, we didn’t sell 30,000 records or anything like that, but from what AFM tells me the sales are significantly better than they were for The Landing (2011). That’s a bit of a surprise because The Landing was appreciated by the fans and sold well, much better than AFM or I expected it to at the time. Rise Of The Hero is selling even better, so we must have done something right (laughs).” (continue reading…)
By Carl Begai
During Masterplan’s recent European tour in support of their new album, Novum Intium, I caught up with guitarist / founder Roland Grapow (ex-Helloween) to discuss the current state of the band, which went through some major line-up changes between the recording of the new record and Time To Be King from 2010. Not only did At Vance singer Rick Altzi replace original vocalist Jorn Lande, but somewhere along the way Grapow managed to pick up ex-Stratovarius bassist Jari Kainulainen and current Cradle Of Filth drummer Martin Skaroupka.
“I’m just searching for the best musicians,” says Grapow. “Jari contacted me three years ago on Facebook and mentioned that if Masterplan needed a bassist he was available. I told him no, that I wasn’t interested, but when Jan (S. Eckert) left I contacted Jari because if somebody wants to be a part of the band, they have experience, and he’s a nice guy I’ll welcome him on board. I knew Jari from when Stratovarius toured with Helloween and from doing a solo show with Stratovarius in Paris. I want good musicians, not egotistical people or troublemakers, and Jari is a great guy.”
Kainulainen is also cut from the same musical cloth as Grapow, making for an easy partnership. Skaroupka’s presence in the band both in the studio and on the road is harder to grasp given his black metal day job with Cradle Of Filth.
“I was recording a band from the Czech Republic who told me their drummer was in a famous band called Cradle Of Filth,” Grapow says of bringing Skaroupka on board. “I’d heard some of the Cradle albums because I’m always checking out different productions, but I kind of rolled my eyes at that. Then I saw some rehearsal room footage on YouTube – no tricks – and I thought ‘What the fuck? This guy is amazing.’ He’s such a tight and powerful drummer, so I invited him to come down to the studio. He told me it was an honour because he was a big Masterplan fan. I was like, ‘What?!’ But it’s true, he’s in Cradle Of Filth and he loves Helloween, Gamma Ray and Stratovarius. In fact, when Jörg Michael left Stratovarius, Martin was interested in playing for them.” (continue reading…)
By Carl Begai
“Andi Deris sounds like a hamster being pushed through a pencil sharpener.”
The steaming little nugget above directed at Helloween’s vocalist can be found on YouTube. It was slapped down by a keyboard warrior from somewhere on this planet as his or her take on ‘Nabataea’, the first single from Helloween’s new album Straight Out Of Hell. Hardly surprising given the faceless stone-throwing that goes on in this mighty digital age, and worth exactly nothing given the band’s current and ongoing popularity. Sure, said “critic” is no doubt a diehard fan of original Helloween singer Michael Kiske – revered by many as one of the greatest metal singers of our time – but Deris has been on board for 20 years to Kiske’s seven and Helloween is still kicking up a storm.
“Those people are actually a minority, and as you know from your business it’s the smallest that always shout the loudest,” says an unperturbed Michael Weikath, one of Helloween’s founding guitarists. “I’m not saying this to dumb down these people because they have a right to say those things, but it doesn’t help me fill my cup so I don’t worry about those kinds of negative opinions.”
Get beyond the mudslinging and ‘Nabataea’ has all the birthmarks of classic old school Helloween, setting the tone for the full album. The instantly memorable guitar riffs, soaring vocals, epic drums, and some not so subtle tips of the hat to their past (see ‘Halloween’ from Keeper Of The Seven Keys: Pt 1). The fans coudn’t have asked or bargained for a better introduction to the record.
“It’s strange,” Weikath says. “We asked around, management asked around, and what we kept hearing was how much everybody liked that ‘Nabataea’ track. It wasn’t entirely clear from the start. You send the stuff to someone and they say ”Nabataea’ rocks!’ so that ends up being the first song off the album. It’s up to par in certain areas, but there’s something about this album, definitely. You can clearly tell from the feedback that there is a particular magic about it. Maybe it’s more than the last one, I don’t know.”
Since the release of ‘Nabataea’ the band has received plenty of love from their fanbase. Straight Out Of Hell is anything but a disappointment, having been compared to their massive 1996 wallop Time Of The Oath by some people, and pegged by the majority as the worthy follow-up to Helloween’s last outing, 7 Sinners (2010). Read the reviews and interviews; there’s no shortage of ass-kissing from an impressed and, in some cases, utterly gobsmacked public.
“I like having my ass kissed,” Weikath deadpans. “I’m just not supposed to admit to it. And all those tracks are just fucking great.” (continue reading…)
By Carl Begai
“From a fan’s point of view, I’d be happy to see one of my favourite bands doing a completely different setlist because I know all their songs. If I go to a Judas Priest show, rather than hearing ‘Living After Midnight’ I’d rather hear stuff like ‘Dreamer Deceiver’. That’s much more interesting even for a diehard fan that knows all the songs in a band’s catalogue.”
And there you have the motivation behind Gamma Ray’s new outing Skeletons & Majesties Live courtesy of frontman/founder Kai Hansen. Call it a case of the band challenging themselves and the fans by daring to be different, building a tour setlist in 2011 that reached all the way back to their 1990 debut Heading For Tomorrow and dusted off some of their more obscure tracks for the stage.
“It was really cool. And the great part of it was seeing that it actually works, that those songs aren’t weaker than the ones we play all the time. They just don’t get the attention they deserve. There are always the album favourites and the ‘real’ great songs, but that doesn’t mean the other songs are shit. When you do festivals and tours, sure, you include your ‘Best Of’ songs to make most of the people happy, but it was a lot of fun for us to do things this way.”
“That was especially at the rehearsals, when we were saying ‘Do we really have to practice ‘Send Me A Sign’ again?’ We’ve been playing that song for a long time and it’s quite simple, so there was no real need to go over it again. The songs that we hadn’t played in such a long time – or never – there was a totally different motivation to rehearsing them and improving ourselves.”
It was no secret the band was heading out to flog their so-called “rare” material when the tour was announced, and according to Hansen the number of people in the door on any given night was more or less the same as when Gamma Ray does an expectation-loaded show. Definitely a good thing considering the band committed themselves to a DVD shoot as preparations were being made.
“The tour was planned first, and then the suggestion came up to do a DVD since it’s been quite a while since the last one (Hell Yeah! The Awesome Foursome from 2008) and we were doing completely different songs. It was a perfect opportunity. We thought about doing a whole acoustic set but we decided it would be too much, especially for this band considering the music we play. It was better than we just changed things up for a song or two in the middle of the set.” (continue reading…)
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. (continue reading…)
By Carl Begai
Normally I shy away from doing live / event reviews simply because I suck at them. Kind of ironic given that’s how I got my start in this business. Fact is I find it almost impossible to express how good I think a show was in print without boring myself to tears. You can only use and re-word the terms “kick ass” and “awesome” so many times until you begin to sound like that idiot hack who shows up for two songs and a shot of Jack, then heads home to compose a glowing review before bed of what he didn’t see. Between bouts of World Of Warcraft and Spongebob.
All that said, I was invited by singer Amanda Somerville to attend a video shoot for the song ‘If I Had A Wish’, taken from the forthcoming Kiske / Somerville album featuring herself and ex-Helloween vocalist Michael Kiske. Also on board for the shoot were bassist Mat Sinner (Primal Fear / Sinner), guitarist Sander Gommans (ex-After Forever / HDK) and drummer Rami Ali. Amanda and I have known each other a long time (yes, I namedropped; sue me ;-)) and Mat has been a long time friend and supporter of BW&BK, so I was more than happy to come down and play a game of hurry-up-and-wait with them.
Besides, it was a good excuse to see if Sander was the metalhead he claims to be. I wasn’t disappointed; the ‘Painkiller’ footage was priceless (a story for another day).