Wow, these guys have been around forever! Empire of the Undead is Gamma Ray‘s eleventh freaking album, and we get it despite the fact their recording studio burned down and everything was lost, except the masters for this baby. So what do you get from a band so beloved and long in the tooth? A lot more of the same stuff they always deliver. Big power metal anthems, wild guitar harmonies and that classic Germanic power style. Though the band promised a more thrashy album, this is pretty much just another Gamma Ray outing with a few stellar cuts, some oddballs and a few undercooked biscuits too. It has more good than bad though, and even the lackluster ditties are fairly innocuous. What matters most is Kai Hansen’s crew continues to soldier on, delivering the power metal goods he helped invent way back in Helloween‘s embryonic days.
Following in the footsteps of such classic albums as Land of the Free, things open with “Avalon,” a nine minute plus chunk of bombastic majesty as only such seasoned vets could deliver. While It’s always risky to lead with your biggest song, “Avalon” is an instant classic and one of their best songs ever. It sounds like a mix of vintage Gamma Ray and the more recent overblown anthems of Avantasia as it successfully blends traditional, power and even gothic metal into a big, fist pumping titan, reeking of epic deeds. Kai’s voice sounds quite good and at times he even channels Saxon‘s Biff Byford. There are also a lot of Maiden-isms evident in the guitar-work, and I always say, everything sounds better with some Maiden in it!
The rest of Empire can’t live up to the bar set by the opener, but that doesn’t mean all is lost. “Hellbent” is a speedy, urgent ditty with riffs harkening back to Kai’s Walls of Jericho days. The title track is a barn burning, thrash spectacle that reminds me of Di’anno era Maiden sped way up and borrowing attitude from Nasty Savage. The riffing and guitar harmonies are addicting and it’s mindless fun in the way metal is supposed to be. “Seven” is a rousing anthem with a chorus Bruce Dickinson would steal at rapier point for his solo albums, and I defy you to listen to it without imagining him singing the fuck out of it with one foot up on an stage monitor. Things wind out nicely with the very Accept-like and ballsy “I Will Return.”
Not bad, but a bit less stirring is “Pale Rider,” which mixes Accept with Edguy and Sisters of Mercy for what can only be called a weird time. The power ballad “Time for Deliverance” is the same smaltzy kind of tune Gamma Ray (and for that matter, all power metal bands) feels compelled to do, and it’s pretty rough. The only redeeming feature is the chorus, which for some reason reminds of something a young Tom Waits would come up with. Hell, Kai even sounds a bit like His Gruffness as he warbles and rasps away. Worst of the bunch by far is “Demonseed” and it’s third-rate, Jorn style blues rock (or tenth rate Dio if you like completeness). It’s just a bad song, and could have been an outtake from Headless Cross. Other tracks like “Master of Confusion” and bonus track “Born to Fly” are typical, generic Gamma tunes, not terrible, but not overly memorable either.
For an old timer, Kai still sounds pretty good on most of the songs, though his upper ranges get ragged and rough. On songs like “Avalon” though he still shows his mettle and why he influenced generations of power metal divas to attach the scrotal vice and sing to the heavens. Not sounded ragged at all are the guitar pyrotechnics from Kai and Henjo Richter. The songs are all full of wild, frenzies solos and melodic harmonies, some flat out amazing. The band sounds tight and whether the songs are good or bad, there’s always something going on to catch the ear.
Sounding a bit schizophrenic at times, Empire is fun, flawed and metal as fuck. Don’t look for innovation, don’t expect a return to their glory days, just enjoy it for what it is and raise the rusted fist of metal into the red skies of doom (or you know, play it loud and piss off your neighbors). Kai for President!