By Carl Begai
With 30 years of history under their collective belt, the current incarnation of Helloween could realistically get away without having to make new albums and still have a successful ongoing career. They have weathered numerous storms over the past three decades including having lost co-founding guitarist Kai Hansen to creative differences and Gamma Ray, releasing a couple royal stinkers (depending on who you talk to), drummer Ingo Schwichtenberg committing suicide, and parting ways with the man often / still viewed by many as the only singer worthy of Helloween, Michael Kiske, yet they’ve forged onward. Their latest album, My God Given Right, is yet another example of the German act’s legendary tenacity.
Helloween’s previous album, Straight Out Of Hell (2013), was an epic juggernaut as far as the band’s discography is concerned. Everything about it was big and brash right down to the artwork, even more obnoxious than their 1998 corker Better Than Raw, with the band and label going so far as to get their balls out and release a 7-minute first single (‘Nabataea’) that was far more listenable than the anemic “mainstream” edited version. In contrast, My God Given Right sees the ‘Weenies tightening things up and adhering to their roots more than ever. Vocalist Andi Deris discovered during the massive press junket for the album that most folks genuinely appreciate the new music
“They aren’t completely great actors, ” Deris laughs, referring to the ass-kissing “best album you’ve ever made” contingent that’s par for the course. “We’ve never been everybody’s darlings and that’s not about to change, but the majority of people seem to like the album a lot. I think the reason for that is we’re always listening to the fans when they tell us what they like and don’t like. That’s still a learning experience, even now. The important thing is that we continue to move forward even as we hold on to where Helloween came from.” Continue Reading
By Carl Begai
When Unisonic surfaced in 2012 it was something of a milestone in that former Helloween bandmates Michael Kiske (vocals) and Kai Hansen (guitars) were officially working together again. They crossed paths several times following Kiske’s departure from Helloween in 1993 – Hansen having jumped ship four years earlier – beginning with Kiske’s guest appearance on Gamma Ray’s Land Of The Free album in 1995, but it wasn’t until Avantasia’s European tour in 2010 where they shared the stage for a few songs each night that the prospect of collaborating on bigger and better things became serious. Kiske already had Unisonic on the go with former Gotthard guitarist Mandy Meyer, Pink Cream 69 bassist/producer Dennis Ward and drummer Kosta Zafiriou, and the decision was made to bring Hansen on board. Interest in the band spiked once the news went public, but the self-titled debut received a mixed bag of reactions. It wasn’t the Helloween Mark II people had expected beyond the ‘Unisonic’ single that kicked things off, yet the band was able to tour extensively and successfully on the strength of the album. Light Of Dawn is Unisonic’s second shot in the arm, and the band remains unapologetic for doing things their own way rather than according to other people’s designs.
“We came from our Place Vendome roots – me, Kosta and Michael – doing AOR stuff, and we knew we wanted to make melodic guitar-oriented music,” says Ward of Unisonic’s focus from the get-go. “I don’t want to insult anybody, and I sure don’t want to be rude, but we said from the beginning in a million different interviews that we’re not going to try and do anything remotely similar to Helloween. That was well stated so many times in advance, but we brought the record out and people were complaining that it wasn’t as heavy as they thought it would be. It was like, ‘Fucking hell, don’t you read? Don’t you care about what we said?’ I don’t want to be insulting, and with all due respect, we don’t give a shit about those complaints because we did what we wanted to do.”
“You have to look at the roots of the people in this band other than Michael, who has his metal roots way in the past. Kai came very late to the band, and the rest of us make hard rock music, not metal. It’s like Paul McCartney making a record that sounds like The Beatles; is he supposed to apologize for that? I don’t think so (laughs). No matter what we do we’re going to disappoint somebody, so we just stay true to ourselves. Slowly but surely we’re finding our way. On this album we tried some new stuff, we ventured farther into the dangerous metal realm (laughs). We left the dragons out but we tried to give the fans a little more of what they want to hear.” Continue Reading
By Carl Begai
Italian vocalist Fabio Lione first made his mark on the international metal scene in 1997 fronting Rhapsody – now known as Rhapody Of Fire for legal reasons – and holds that post to this day. Over the years, however, he has gained a reputation for being a reliable go-to replacement when circumstances make it impossible for a band to operate with their own singer. The most recent example of this was on Gamma Ray’s European tour, which featured Rhapsody Of Fire as support. Vocalist Kai Hansen was battling a serious case of bronchitis that threatened to derail the tour completely, but rather than pack it in they tapped several friends to fill in for Hansen at certain points of the nightly set. Lione pulled double duty for a good portion of the tour, performing a handful of songs for Gamma Ray on top of a full Rhapsody Of Fire set, hammering home performances that showcased just how formidable a vocalist he really is. It’s one thing to cover Helloween’s ‘Future World’ – a Gamma Ray staple that has been done to death – and quite another to nail ‘Empire Of The Undead’, a brand new song that Hansen himself has probably sung live less than 30 times.
Rhapsody Of Fire has been Lione’s top priority since the beginning, but in 2011 he was asked to front Kamelot on tour in place of Roy Khan who had bowed out (and eventually quit) for personal reasons. The Kamelot fanbase was quite naturally resistant to the idea of Lione behind the microphone, but by the end of the tour many fans agreed he had something significant to offer. In the end it was Seventh Wonder vocalist Tommy Karevik that got the job, but Lione’s ties to Kamelot are still intact.
“I love the guys in Kamelot,” says Lione. “I love the band, I love the crew, we had a beautiful tour. I think we did something like 49 shows together in North America, South America and Europe. The response in every place we played was great, so I know that it wasn’t easy for Thomas (Youngblood/guitars) to make the decision to choose someone else. Of course he preferred to get somebody that doesn’t already have a big band because it’s easier to manage the schedule without having to worry about what else is going on. In the end, I appreciate that we’re still really good friends. Thomas sends me emails every so often, he’s interested in doing a side-project with me, and I’m sure he’s happy with his decision to bring Tommy into the band.” Continue Reading
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
Reviewing a power metal band is no more rocket scientific than the music itself. Babble on about divine guitar shred, godlike vocals, throw around terms like “old school” and “traditional” and you’re done. And while this formula has been applied to Primal Fear in the past, to do so in discussing their new outing, Delivering The Black, would be a huge disservice to the band and the fans. Primal Fear is one of those rare acts that, 10 studio albums into their career, are more vital and vibrant than they were at the beginning, and anyone that’s been following them since 1998 will have one hell of a time arguing the point in 2014. Picking up where Unbreakable (2012) left off and leaving said record choking in the dust, Delivering The Black is a brilliant energetic romp through familiar territory on a level that will make it a go-to classic of the genre 20 years from now.
Delivering The Black grabs hold immediately with ‘King For A Day’, seals the deal with ‘Rebel Faction’, and digs its claws so damn deep it’s a shock, especially if you’re expecting ho-hum power metal-isms. The guitar riffs are huge at the hands of Magnus Karlsson, Alex Beyrodt and founder/producer/bassist Mat Sinner, while drummer Randy Black delivers some of the best steel backbone work of his career (‘King For A Day’, ‘Inseminoid’, ‘Rebel Faction’, ‘Delivering The Black’). As for vocalist Ralf Scheepers…. pffffff… the man has come a LONG way since his days with Gamma Ray and Primal Fear’s early albums. He still has one of the best high-pitched shrieks this side of Tim “Ripper Owens, Rob Halford and Kai Hansen, and his low-end voice now boasts grit, balls and character that sets him well apart from his aforementioned peers. Fact is it’s hard to pick Scheepers’ crowning moment on Delivering The Black because there are so damn many of ’em (although ‘Rebel Faction’ is probably the best track to sum up his overall performance). Continue Reading
So, me and my extended BW&BK family have issued our individual Best Of 2012 lists because that’s the sort of thing you do in this biz as the new year kicks off. I’ve decided to post my long-winded overview of the last 12 months here, with a link provided leading to my Top 10 Albums list along with other honourable (and dishonourable) mentions…
It was a rollercoaster of a year, as they all are in the music biz.
From being blindsided by Halestorm’s new album The Strange Case Of… and becoming a fan against my will, to dealing with a fuckwit promo rep at Roadrunner Records who decided to change my questions in an email interview because she felt they were “too harsh” for her artist (um, shouldn’t that be for the artist to decide?), to bucket list interviews with Brighton Rock’s Gerry McGhee and the lovely Lita Ford, to witnessing some amazing shows on both sides of the pond, 2012 has been quite the adventure.
See the list here for the Hot and Not albums of my year, then pick apart my sanity at your leisure.
Gotta say that I was surprised at not being disappointed by any of the shows I was able to attend this year. The third annual European run of Rock Meets Classic featuring Ian Gillan (Deep Purple), Steve Lukather (Toto), Chris Thompson (Manfred Mann’s Earth Band), three-fifths of Primal Fear’s roster and Trillium vocalist Amanda Somerville was positively brilliant, with PF singer Ralf Scheepers going above and beyond lending his voice to the Toto hit ‘Rosanna’ (!). Watching Devin Townsend successfully manipulate a Motörhead crowd into doing his bidding was a gut-buster, seeing former Helloween members Michael Kiske and Kai Hansen on stage together with Unisonic belting out classics ‘I Want Out’ and ‘Future World’ was ’87 surreal, and the Leaves’ Eyes / Firewind tour that looked so weird on paper turned out to be one of the best gigs of the past 12 months.
Nightwish gets a scrapbook all its own due to a brilliant show in Nuremberg – featuring more pyro than the sun – and a day and night hanging with some of the finest people in the metal business. 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
An excerpt from my recent interview with Piet Sielck, frontman and founder of Iron Savior, a band that should probably be dead and buried. In spite of some brutal odds, Sielck has succeeded in keeping things together and putting out a new album worthy of attention from the power metal legions. And from what he says, he’s getting it…
“The will to do this came back when I finally managed to solve the major issues with Dockyard 1. I sold the remains to AFM Records and (distributor) Soulfood Music in October 2010, and that was the point where I finally saw some light at the end of the tunnel. From that point on I definitely felt better, so I went in and cleaned out the studio, made it comfortable again. It was a good thing because it also cleared my mind. I was able to sit down and write music again. At the beginning I wrote the first complete song for The Landing, which was ‘Heavy Metal Never Dies’, and if you take a look at the lyrics and relate them to what I just told you about Dockyard you can say it was musical therapy for me (laughs).”
As Iron Savior albums go – seven in all – The Landing ranks as one of the strongest since the 1997 speed-happy self-titled debut. More metal-oriented than Megatropolis, the vibe and energy level is very reminiscent of Condition Red from 2002. Sielck agrees.
“It’s funny that you mention Condition Red because it was written under similar circumstances. I had a personal crisis to deal with before I started that album, but when it was over I went into writing Condition Red with a great attitude. It was the same thing when I wrote ‘Heavy Metal Never Dies’ for The Landing; it kicked my ass so bad that I was on fire (laughs). It felt like I could go on writing songs forever, to the point I was actually kind of sad when the writing sessions were over.” Continue Reading