Helloween has always been a sticky wicket for yours truly. I worshipped their debut EP and the first two albums, which basically were the Old Testament for how Euro power metal should sound. With Keeper of the Seven Keys Part II came the disturbing trend of incorporating candy-coated, cutesy, tongue-in-cheeks numbers presumably designed to appeal to 12 year old girls and soccer moms. When they titled the follow-up album Pink Bubbles Go Ape, Steel Druhm packed his bags, said his goodbyes to Gorgar and decamped from the Helloween fan club. I ignored everything they did until 98s Better Than Raw, and while there were a few good songs on the album, all the child-like stupidity was there as well, killing my interest and preventing me from taking them seriously. Since then, I’ve made occasional efforts to check in when this album or that got a lot of buzz, but I never found any of their later releases essential, despite some decent moments. That brings us to Straight Out of Hell, their fourteenth goddamn album. Well, I don’t know what got into these pumpkin headed freaks, but they added a lot more spice to this batch of tunes. You get a few great examples of classic Euro-power with all the frills and lace, a few average to above average tracks and only ONE that truly sucks and drags everything down (that’s a really good ratio for them!). On the whole, the good here far outweighs the bad and I’ll notch that as a significant victory for them. Maybe they’re finally trying to ween (sorry) themselves off the dumb stuff, maybe they just got lucky. Who knows?
Showing their “good side” right off the bat, opener “Nabataea” shows the quality writing and playing they’re capable of when so inclined. It’s a blazing dose of pure, pristine power metal with polish, class and panache. Andi Deris sounds great and his high register vocals during the chorus work to perfection. The leads are pumping and energetic and though the song shifts tempo multiple times, it keeps on rolling in a nicely cohesive way. Songs this good really make me wonder why they refuse to forgo the juvenile, kiddie hour bullshit they insist on including on each and every opus. Also impressive are follow ups “World at War,” (which sounds like old timey, Keepers era material with a bit of nu metal riffing added in) and “Live Now,” which has punchy, Dream Theater-ish guitar work in what is basically a straight-forward, anthemic power metal tune and it has its share of hooks. Andi shines on both these tracks and his vocals really make the songs pop.
Other winners include the edgy and memorable “Burning Sun” which showcases Andi’s superb, Ralf Scheepers-esque raspy wail and a BIG chorus straight from the Power Metal Hall of Fame; and the earwormy piano line guiding the mid-tempo rumble of “Waiting for the Thunder” (both sound like composites of Primal Fear and Scheepers-era Gamma Ray).
Others like “Far From the Stars,” “Years” and the title track are solid and enjoyable, but also predictable and safe examples of the Gamma-Strato-Ween school of power. The obligatory power ballad “Hold Me In Your Arms” is super schmaltzy, but not too bad when you get right down to it. While the odd, stomping, soccer stadium anthem “Wanna Be God” annoyed me at first, I admit it grew on me with further spins, but it won’t be everyone’s cup of pumpkin tea.
The Romper Room moment of Straight Out of Hell comes during the tedious, immature plod of “Asshole,” in which the band calls someone an asshole for the song’s duration. I doubt I would have found this amusing when I was a teenager, so I REALLY don’t cotton to it at my advanced age. It sticks out from the rest of the album like a turd in a punch bowl and it ruins the flow and mood completely. It’s a pointless and moronic addition to an otherwise solid and classy power metal album.
Andi Deris is the star of the show here as he’s been on every Helloween platter since they recruited him. The man has a big voice and loads of versatility. He can sound crystal clear and pure one minute and sound like Halford’s meaner brother the next. He pulls off scorchers and sappy love songs with equal aplomb and he’s on his game on this album. The riffery from Sascha Gerstner and Michael Weikath is generally solid and drifts into very good often enough to earn them props. They don’t do anything new, but they know the power metal game inside and out and their playing shows it. There’s a lot of rousing, churning leads here that keep the energy pumping, regardless of the tempo.
So, while I expected very little here, this turned out to be their best album in forever (and no, I didn’t buy into the hype about Keepers: The Legacy being some type of genre classic). I’m happy to see less of the rotten, grade school side of Helloween and I’m hopeful they can keep moving in this direction and continue to minimize the pablum. I won’t go out of my gourd and say Helloween is back, but its nice to see the Great Pumpkin flying high again after so many years buried in the ground.