Heading for Tomorrow(Noise Records - 1990)
Here's a conundrum: If a band like Helloween is accused of losing its edge when a key member splits the band, then why doesn't his new band have an edge either? Kai Hansen, the guitarist, early vocalist and one of the songwriters of Helloween, forms Gamma Ray (with Ralf Scheepers on vocals), and releases this very uneven and weak power-metal debut. 'Lust for Life' is classic speedy Helloween power-metal material but features a pop-sounding chorus, and it is one of the good tracks. The rest feature cheesy anthems, pop-metal, heavy keyboards, glam-metal, commercial choruses, silly humor, corny ballads, and everything that shouldn't be in good power-metal. There's also an overlong 14 minute indulgent track that goes nowhere although it features a long Pink-Floyd-esque guitar solo and interlude, and the final track is a Uriah Heep cover. The vocals and instruments are somewhat competent with Scheepers delivering a slightly nasal and siren-like power-vocals, but this is one to avoid.
Sigh No More(Noise Records - 1991)
Hansen should have taken time off to think of where he was going. Instead he releases this uninspired collection of cheesy hard rock, pop-metal and glam-metal tracks, mixed with faint traces of power-metal. Scheepers even switches to a typical glam-metal-sounding huskier vocal. He didn't have to break off from Helloween to release a Pink Bubbles album for crying out loud. This is terrible stuff that isn't worth reviewing. Gamma Ray would find its way later.
Insanity and Genius(Noise Records - 1993)
Thankfully, it's back to power-metal on this release, albeit still heavily seeped with commercialism in various forms, and many tracks are still firmly in the heavy-metal genre. Scheepers's voice can really grate inappropriately at times with his glam-metal vocal-antics, although he tends to sound like Halford often now. He demonstrates an astoundingly wide range, from husky Lemmy-esque snarl to falsetto scream, high-range operatics and insane guttural screams, but it's his singing style that is the problem, as well as the songwriting. There are more layered Queen-esque choir-vocals that made brief appearances on previous albums, and Hansen also tries his hand at the vocals on 'Heal Me' and they haven't improved much since his Helloween days, but his guitar playing is good. Some tracks feature speedier guitars and classic riffing, but the majority of the sound here is intolerably cheesy or commercial, ranging from catchy hard rock, to power or heavy-metal, a Motorhead-esque track 'Your Turn is Over', some silly punk, some Judas Priest rockers, and a chaotic 8-minute rock opera. Gamma Ray obviously isn't there yet.
Land of the Free(Noise Records - 1995)
Quoted as labelling the last three albums as a 'mistake', Hansen goes back to his roots with a vengeance. The roots, in this case, being speed-metal and unadulterated power-metal. He also takes over vocal duties after an amicable parting with Scheepers (who went off to try to join Judas Priest, and then started his own band Primal Fear). This release is hailed as an absolute classic of power-metal by many, but, personally, I find it to be a very frustrating mixed bag of superb musicianship, inconsistent quality and tone of compositions, and some weak vocals. When it's good though, it is great indeed. As a speed & power metal album, the guitar playing is as tight and impressive as can be, with the competent drums keeping up. The vocals vary, but, in general they suffer when you place them next to the classic powerful voices of the genre like Kiske/Deris/Lione/etc. (And it doesn't help that Kiske performs on two tracks ('Land of the Free' & 'Time to Break Free'), reminding us of what professional vocals sound like.) It's not that the vocals are bad, but 'listenable' or 'acceptable' is not good enough for this muscular music. Hansen actually fares quite well on some tracks and when he consciously puts power behind his vocals (sometimes going for a nice Rob halford impression), but his vocals are inconsistent, often lacking power, control and flair. There is also a terrible falsetto that is thankfully used sparingly, and vocal harmonics are sprinkled throughout the tracks to good effect. Regarding the compositions, they are a mixed bag, with most of the good songs in the first half of the album: 'Rebellion in Dreamland' is the anthemic 9-minute opener that I found too bombastic for my taste, but it has a great middle section. 'Man on a Mission' is speedy fun with a flawed vocal section, 'All of the Damned' is possibly my favorite power-metal track of the album, the title track is quite good as well with a Judas-Priest-sounding section, as is the slower 'Gods of Deliverance'. But then there is the painfully horrible ballad 'Farewell', the strangely obnoxious and silly vocal lines on 'Salvation's Calling', and the cheesy heavy-metal song 'Time to Break Free', and a few mediocre tracks at the end. In short, this release has its many good points, but it is hardly a masterpiece of power metal, even though the speed and guitars are ideal for this genre. However, it obviously appeals to many despite its flaws, so feel free to give it a listen.
Alive '95(Noise Records - 1996)
A live album, but with the limited amount of good tracks in their repertoire and Hansen on vocal duties, I wasn't expecting much. Obviously, the focus is on the vastly better album 'Land of the Free', but there are also some older tracks: the good 'Tribute to the Past', and the poor 'Space Eater' and 'Heal Me'. And finally, included are two covers of Helloween tracks that Hansen wrote, and a Holocaust cover 'Heavy Metal Mania'. Hansen's undisciplined, weak and sloppy vocals are laid bare in this live performance, especially on 'Future World' which was originally performed by Kiske and therefore suffers greatly from the comparison. All this makes for a poor release to my ears at least.
Somewhere Out in Space(Noise Records - 1997)
Gamma Ray had been going through many line-up and sound changes until this album, but this is where everything locked into place. A final line-up change involved the guitar player (Schlachter) switching to bass, and a new drummer and guitarist, while Hansen remains on vocals and guitars. The new drums and guitars stand out in their impressive technical proficiency and definitely make their personal mark. The sound maintained its up-tempo, melodic and playful speed-metal base, but added extra keyboards, electronic effects, and a space-theme. This whole ensemble will stick around for a while during many of the following releases. The production on this album is a tad on the booming, bombastic and echoing side, which hurts the sharp music a lot, and this isn't helped by heavy use of keyboards on some tracks. Hansen's vocals have improved again and are almost there, but they still lack the power, quality and control I look for, and they get patchy when he attempts something out of his range. The music itself, technically and objectively speaking, is quite good and should appeal to many people. But, personally, I couldn't get into it and couldn't quite put my finger on what bothers me, especially since the guitar and drum playing impressed me. This is probably because of a combination of factors: The vocals and sound engineering are definite problems, also the simplistic vocal lines and keyboards tend to wander into radio-friendly heavy-metal territory too often on this release, and the bombastic compositions sometimes forget to breathe. Either way, the music didn't grab me for the most part, but I can see it working for others. The better tracks are the more epic and traditional-sounding power-metal tunes like 'The Guardians of Mankind' and 'The Winged Horse', and the title track crushes with its speed, but there is also a weak ballad once again and many cheesy or generic heavy metal tracks. In summary, I'd say the vocals and production hurt it the most, followed by the inconsistent tone and styles in the music. But the guitars and speed-metal instrumental playing are great.
Power Plant(Noise Records - 1999)
More of the same, except it's starting to sound uninspired this time and the tracks vary more in style. If, after listening to five albums with Hansen's vocals, they still bother me and get in the way of the music, then I think it is safe to conclude that they are just not for me, regardless of how much he improves. They are simply too thin and wobbly for the most part, except on occasion when he puts in extra effort, layers dual vocal lines, or sings with backing vocals. I don't think it has to do with the mixing, but that may be a factor as well. He also attempts his best Judas Priest impression on some tracks like 'Anywhere in the Galaxy' and 'Gardens of the Sinner' and they aren't bad, surprisingly, but they are definitely mixed too low. Fewer keyboards are used this time around, thankfully, but several of the choruses and solos splice together speed/power with pop-metal or cheesiness, and there seems to be a lot of 'copying' of styles from various bands: The aforementioned Judas Priest tracks, a bit of Maiden on 'Razorblade Sigh', a touch of Yngwie on 'Wings of Destiny', and a painfully cheesy Manowar tune 'Heavy Metal Universe', and Queen on 'Armageddon'. There is also a metallized cover of 'It's a Sin' (Pet Shop Boys), and a corny heavy-metal track 'Short as Hell'. In short, some good stuff drowned in weak vocals and too much pop-metal, which is a pity, because I still like the speed-metal guitars.
No World Order!(Metal-Is Records - 2001)
This time around, the speed-metal is replaced with slower paced heavy metal and a whole lot of Judas Priest borderline heavy-thrash. But its the new energetic sound that catches your ears first, creating a first impression that this the best Gamma Ray album to date. The music erupts out of your speakers with power. But then you realize that it is all generic-sounding power, some of it cliched, some of it dull or uninspired. Several tracks splice together Judas Priest with melodic power-metal with a sprinkling of Maiden-esque guitars, and other tracks are plainer heavy metal, some of them cheesy or cliched, or sounding like a thrashier WASP on a bad day. On 'Eagle', for example, the Judas Priest muscular metal and the melodic power-chorus seem to cancel each other out. Copying Judas Priest is not a bad thing, besides the uninspired feel of the music that is, except that Hansen's vocals are very inconsistent, some of them pretty good, and others wobbly and thin. Other standouts include the good 'Heart of the Unicorn' that also blends Priest with melodic power-metal, the bad 'Heaven or Hell' with its glam-metal choir and cheesy keyboards, 'Solid' is another pretty good Judas Priest track, a couple of good power-metal tracks 'Dethrone Tyranny' and 'Follow Me' and the surprisingly good but overlong ballad closer 'Lake of Tears'. Altogether, this presents a handful of good tracks, and a good energetic sound and production overall, but it is too inconsistent and generic-sounding to enjoy as a whole and to compel me to come back to it. I'm just about ready to give up on Gamma Ray.
Skeletons in the Closet(Metal-Is Records - 2003)
A double live album, the set-list chosen by fans from lesser known Gamma Ray tracks. There seem to be a wide variety of fans though, just like there is a wide variety of tunes in Gamma Ray's backlog, and the result is all over the place. From great power and speed metal, to cheesy heavy metal off the first three albums, and everything in between. Skeletons in the Closet indeed. As long as you are a hardcore Gamma Ray fan and enjoy this approach to the set-list, you should enjoy this release, since the sound captures the live, energetic atmosphere and the whole band is technically in top form. Even Hansen's vocals are relatively stronger.
Majestic(Metal-Is Records - 2005)
Well, well, what do we have here. I do believe all of the past elements of Gamma Ray have finally boiled together after enough time to fuse together into a winning sound and release. We've got power-metal, speed-metal, NWOBHM, heavy metal with infusions of commercialism, Judas Priest cloning, touches of thrash, and even a bit of neo-classical and other experimental dark sounds, all blended seamlessly to produce this slab of metal. Even Hansen's vocals, which have always bothered me in the past, have accumulated enough power and disciplined control by now to make them enjoyable and to allow them to add to the music rather than just singing along with it. As always since Somewhere Out on Space, both the guitars and the drums are technically impressive and stand out in their energy and professionalism. But it's the compositions that put it all together, not afraid to explore darker territory this time, as well as some gothic Black Sabbath-esque sounds in 'Majesty', and some teasing but tasteful nu-metal riffing on 'Condemned to Hell'. There is a sprinkling of neo-classical guitar riffing that greatly adds to some songs, and the guitar solos are superb as always. The album only falters on the horrible 'How Long', a cheesy hard-rock/glam-metal throwback, but then the album closes on a 9 minute power-metal soaring majestic epic 'Revelation' with full choirs and classical sound, which is probably Gamma Ray's best composition. In short, a recommended release for power-metal audiences and the first album by Gamma Ray that really won me over.
Land of the Free II(Steamhammer - 2007)
After their best two albums, Gamma Ray choose to revisit their landmark speed/power-metal album and release a sequel. Except that all of their albums since then have had slightly non-traditional influences and sounds besides pure speed & power metal. So this could go in different directions, but I was hoping for a speed-metal masterpiece that would fix the flaws of the original (weak vocals and some cheesy tracks) and also feature darker and classical sounds from Majestic. Much to my disappointment, Hansen's vocals have gone weak again, and although this release does have good energy and plenty of classic & speedy power metal, it also features some cheese and 80s up-tempo, overly-happy power metal. In short, it truly is a sequel. Hansen's vocals are inconsistent again, ranging from good high-pitched power vocals to wobbly, sickly thin, or even off-tune. 'From the Ashes' and 'When the World' are both good power-metal tracks but feature blatant Iron Maiden plagiarism, 'Rain', 'Leaving Hell', 'Empress' and 'Real World' are all heavily infused with cheesy heavy metal, 'Opportunity' is just bad, plodding songwriting for 7 minutes until it suddenly swerves into more Maiden copying, and it includes terribly off-tune vocals, the 11-minute Insurrection meanders a lot and features more broken vocals and Maiden cloning, and the rest of the tracks are above-average but not overwhelming power/speed. In short, yet another mixed bag from Gamma Ray with bothersome weak vocals.
Hell Yeah!!! The Awesome Foursome(Steamhammer - 2008)
A double-live release. The full title is 'Hell Yeah!!! The Awesome Foursome And The Finnish Keyboarder Who Didn't Want To Wear His Donald Duck Costume - Live In Montreal'. Obviously, Gamma Ray is letting loose and having fun. The energy is here, and so is the good sound and instrumental performance, and even Hansen sounds relatively good on vocals. The set-list of 22 tracks is eclectic and selected from a variety of albums and styles, from good speedy numbers to a 10 minute interactive version of 'Heavy Metal Universe' to some carefully selected earlier material played with increased energy and lively re-interpretations, and although several tunes are not as interesting, there aren't any really poor numbers. In short, as far as live albums go, this is quite good and recommended to Gamma Ray and live-album fans.
To the Metal!(earMUSIC - 2010)
More of the same power-heavy-metal with blatant and obvious Maiden/Priest plagiarism, sounding tired now. There is energy and some speedier songs and great guitar-work as usual, but the compositions and riffs always feel like copies, there are the usual forays into commercial heavy metal, and Hansen sticks almost exclusively to his lower-range lackluster singing for many of the songs this time. It's a jarringly confused set of songs, even more so than in earlier releases, many of the compositions lack aggression, opting for radio-friendly melody and generic sounding heavy metal instead. And then there are scattered tracks that go for aggressive speed metal, most of which don't make an impact. 'Shine Forever' stands out with its energetic speed-metal and Priest muscle and vocals except that it shifts back and forth inappropriately to happy & melodic power, there's a duet with Kiske on the good but forgettable power-metal tune 'All You Need to Know', 'Rise' and 'Chasing Shadows' are more classic power metal but don't make too much of an impact beyond the great guitar playing, the other six tracks are mostly bad heavy metal cloning, including a badly cheesy semi-ballad 'No Need to Cry' and the title track, a cheesy metal anthem. Half of it is not that bad objectively speaking, but is instantly forgettable thanks to a complete lack of inspiration.
Skeletons & Majesties Live(earMUSIC - 2012)
Another live album in the vein of Skeletons in the Closet. Namely, it is a live performance of rarer tracks in Gamma Ray's repertoire. And what a varied collection it is. Mostly weak filler tracks, some good ones that don't get played live for some reason like 'Men, Martians And Machines', covers of Iron Savior and Helloween acoustic versions of songs like 'Rebellion In Dreamland'(!), and other miscellanea. The performance is a bit on the loose side and Hansen seems to be just having fun exploring these 'forgotten' compositions and odd b-sides, but overall, this is a quirky release with lots of weak material. Definitely only for hardcore Gamma Ray fans.
Empire of the Undead(earMUSIC - 2014)
There's nothing wrong with emulating classic sounds, but there is a problem with copying them without developing them further or making them your own. Take the ambitious 9-minute opener 'Avalon', which is content with using a couple of Iron Maiden riffs verbatim and combining this with 'Rebellion In Dreamland', and then repeating this for the whole track. Of course, after this, there is the inevitable, completely generic, Judas Priest numbers, which suddenly shift to generic speed-power-metal. Back to basics, or tired and uninspired? I'm guessing many would vote for the latter seeing as this album, once again, sounds very competent, but doesn't make an impact. The title track sounds like the bastard child of Metallica's Hit the Lights, some Overkill, and cheesy Helloween. It isn't bad and quite fun, but is such a blatant rip-off that it hurts. 'Time For Deliverance' is the inevitable cheesy ballad. And then there are the ever-present forays in many tracks into cheesy 80s hard rock and heavy metal like AC/DC, Quiet Riot, Manowar, Accept, old Judas Priest, and so on, sometimes boosted with a bit of speed-metal, but mostly stealing only these bands' generic sounds. On this album these tracks take up six out of ten tracks, leaving mostly only the first two and last one for power or speed metal. I forgot this album already.