Power Metal 101: Meet Helloween
Class is back in session!
Some geek once told me through the impressive gap in his teeth that his “pen was mightier than my sword.” I cut him and his pen clean in half with a single horizontal slash, spilled ink mixing with spilled blood in a poser-killing swirl of black and red which I promptly applied to my dry elbows as if it were a lotion.
Now, however, the worthy Randall Thor has asked that I take a more constructive approach to teaching posers lessons — teaching posers actual lessons. Last week he schooled you on Blind Guardian, and if that didn’t transform you all into ravening fans of power metal and glorious steel, I sincerely question the value of your lives. Redeem yourselves! Today’s power-lesson is on Helloween.
Helloween is objectively the dumbest band name ever. When you wear a Helloween shirt, radio-svcking casuals just assume you’re some nerd promoting some sort of seasonal store specializing in costumes and spooky decorations for your porch. In reality, you’re an even bigger nerd sporting the foremost pioneers of Power Metal, which is admittedly less socially acceptable. While it’s true that they likely wouldn’t exist without the soaring heavy metal of Maiden, Rainbow and Dio to build upon, these Germans braved the cheesy frontier and are in no small part responsible for Power Metal’s presence in the world today. So blame them! Regardless of their stupid name, Helloween, their bad hair, and their stupid jack-o-lantern deserve your respect!
Formed in 1984 and still alive and kicking in 2014, Helloween has had a long and illustrious career and is currently showing no sign of slowing down. In spite of the roller coaster of line-up changes and failed experimentation, they remain a dominant, universally-respected force in the genre. Mr. Randall didn’t leave me with a rubric (or an ethical code, for that matter), so I’m just going to approach this in the way that makes the most sense. Helloween’s career can generally be divided into three Eras: The Pre-Kiske Era, the Kiske Era, & the Post-Kiske or Deris Era (not to be confused with “Dies Irae“). Let’s get started.
THE PRE-KISKE ERA:
In 1984, Helloween was formed by Kai Hansen and a group of other dudes with fucking ridiculous last names. Kai was on guitar and vocals, Michael Weikath on guitar, Marcus Grosskopf on bass, and Ingo Schwichtenberg on drums. Do note that Weikath and Grosskopf are the only founding members still in the band. The most important thing to come out of the Pre-Kiske era and probably any era of the world ever was their debut album, Walls of Jericho. While clearly operating within the framework of speed metal, some of the rhapsodic choruses and overblown guitar solos allude to the Powerful future. So much so, in fact, that Walls of Jericho is considered by some to be the very first true power metal album. Obviously the exact point at which heavy metal becomes power metal is the source of heavy debate, but I’m inclined to agree here, at least a little. “Guardians” contains the blueprint for the ubiquitous power metal chorus, which bands across the world emulate to this day (sometimes unashamedly note-for-note).
Some people consider Walls of Jericho to be Helloween’s best album. Others consider it to be Gamma Ray’s best album (we’ll get to that later). Either way, its prestige as a pioneering force can’t be argued with.
THE KISKE ERA:
Meet Michael Kiske. Immediately following the tour in support of Walls of Jericho, the band began to search for a new lead vocalist, likely because it became apparent during the tour that young Kai Hansen — who had not yet achieved immortality — was having a bit of difficulty singing and playing guitar simultaneously. So Helloween snagged Michael Kiske from some lame local group called Ill Prophecy, who have now amounted to nothing and likely harbor extreme Kiske envy/hate deep within their old, dying hearts. He became lead vocalist and Kai Hansen focused on writing and playing guitar.
In 1987 and 1988, Helloween released Keeper of the Seven Keys Pt. I and Keeper of the Seven Keys Pt. II. Unlike Walls of Jericho these two albums are indisputably power metal and are almost unanimously accepted genre masterworks, inspiring countless bands to follow in their gloriously cheesy footsteps. “I’m Alive” was Kiske’s big first appearance and it only took him 20 seconds to convince the 20 Helloween fans that existed at that time that he was more than capable of handling vocal duties.
Putting the spotlight on the anthemic, high-flying vocal harmonies and the prominent return of those “Guardian”-esque power chord/gallops, Keeper of the Seven Keys I and II defined the European school of power metal. Listen to the chorus of “Eagle Fly Free” for a perfect example of that, or the beginning of “Twilight of the Gods” for THE most power metal moment in recorded music up to that point. The Kiske Era is what put Helloween on the metal map. These albums are the reasons, and they’re damn good ones.
Unfortunately, the great Tom Petty was right when he became the first person to ever say “what goes up must come down.” When the Kiske Era went down, it went down hard. Kai Hansen, dissatisfied for multiple reasons (many involving their record label), left the band in 1989 and formed the mighty Gamma Ray a year later, where he eventually learned to play guitar and sing at the same time. He was replaced by Roland Grapow, and the band went on to release Pink Bubbles Go Ape in 1991, just as rumors of Helloween’s possible disbandment starting cropping up. It’s a strange album. Decent songs like “Someone’s Crying” and “Kids of the Century” are interspersed throughout a lackluster record, with a few tracks that are so bad that it’s actually offensive. Songs like “Heavy Metal Hamsters”, “Doin’ Fine, Crazy Man”, and “Shit and Lobster” sound as dumb as they read, and they make it hard to believe that four out of five of these guys contributed to Keepers of the Seven Keys.
Most importantly, these duds were harbingers for the shitpile that was to follow them: everything on 1993’s Chameleon.
Apparently failing to learn their lesson from the pathetically bad commercial and critical reception of Pink Bubbles Go Ape, Helloween somehow thought Chameleon would be a good idea. It was not. Chameleon was and is shit. Nobody ever liked or currently likes Chameleon. Randall Thor might tell you that he likes it, but I can assure you that he doesn’t, because nobody does.
It’s really just an uninspired pop/rock album with the occasional horn section and other “musical experimentation” so they could try to pass it off as progressive. Apparently it’s titled “Chameleon“ because it changes style from song to song. It certainly does so, much like a housefly travels from one turd to another. Make no mistake, Chameleon is Helloween’s Cold Lake. The only difference, and perhaps its only redeeming quality, is that it’s not associated with this.
Following Chameleon, the band quite predictably fell apart. Schwichtenberg was fired from the band because drugs, and Kiske followed soon after due to Weikath’s refusal to work with him any longer after years of butting heads.
THE POST-KISKE/DERIS ERA:
In 1994, Helloween picked up their current vocalist, Andi Deris and released the comeback they so desperately needed, Master of the Rings. The speed, the headbangability, and the powerful choruses all made their triumphant return, and Andi Deris managed to fill Kiske’s shoes, despite being even bigger than those fucking ridiculous ones you see at Ross. His unique timbre and vibrato compliment the music quite well, and he didn’t take long to prove his mettle when it comes to songwriting; he continued to write some of Helloween’s best material.
To posit that Deris is better than Kiske (or vice versa) in a power metal circle is to spark a debate that will most likely deteriorate into a shitstorm of personal insults. I typically stay out of them because they can get genuinely frightening, but I will say this. Insults directed at Michael Kiske may not reach him all the way up on the fourth octave where there is nary a Deris to be found. That being said, without Andi Deris, Helloween probably would have either a) ended on a bad note with Chameleon, or b) released more bad albums and ended on a different bad note.
Instead, they ushered in the Helloween’s most consistent era ever. Eight of their nine (!) albums since 1994 have been very well-received, the only real misstep being 2003’s Rabbit Don’t Come Easy. That’s quite a feat for a band who put out two stinkers right before firing the fan-favorite.
Helloween are still hard at work cleaning up what Chameleon did to the sheets, and it seems to be working. Last year’s Straight Out of Hell is arguably the best of Deris Era Helloween and a modern power metal classic.
CLASS DISMISSED. Your homework: Go out and slay some posers with steel! Randall will collect their corpses when you come to class next week.