Secret Sphere – The Nature of Time (Frontiers Records – 2017)

I was incredibly sceptical going into this album. I’ve had some previous experience with the band, but left them for dead a while back. I was totally oblivious to the fact they had gotten a new singer and changed musical direction something fierce, this happened like five years ago. And all for the better.

 

The reason I wrote these Italiens off years ago was the style of power metal they played, I heaped them in with Rhapsody and all their sound-alike bands from Italy, justified in my opinion. They’ve changed in a more progressive direction, and I can hear a lot of Dream Theater inspiration on this record, and even a few bits of pure rip off.

 

The album is beautiful, artwork and all, just gorgeous. The same could be said about the music. Beautiful is the best word to describe it. Songs like Kindness, Love and Honesty are amazingly melodic, with a heavy tint. The songs flows and raps around your ears like a wonderful …. something or other.

 

The Dream Theater references are obvious, down to the guitar sound. Remember that twangy / chorusy guitar from Pull Me Under? It gets more than its fair share on this record. The lyrics are the heaviest part of the album, although some riffs are as heavy as one can expect from Italian progers, the main feel of the album is a soft, melodic type, with rough edges. The metaly metalriffs are spread out through the record and you get a taste on almost every song. The intro to otherwise ballady Faith, for instance, is surprisingly heavy. The Awakening is the heaviest  number on here. It’s built around a classical epic skeleton: A classical intro, with orchestra, that bursts into an amazingly technical guitar solo, befor the proggy rhythm parts steps in and you go to a fast verse, and then slow it down to a more melodic middle section, before going up tempo again for the chorus, and so forth and so on.

 

The melodies, riffs, lyrics and progressive elements mix together in really cool way. I’m totally digging this album, however there is one thing I really really don’t care for: I understand that as proggers they feel obliged to have one long story through the album, a concept. I’ve tried a few times to pick up on the story, but it’s not really speaking to me. I just don’t get it. The last 30 seconds of every track is dedicated to bringing the story forward, the story is poorly told. The soundbites thus become a nuisance and annoying, I wished they would have put them on separate tracks so could escape them easier.

+ Melodies, riffs, songwriting

– Lack of originality, unfulfilling concept / story, too much blatant Dream Theater ripping

 

Recommended tracks: Faith, Love, The Awakening, The Calling

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Masterplan – PumpKings (AFM 2017)

This must be the most unnecessary album I’ve experienced in quite some time. I have fond memories of nearly all the tracks on this re-recording from the original Helloween releases, but do I really need to have them in “a more modern”version? Heeeeell no!

Maybe the title should just be “Roland Grapow – Cranky and Bitter”? Productionvise the album is ok, up to modern standards, the cover art is ok for minor release like this. The timing of this release is more conspicuous; why now, mr. Grapow? The reason seems obvious, Roland didn’t get invited to the big Helloween reunion / celebration / money grab and now feels the need to mark his territory. And he goes about it like a dog would, by pissing on the stuff he feels belongs to him.

The music isn’t changed or revamped in any major way, they sound like lesser versions. However there are three distinct differences and none of them good:

  1. The vocals: Rick Altzi isn’t my favorite vocalist, but he has a rough voice with quite a bit of power. What he really lacks is the technique to sing this style. His voice is more suited towards a harder style of music. All these tracks were originally recorded by Andy Deris and Michael Kiske in their prime. Both of these are / were extremely talented singers and with a huge range and emotion in their voices. Rick Altzi isn’t anywhere near able to pull off their melodies and falls flat.
  2. The keyboard: Most of Helloweens songs has a keyboard in the mix at some level, sometimes barely audible, sometimes just pleasantly present. In this rerecording they are loud, ALL THE TIME. I’m not the biggest fan of keyboards, but it has it’s place and it’s functions. But this … this just too much.
  3. The guitarfills. Grapow uses every chance to include a little twiddelidi, sometimes it works most time it’s annoying.

 

The songs are still good, but I’d rather go with the originals. This seems like a bitter mans revenge fantasy; so they don’t want me with them? I’ll show ‘em, I’ll record my versions, they’re my songs after all, and that’l show ‘em MWAHA HA HA …. HA

 

Rating: 1,5 / 5

 

Running Wilde – Rapid Foray (Steamhammer 2016)

Rapid Foray this record is miles above the last two releases from Rock n Rolf. The last album was actually piss poor and not worthy of the Running Wild name. This release sees Kasparek play to his strength, easy melodies, hooky choruses, blistering solos and lyrics about historical events, and yes, of course, about pirates too.

The album seems to be a mix between his all of his records. Even though the format has more or less stayed the same throughout his career, some records have been better than others. Some songs stronger, some riffs more memorable. Rapid Foray sees Kasparak pick and choose between some of his best riffs, and repurposing them. He’s kind of ripping himself off in a way.

The Last of the Mohicans is the epic closer and just as with former Running Wild epics is one of the songs that works best. Kasparek is a good storyteller, and when he combines some driving riffs with the longer lyrics, it works for the most part.

The curse of the album is the sense that I’ve heard it all before, many a time I thought “wasn’t this on the such or such album?” Warmongers seems lifted from Pile of Skulls and Black Bart could have been taken from Black Hand Inn. No matter, this album must be viewed as a comeback of sorts.

The fun, speed and quality are back. I hope Rolf will do a better job of keeping the songwriting up, and maybe play a few shows outside of Germany for a change.

Recommended tracks: Rapid Foray, The Last of the Mohicans, The Depth of the Sea – Nautilus

Rating: 3,5/5

Helloween – My God-Given Right (Nuclear Blast 2015)

It is my honest opinion that when a band reaches a certain popularity or legacy, they will never make a great album again. There might be a few good songs left, but not entire records worth. There seems to be a few different ways of dealing with this fact of life. One possibility is to go the way of Deep Purple or Metallica and keep a fair amount of time between releases, keep the fans waiting  and growing restless. That way the will all rush out to greet the new record, mediocre or not. Another way is that of Sepultura or Megadeth, keep on pushing out records every second year, with a decline in quality and inspiration. But at least you keep the fans warm.

Helloween follows this second path of doing things, although it might be three years between records. The last truly inspired record they put out was “The Dark Ride” fifteen years ago. It’s true that the third keeper album had its moments, so did Gambling with the Devil. This time around the band sounds tired and uninspired, to such a degree that I had some difficulty getting through the entire thing.

My main issue with this album is Deris. I used to love his vocals. The live album from the nineties, “High Live”, is just amazing. He had this power and honesty in his voice. Gruff and grueling at times, soft and beautiful at others. Now he’s just playing it safe, not stretching for any kind of emotion. It’s so boring, tedious and (insert synonym for half assed here). If this album is a clue to his abilities now, then a hero has truly fallen.

Another issue is the rhythm section. Grosskopf has never been the focal point of Helloween, but this time he is barely audible, or indistinguishable from the lower end of the guitars. Also, Loeble seems more and more a placeholder on the drums. Helloween has had some amazing drummers in their past, Ingo Schwichtenberg and Uli Kusch were both amazingly creative drummers and played major roles in the sound of the band. Loeble might be a creative drummer too, but on this record he could have been replaced by the drum machine from Song Smith. I don’t know if he is not allowed to by the more senior members of the band or what the deal is, it’s just not what I’ve come to expect from the drummers of this band.

I was planning on making this a track by track review, but I won’t. I will lump the songs that sound uninspired, boring, half assed, unoriginal, waste of time or crap into a list I call: LEGAZY DESTROYING TUNES THAT SHOULDN’T HAVE BEEN: Heroes, My God-Given Right, Lost in America, The Swing of a Fallen World, Like Everybody Else, If God Loves Rock and Roll, Living on the Edge, I Wish I Were There, Wicked Game, Free World. That’s ten out of sixteen songs, now for the positive.

Claws, this song has some power and reminds me of Better than Raw. The riff is a proper metal riff, worthy of Weikaths good name. Finally a proper guitar solo, yay!  Russian Roulé has a nice drive to it. I like the dual guitar leads between the verses. Deris gets to show off his mid-range crunch, which he apparently is still able to do, but most times choses not to?

Battles Won is a classic Helloween song, both in sound, style and is, to me at least, the obvious choice for a lead single. It is truly one of the highlights of the record.

You, still of War is the best song on here. I actually like this one. It had me fooled for a moment, the intro made me expect another ballad, but then the guitars truly kick in and heavy metal magic ensues. Aaaaah this is what I want! Great, powerful riffs, blistering solos, easy to remember melodies, jippi!

It’s not all bad, but a sixteen track album with ten fillers, wouldn’t it have made more sense to make it a ten track or eight track with only a couple of fillers? I think maybe my time with Helloween has come to its end, in a way. I will still pull out the old classics, some of the best metal ever written, but I don’t think I will buy any more new material.

Recomended downloads: «You, Still of War», «Battles Won», «Claw»

Storm Warrior – Thunder & Steele

Storm Warrior is just as predictable as ever. The music is fast, riffy (is that a word?) and great guitar playing. There was however one thing that threw me; no long, drawn out, boring as shit, intro. On this record they just blast right into it.

The opener, Thunder & Steel, is amazing. Fast, fun and with great riffs. The fun continues on the next track, Metal Avenger, which has all the hallmarks of Storm Warrior, including the sing along chorus.

Then follow a string of uninspired and run of the mill power metal, right up until song number seven, Die by the Hammer. Suddenly we are back in business with speed, riffs and energy. The album finishes off strong, the seven minute anthem, One Will Survive, and the closer, Servants of Metal, are both great songs.

All in all the album is only medium, when it’s great, it’s great, but the mediocrity of half the album is just too much mediocrity.

Recommended downloads: Thunder & Steel, Metal Avenger, One Will Survive

Rating 3/5

Gamma Ray – Empire of the Undead (Ear 2014)

This album made me realise that I’m one of those people who complain no matter what. Oh this new album sounds too much like the last one / This album doesn’t sound like you at all, what on earth made you change your sound etc. etc. Because my first thought was: This sounds so much like Gamma Ray it’s not even funny. My second thought was: They really got their shit together on this, reminds of the classic Gamma Ray albums.

In other words I’m torn between wanting them to change and wanting them to stay true to what I liked about them in the first place. Luckily for me, Empire of the Undead has a bit both.

The first track, Avalon, is interesting in more ways than one. First of all, to open an album with a ten minute song, is a rare thing and risky. You risk losing your impatient audience before you have properly started, and it also invites track skipping and hit picking. I’m an album guy, a truly good release is something that you put on and then it flows, with better and worse parts, but with an overall plan, sound, style and quality, but with a ten minute opener you risk losing me from the get go. Luckily Avalon is interesting and well crafted, a bit repetitive at times. It’s not up there with Rebellion in Dreamland etc.but it’s good.

Hellbent is an old school power metal tune. A pulsating, riff heavy song, with a singalong chorus and lyrics concerning how big a metalhead you turned out to be. ‘Gotta love it.

Pale Rider and Born to Fly are run of the mill Gamma Ring tunes, with alot of things happening guitar wise and nice, punchy, vocal melodies. Master of Confusion is everything I want from Gamma Ray, fast, riffy, hooky and something to sing along to.

Next up is the title track, Empire of the Undead. It’s a good song, but it’s lacking something, something I can’t put my finger on, I don’t know. The song really has it all, and the lyrics deal with zombies and cemeteries and creepy stuff, so that can’t be it. Maybe it’s Kais somewhat weird pronunciation of the word empire? I really don’t know.

And now it’s ballad time. Time for Deliverance is a run of the mill ballad, and I won’t spend time on it here.

Demonseed turns us back to what Gamma Ray is all about, fast great riffs and also sport a rather creepy sound clip. The two last songs are among the strongest songs Kai and the boys have released in quite some time. Seven is maybe the fastest song on the album. I Will Return even has an audio clip of Arnie himself saying his famous line.

Heidra – Sworn to Vengeance (2013)

Heidra - Sworn to Vengeance

 

The Danes in Heidra show of their Scandinavian heritage on this EP. Their music is mostly rooted in the Scandinavian power metal sound.

Opening track, Kinsmenn, has a Finntroll-type folk metal meets Stratovarius or Hammerfall power metal, with hints of Norwegian / Swedish black metal thrown in there. It’s a bit cheesy, but all in all a fun song.

The title track is a real killer. Power metal with sprinkles of folk is the main sound, but there is little hints of Gothenburg melodic death metal in the vocals. The final track Where Darkness Dwells is the weakest of the three songs on here, but it’s still pretty good. But after just three songs it gets a little stale and old. If they took it a bit further and differentiated a bit more, even though they mix different styles together, it gets predictable … fast.

The EP sounds good, the production is excellent. The songs by themselves sound great. I will definitely follow this band in the future.