Helloween EP(Noise Records - 1985)
Listening to the first three albums by Helloween is to witness the birth of that melodic genre of metal known as Power Metal. This first EP is still classified as Speed Metal, the genre that developed from NWOBHM with an emphasis on speedy, technically virtuous guitar riffing and traces of heavy metal melody as well as some hardcore punk designed for moshing. This genre was dominated by the Germans, and then the Americans in the 80s and eventually also developed to the more rhythm-oriented Thrash Metal with less melody and more speed variations. Helloween, however, took it to another direction, emphasizing the melody but keeping the speed. On this album however, it is still speedy NWOBHM, sounding very much like the faster Iron Maiden tracks of the time. The music is quite good, but slightly generic sounding, the guitars are very well played and energetic, but the biggest flaw is the vocals. Kai Hansen performs the vocal duties here and sounds like a too-young kid trying to emulate Rob Halford, or sometimes Bruce Dickinson, but severely lacks power, his voice sometimes breaking and going off tune. Humor makes an appearance here as well, an element Helloween would use often throughout their career. The epic, longer song also makes a first appearance in the track Victim of Fate, but it sounds like an Iron Maiden clone, and Cry For Freedom sounds like early Metallica mixed with Iron Maiden. In short, interesting for historical reasons, but mediocre due to the vocals.
Walls of Jericho(Noise Records - 1985)
All later releases of this album include the tracks off the Helloween EP. The approach here is early Metallica speed metal riffing mixed with Iron Maiden melodic passages and choruses, Judas-Priest-wannabee vocals, with anthemic choruses that are protoypes of what is to come. As with the debut EP, the music is great, but the vocals are the hurdle. Think of young Hatfield from the first Metallica release, except weaker and more high-pitched. The choruses already sound like Helloween here, except they are backed by superb speed metal riffing, which is a great thing. It's just a pity about the vocals that really need to be more powerful for this kind of music, and which really bother me, but which may not bother others. A landmark pioneering classic, but that doesn't mean it is without flaws. Standouts include some light use of keyboards in Phantoms of Death, the slower, slightly silly and anthemic Gorgar, and the 7-minute speed-metal track How Many Tears with a melodic guitar interlude.
Keeper of the Seven Keys(Noise Records - 1987)
Power Metal has arrived. Enter Michael Kiske on vocal duties, the quintessential power metal vocal sound that would be used as the mold in so many subsequent bands like Rhapsody, Angra, Edguy, etc. The vocals are high-pitched but backed by power and oomph, with professional control and pitch, and making use of the occasional throaty yell, and dual harmonic layers for the choruses. On the other hand, Kiske himself seems to have successfully emulated Bruce Dickinson's operatic wail sometimes so perfectly, you would swear Bruce had grabbed the microphone. The music also has progressed into power melodies backed by Kai Hansen's strong songwriting and a less consistent but very welcome speed-metal riffing from previous albums. Humor makes appearances, and, overall, the music is uptempo and happy, all Helloween trademarks. The only two tracks that veer into overdone pop-silliness and cheesy ballad were not written by Hansen (A Little Time & Tale That Wasn't Right, both written by Weikath who usually writes much better but who was injured for this album). Other standouts include the party-metal song 'Future World', and the 13-minute superb darker epic 'Halloween' that sometimes sounds very much like Queensryche. Altogether a classic, but inconsistent in tone, 'rough' in its tentative experimentation and blending of speed with more catchy sounds, and somewhat short, with a couple of grating tracks that reduce the overall rating.
Keeper of the Seven Keys II(Noise Records - 1988)
The second part of what was supposed to be a double album, and the more professional-sounding and longer of the two. The tracks do vary in tempo, tone and sound though, but even the more commercial tracks aren't as embarrassing as the ones on the first, to my ears. Weikath and Kiske take over most of the writing, and Kai Hansen seems to have been sidelined for whatever reason, leading to his breakup with the band and the forming of Gamma Ray, and some would say that Helloween never recovered. Tracks include the instant classic speed-metal songs 'Eagle Fly Free' and 'Save Us', the catchy and pretty good party-metal song 'Dr. Stein' with a great solo, the badly pop-sounding 'Rise and Fall' and 'I Want Out', the Queensryche touches on 'You Always Walk Alone' and 'We Got the Right', and the slightly bloated 13 minute Maiden-esque epic 'Keeper of the Seven Keys'. Despite the two or three cheesy songs and sometimes overly happy approach, this album contains mostly good tracks and is recommended regardless of its classic status. This is the last time we would get the full rich metal lineup with the double guitar attack of Hansen/Weikath, and Kiske.
Live in the UK(EMI - 1989)
A surprisingly short live album with only seven tracks, almost all of which are the more commercial ones from recent albums, with one speedy surprise: How Many Tears from the Jericho album with Kiske on vocals. This last track makes me wish they would re-record that album with Kiske. There is a lot (too much) of crowd interaction and playful teasing by Kiske, and the set-list seems to have been picked for maximum sing-along and catchy effect, and these factors, coupled with the fact that I am not a big fan of live albums, give this one a low rating. The sound quality isn't bad though.
Pink Bubbles Go Ape(EMI - 1991)
Exit Hansen and any traces of serious metal, enter Grapow and a whole lot of cheese and really goofy humor. Track titles such as the title track and 'Heavy Metal Hamsters' should give you an idea of how goofy this can get, but it's really the music that is the main gripe, opting for uninspired and uninteresting heavy metal cheesiness. Uptempo and radio-friendly hard rock and heavy metal...it simply doesn't get more of a sell-out than this. In the spirit of Helloween, Grapow adopts the songwriting duties along with the rest of the band. It's really a waste of instrumental and vocal talent, and there isn't much more to say beyond that the songs are all painfully commercial and sometimes impossible to classify even as heavy metal. 'Someone's Crying' stands out with its speedier and more traditional metal guitars, but it only makes the rest of the album sound worse.
Chameleon(EMI - 1993)
Unfortunately, Helloween didn't seem to have learned anything useful from the previously catastrophic 'Pink Bubbles' except to miscalculate and remove the humor, but keep the pop. Adding more variety to the pop sound is not the right way to go guys. And that's what this album is: Party-pop rock and radio-friendly heavy metal with electronic sounds and variety, all with the uptempo Helloween sound and the wasted guitars and vocals of Weikath/Grapow/Kiske. Inexplicably, they thought that some pop arrangements were so good, they wrote several songs ranging between 6 and 9 minutes that mostly repeat themselves with some lengthy but uninteresting guitar solos. 'Crazy Cat' features some shocking funky swing, 'Giants' is a nod towards their operatic metal roots but is overlong and isn't interesting, there are several painfully cheesy ballads, a plodding 8-minute tribute to 60s acid-rock in 'Revolution Now', and some hair-metal-sounding tracks. Terrible.
Master of the Rings(Castle - 1994)
A welcome first attempt at a comeback after two unbelievably bad releases. Kiske leaves, Andi Deris replaces him with a powerful, huskier voice that serves the music well, and immediately adds to the songwriting as well. The first two tracks are radio-friendly, catchy, power-metal, simple but good tunes in the vein of Dr Stein, except with more power in the mix, guitars and bass, but then we get a whole series of tracks with varying amounts of hard-rock/heavy-metal cheese blended with some traditional metal as well as keyboards, from the 7-minute rocker Mr Ego, to the horribly cheesy chorus in Perfect Gentleman, and the silly electronic-heavy The Game Is On. It all culminates in a cheesy ballad 'In the Middle of a Heartbeat' and a teasingly heavy power-metal afterthought 'Still We Go'. Altogether a tease of an album that seems reluctant to let go of the generic, commercial sounds while trying to please fans. There is still too much cheese in this one though.
The Time of the Oath(Raw Power - 1996)
It's been a long journey, and, of course, you can never really undo so many changes, but Helloween is finally back in the Power Metal genre they invented. Several choruses retain hard-rock and commercial sensibilities, but others are simply catchy without being overly cheesy. 'Wake up the Mountain' develops nicely from heavy metal to superb guitar-oriented power metal. As if to confirm their historical status as innovators, they name one track 'Power' but, unfortunately it is mid-paced melodic and anthemic power rather than speed-metal. 'Forever And One' starts as a cheesy ballad but soon becomes slightly more heavy and interesting, with the guitar lines and solo saving this as well as saving several other tracks from being too cheesy (A Million To One and many others). This is probably due to Grapow's neo-classical leanings. However, nothing can save the cheesiness of the hair-metal track 'Anything My Mama Don't Like'. The 9-minute 'Mission Motherland' features interestingly progressive instrumental and vocal interludes wrapped by some heavy riffing and anthemic choruses, and 'The Time of the Oath' offers some surprisingly superb Black Sabbath-esque riffing and Dio vocals. Andi Deris changes his vocals slightly to a cleaner timbre rather than the raspier and unfortunately more powerful performance on Master of the Rings, but he is still good. Altogether, definitely their best material since Keepers, and the many good tracks by far outweigh the weaker ones, so this comes recommended even though they didn't scrub away all traces of their commercial and cheesy ventures.
High Live(Raw Power - 1996)
A double live album this time, with a mostly well-chosen set-list and Andi Deris interpreting some older classics from Keepers, and other not-so-classics. The sound is booming and full, perhaps a tad on the muddy side but good, the instrumental performance is very good, but the average vocals are a bit rough and wild at times as if Deris were out of breath from a physical performance. They skipped most of the cheesy crap, although they did include one better and heavier track from Pink Bubbles and forgot to play anything from Walls of Jericho. Altogether a pretty good live album, for live-album fans only.
Better than Raw(Raw Power - 1998)
After the successful comeback and reacquaintance with the classic power-metal sound in the previous album, it would make sense to experiment with it a bit instead of resting on old laurels. This is a very varied album that requires a track-by-track review: After the neo-classical intro, this album erupts with a surprising new heavy sound that demands attention. The first thing you notice in 'Push' is that it is uncharacteristically dark for Helloween with furious chugging guitars, calling to mind blackened thrash metal. But then the chorus kicks in and it's back to the catchy Helloween rocking sound, which is somewhat jarring. Then the instrumental section attempts some fancy progressive rhythms and arrangements, and it all works! 'Falling Higher' is a more traditional but pleasingly energetic speed-metal track, the heavy pseudo-ballad 'Hey Lord' sounds like a weak and generic Kindgom Come hard-rock track, 'Don't Spit On My Mind' starts as a great Black Sabbath tune before blending it with another generic heavy-metal chorus, 'Revelation' is an 8-minute, progressive, complex composition with more modern-sounding, distorted, heavy, syncopated riffing that gets very good in the second half, 'Time' is a darker-sounding but still overly commercial and plodding ballad, the next 2-3 tracks are commercial heavy metal mixed with a typical power-metal Helloween chorus. And so on, with several tracks featuring surprises or a blending of various styles, so much so that the traditional power metal tune 'Midnight Sun' toward the end feels out of place and generic sounding. Deris shows off his range with high-pitched clean singing, operatic wailing, hard-rocking husky singing that wanders into surprisingly lower registers, and he even growls, or chants in Latin on 'Laudate Dominum'. This album gets top marks for the risk-taking experimentation, darker sound and scattered progressive elements, but I can't say that the end-result and wide variety of tracks grew on me as a whole, especially in the weak second half of the album. Altogether I only liked about four or five tracks, and too often it feels like Helloween can no longer de-commercialize their choruses regardless of the superb music that built up to them. Recommended for a tentative listen - it's worth checking out.
Metal Jukebox(Raw Power - 1999)
A collection of covers. As with all releases of this kind, the result is a mixed bag, and even the better tracks usually only make you want to listen to the originals. The tracks here range from a simple Scorpions rocker, to a heavy-metallized Jethro Tull track that kills off the light Tull magical touch and ends up plodding, a ridiculous Abba cover that refuses to be turned into metal despite their efforts, a surprisingly good but out-of-place cover of Space Oddity, and then more completely random and mostly forgettable sounds of Faith No More, metallized Beatles, a prog-rock cover of Focus with very amusing yodeling, and other obscurities. A schizophrenic, chaotic experience to say the least.
The Dark Ride(Nuclear Blast - 2000)
By now I know what to expect of Helloween and this is enough for me to consider giving up on them. No matter what they do with the music, the refrains and choruses always sink in catchy, commercial and cheesy rock anthems designed for radio. This is enough to fatally flaw their albums. I don't expect another Keepers album and usually applaud any progression and experimentation, but this constant generic sounding manipulation bothers me and seems to punch compromising holes in even their better compositions. That said, this is yet another collection of very varied tracks from Helloween: The first two tracks are uptempo cheesy power-metal anthemic throwbacks, which is surprising considering the sound of Better than Raw. Then there's some downtuned nu-metal guitars on 'Escalation 666' mixed with standard heavy-metal which doesn't quite work, a hard-rocking Alice Cooper-esque track 'Mirror Mirror' with thrash-style throaty vocals, a blend of catchy goth-rock and heavy metal that is painfully radio-friendly, more forgettable and happy, catchy power-metal, a shocking electronic rhythmic track that sounds like 80s goth-pop, a cheesy heavy-metal track with downtuned guitars featuring Deris doing a Blackie Lawless impression in the chorus, and so on, until the 9-minute power-metal epic 'The Dark Ride' with a good neo-classical guitar solo that is acceptable at best but largely uninspired. The instrumental performance and sound is professional and Deris is using powerful vocals with a wide range again, but I don't think I really liked any of the tracks on this one except for the thrashy Japanese bonus track, which is ironic. What happened to the dark and progressive sounds of Better Than Raw?
Rabbit Don't Come Easy(Nuclear Blast - 2003)
Perhaps I am not the only one that is tired of what Helloween is doing, since both Grapow and Kusch split the band before this album was recorded for whatever reasons. The first two throwback, happy, anthemic, and speedy power-metal tracks are so generic sounding as to be corny. Whereas the engineered melodious catchiness of the previous albums usually restricted themselves to the refrains, this album feels like whole tracks have been injected with cheese. The next handful of tracks after the first two are softer hard-rock and heavy-metal commercial endeavours with cringing vocal and instrumental 'experiments' (including heavier use of 80s keyboards, some emulating a sitar and a variety of layered vocal choruses) that feel like a salad of cloned sounds from the radio spliced with Helloween power. One exception is 'Liar', a nicely heavy thrash track (influenced by the new temporary drummer from Motorhead?) that starts with a ripped-off Mike Oldfield guitar line and refrains with yet another hard-rock anthem. Then there is the relatively heavier and darker sound in tracks like 'Hell Was Made in Heaven' and 'Back Against the Wall' both ruined by cheesy anthems once again. 'Listen to the Flies' is a much better power-metal track with an Yngwie-style guitar solo that tries to prove they don't need Grapow. And then there is the completely bizarre 8-minute closer that features an unholy blend of hard-rock, blues, funk, prog-rock with keyboards, and reggae! In short, in some ways this is another Pink Bubbles/Chameleon disaster with an equally silly title. As if I needed more reasons to give up on this frustrating band.
Keeper of the Seven Keys - The Legacy(Steamhammer - 2005)
Frankly, the title only gave me dread, given the quality of their compositions in the past decade or so. This would probably be either a pathetic and hopeless attempt at recapturing that long-gone era, or it would be more of the same recent stuff, labeled with a shamelessly manipulative title, right? Wrong! The first 14-minute epic track of this double-album is good progressive metal with a rich complexity of sounds (complete with operatic backing vocals) and no trace of the commercialism that sunk all of the albums since Time of the Oath and Better than Raw. Then 'The Invisible Man' veers close to cheesiness but recovers with more progressive complexity, good riffing and an enjoyable neo-classical power-metal sound. Then we have a traditional speedy power-metal track with a corny refrain and finale, another minor slip of cheese in 'Pleasure Drone' that recovers, electronica and cheesy silliness in Mrs. God (the single) that is thankfully short, and an average closing melodic power-metal track for the first CD. In short, for the first CD, this is an above-average recovery for Helloween that reminded me of Time of the Oath, except this is better in some ways because of the progressive elements, and inferior in other ways because of the touches of modern commercialism in the second half of the CD. However, we must keep in mind that even the original Keepers and Oath had their slips and cheese. Unfortunately, the second CD is everything that I dreaded, starting with a below-average 11-minute Queensryche-esque concept 'story' track and a cheesy rock-opera-ballad single 'Light the Universe' with female vocals, and then a handful of cheesy hard-rock and heavy-metal tunes, all terrible, ending with another average and generic power-metal track. Good only for the first CD which is almost-great if you don't mind occasional forays into commercial metal.
Live on Three Continents(Steamhammer - 2007)
It's interesting to note that Helloween's live albums always come after their best albums of the period. A live album at this stage, given their wildly erratic releases and tracks, will greatly depend on the set-list, obviously. Helloween tend to pick the catchy power metal anthemic tracks and singles for live sets, but here they make time for several of the longer epic tracks, specifically all four 10-minute-plus tracks from both of the Keepers double-albums! They also play some stalwarts like 'Eagle Fly Free' and 'Dr Stein', Deris and the gang sometimes working a bit too hard and failing at emulating the departed band members, but in general this is well-recorded with just the right amount of live, full atmosphere. Except that, of course the set-list contains a lot of cheesy singles as well. Deris isn't straining as much as on 'High Live' but isn't as solid as he is on studio albums either. Altogether, just an average live album and strictly for fans of Helloween and live albums only.
Gambling with the Devil(Steamhammer - 2007)
I was afraid that 'Keeper of the Seven Keys The Legacy' was a final best-effort and gift for fans of power-metal that didn't like all of the commercial stuff Helloween has been churning out. But this turns out to be a rejuvenated and energetic hybrid sound that is their best since Better than Raw. Don't expect too much traditional power-metal though. In other words, this may be the first good Helloween release that breaks away from old Helloween without resorting to ubiquitous cheesy crap. The album starts with the typical pattern for Helloween: An intro, then one of the heaviest tracks on the album 'Kill It' (that features a wide variety of vocals from high-pitched prog-style vocals to growling to melodic singing), and then a good traditional speedy power-metal track. But it's what comes after this typically good opening selection that usually breaks their albums: 'As Long as I Fall' is a horrible electro-rock-ballad with trendy distorted vocals, but then the album recovers with mostly good heavy tracks that range between heavy metal to power-metal, all with good driving guitars and great energetic solos and drums, and tolerably catchy refrains that don't grate the ears as with previous albums. 'Fallen to Pieces' is a weaker and ploddingly melodic track but it still features a great instrumental section, 'Can Do It' is terrible cheesy crap (why can't they release a single album without this kind of stuff?), and 'Heaven Tells No Lies' is a more epic and dark 7-minute composition. I would have liked at least one prog-metal track in the vein of 'King for 1000 Years' though. The mix is loud, unfortunately sounding compressed to my ears, but it is tolerable. Their best in ages at least since Better Than Raw, a flawed but good release as long as you aren't expecting old-school metal, and an impressive recovery.
7 Sinners(Sony - 2010)
After the what-were-they-thinking release 'Unarmed' featuring old tracks re-rerecorded as acoustic soft-rock, pop, orchestral and blues, Helloween release this real followup to Gambling with the Devil. The approach and sound is more serious-sounding and darker heavy metal relative to most other Helloween releases, with one typically soaring and catchy chorus after another that makes use of multi-layered vocals, except that they are all similar-sounding this time, at times repetitive, and the layered vocals effect is over-used. Although the tracks are more consistent this time, they also sound uninspired, especially when compared to the more fresh-sounding compositions on 'Gambling with the Devil'. The compositions tend to be structured all the same with heavy-riffing, then a catchy chorus, a generic guitar solo, and back again. Standouts include the cheesy anthem on 'World of Fantasy', a flute on 'Raise the Noise', the ballad 'Smile of the Sun' which is reminiscent of 'As Long as I Fall' only it's not so bad this time, the 8-minute 'Far In the Future' with a good instrumental section but very poor vocal lines, and at times the heavy riffing makes use of speed-metal or even thrash, especially on the soaring 'My Sacrifice', as well as on 'Are You Metal' and 'Long Live the King'. Another standout is the surprising and welcome omission of the trademarked corny Helloween humor-track. This album is a unique Helloween hybrid version of heavy-metal and speed-thrash-power, but it lacks the traditional power-metal sound and the memorable guitar solos or neo-classical or progressive touches of recent releases. If you put all of the above together, you will understand why this album is mostly forgettable and formulaic despite its good heavy sound.
Straight Out of Hell(Sony - 2013)
It's more of the same this time. Helloween (now going on 30 years) churn out yet another hybrid album of heavy-speed-power metal with melodic, catchy and commercial refrains and songs. Deris uses his usual wide range of vocals, from gruff singing, to heavy-metal growls, to operatic wailing, and it seems the keyboards are getting slightly more of a workout with every album, even getting solos on this one. It's all very professionally done, from the musicianship, to the performance and mixing, but as with the previous album, it seems to be lacking an element of freshness, excitement or inspiration. Perhaps it is too professional and engineered by now. Perhaps it is just not my thing, but the commercial-sounding choruses and ballads get on my nerves on this album more than on recent releases, and I prefer my heavy music more classical, progressive or dark sounding. I can see the simple appeal of the past two albums though, so check it out only if it sounds like your thing.