Back in May, my Twitter feed burped this out at me: “30 years ago today, Helloween released Keeper of the Seven Keys Part I.” The memories flooded back. For most of you, our loyal thralls readers, 1987 isn’t even a glint in your papa’s eye. For me, though, it marks the 10th anniversary of my introduction to metal (also an upcoming YMIO), and a fantastic year for metal, in general — of course, a lot of hair/glam/sleaze metal (think Def Leppard, Guns N’ Roses, Great White), but for my money the record of the year was this puppy (ignore our local King Diamond fanboy if he rants in the comments section).1 So bear with me while I spend 700 words telling you why Keeper of the Seven Keys Part I was and still is the benchmark in power metal, and why you need to own it if you don’t already.
Back in the 80s, bands often put out a new record every year, and Keeper of the Seven Keys Part I followed hot on the heels of the band’s debut full-length the year prior, Walls of Jericho. A solid outing in its own right, Walls of Jericho suffered primarily from one major flaw, and that was vocals. Founding guitarist Kai Hansen wasn’t the world’s best singer, and he knew the material suffered because of it. Enter 18-year old Michael Kiske, he of the golden throat, and Helloween were off to the races.
“Initiation” fades in with orchestral hits followed by an anthemic, fist-pumping march which leads directly into the opening riff for “I’m Alive,” making this 1-2 punch the best album opener since “The Hellion/Electric Eye.” “I’m Alive” is pure, speedy power metal, similar to most of the content of Walls of Jericho but much more polished – and with Kiske’s stellar vocals blowing us away, like a cross between Rob Halford and Bruce Dickinson.
“A Little Time” has a great riff and a fun interlude, and again displays the dynamism Kiske brings to the table. Side 1 (c’mon, this was on vinyl when I got it!) is rounded out with “Twilight of the Gods” and “A Tale that Wasn’t Right.” The former is another blazing power metal number in the style of “I’m Alive” full of double kick drumming, staccato rhythm guitar, and speedy walking bass lines. The latter is the token slow-burn anthem on the album, with one of Hansen’s best solos the highlight, and of course Kiske’s operatic vocals.
Side 1 is excellent, but Side 2 is where it’s at. “Future World” leads things off with the coolest riff on the album — yet another example of power metal at its finest. “Halloween” is the star of the show, though, a thirteen-minute epic that has it all, and by itself could bear the power metal torch. It is the penultimate power metal song: an introduction as epic as “Initiation,” galloping, rapid-fire verses, a number of movements in the middle of the song with more great lead break tradeoffs between Hansen and Michael Weikath, and Kiski wailing “Ahhhh! It’s Halloween!” The atmospheric denouement “Follow the Sign” wraps things up in ominous fashion.
There is a downside to this album, people, and that is the production. While a remastered and expanded version helped slightly back in 2006, it wasn’t enough to overcome what can only be described as limp production — barely better than the quality of the embedded video below. While the mix is nicely balanced, the production is sadly lacking in bottom end, resulting in a thin sound that borders on shrill as one turns the volume up in an attempt to get the bass speakers shaking. And speaking of the video, it was blasphemy to us purists when it came out — a truncated “single” version of “Halloween.” It was better than nothing but failed to do justice to the song or album.
With such a stellar album to their credit, big things were expected of Helloween, but the band never really hit the mark. Part II was a respectable follow-up but it wasn’t lightning in a bottle like Part I was. Hansen left the band shortly thereafter and formed the similar-sounding Gamma Ray, and Kiske moved on in the mid-90s. Bad luck and tragedy followed as well, and while the band carried on, they never recaptured the glory that was Keeper of the Seven Keys Part I — still the pinnacle of power metal, thirty years later.