First Impressions is a series of articles that I am writing for this blog, in which I discover and evaluate a Rock or Metal album that is generally regarded as a classic of its genre by the press or the public, but which for some reason I have not yet heard in my decade-plus history with similar music.
The format is similar to but also distinct from a review. Along the way I usually will offer up insights into my history with music, how my mind works and how both of these have changed over time. You will have to have a fairly detailed knowledge of Rock and Metal history and Subgenres to fully follow every single point that I make or question I may raise, but having either a second tab open at Wikipedia or an acceptance that following most of the article is enough for you will solve that problem.
In this edition of First Impressions I will actually be listening to two albums, for the first time in the series. The albums in question are related however, Helloween’s Keeper Of The Seven Keys Parts 1&2, from 1987 and 1988 respectively. The combined length of them as a set including bonus tracks is just shy of two-and-a-half hours.
I have to claim ignorance on the subject of Power Metal if I’m being utterly honest. I have seem several documentaries on Metal that have covered Power Metal however briefly, read many magazine articles and album reviews of Power Metal bands, seen dozens of countdowns of best-Power-Metal-bands or albums, or indeed best-Metal-albums that included several Power Metal entries, but despite all that I am relatively oblivious to the genre, its sound, its conventions and its tropes.
I remember the fact that Pantera had an album called Power Metal during their pre-Cowboys From Hell period and that Metallica gave out business cards that called themselves Power Metal before the world formally agreed upon what Thrash Metal was… but both things are unrelated to what Power Metal really is.
I have heard fairly frequently that Power Metal is largely a continental European phenomenon (despite bands like the UK’s DragonForce and the USA’s Manowar being some of the most famous bands in the subgenre.) My tastes are largely centred around British and American bands and I know relatively few continental European bands all that well. Helloween are from Germany and the only German band that I am a big fan of is the Thrash Metal band Kreator. So, at first glance it would appear that I am going into this relatively blind and don’t really have any idea what to expect.
Sometimes I believe that the indigenous music from each country and especially the work from each country’s classical composers has a huge effect on what scales and ultimately notes a band will use, and wonder if the reason that I don’t like certain bands is based on what music the guitarists would have heard at school. I love how British Heavy Metal, British Classic Rock bands and American Thrash Metal bands play the guitar, what notes they use, in what order, how they contrast with each other and how that affects my ears and the pleasure centres of my brain.
I can see how similar all of these things are to some European music such as Melodeath/Gothenburg Thrash, Black Metal, Symphonic Metal, European Neo-Classical Metal, and mixtures of the lot (like Nevermore) but there is just something about how the Europeans put their take on the music that doesn’t activate my brain/ears in the exact same way… which I have put down to an assumption that Euro-Metal bands are primarily using different scales (use different sharps and flats) than the American and British Bands are, and chose different notes in a different order than the British or American bands would. Since Power Metal is supposedly so big in Europe and Helloween are from Germany, I am slightly concerned that no matter how objectively good they seem to be, I just won’t like it based on what notes the guitarists are using.
Keeper Of The Seven Keys, both Parts 1 & 2 are perennial nominees for lists of best-ever-metal-albums. I think I have known the album titles and artwork for almost as long as I have ever listened to Metal and wouldn’t be surprised if I checked and found out that they had came up in the first ever Metal Magazine I read.
After getting a copy of both albums in one deluxe reissue package, I read the accompanying linear notes on my way home before I was able to listen to the CD itself, and discovered several interesting things about the band and albums:
Firstly, they started out as a Thrash Metal band. This is good news for me, my love of Thrash Metal and how it affects my brain have been discussed numerous times in this Blog and also recently in the Megadeth TGR entry. This instantly leaves me more receptive to the albums than perhaps I might have been.
Secondly, I discovered that the singer on these two albums, Michael Kiske, was hired because the band wanted someone who sounded like both Rob Halford of Judas Priest and Geoff Tate of Queensryche. This again is wonderful news for me as I have been very “into” both those bands recently, especially their singers. This leaves me yet more receptive to the albums again.
Thirdly, I discovered to my surprise that the albums are in fact NOT two interlinked concept albums or one continuous Rock Opera. I had taken it for granted that they would be a continuous Rock Opera story, which would have been a third massive tick on my list of desirable-album-qualities and left me practically mathematically-guaranteed to love the albums, but it is not the case.
The reason that the two albums are connected is two-fold. Firstly; a few, but only a few songs share one story or lyrical connection (Similar to Metallica’s Unforgiven 1, 2 & 3; Rush’s two Cygnus-Xs, or Dream Theatre’s alcohol series) as opposed to Queensryche’s Operation Mindcrime 1 & 2 albums that did have a continuous narrative, or Coheed And Cambria’s Amory Wars series which all take place in the same singular story-universe.
Secondly, the Keeper albums are connected because they were originally going to be one double-album when the band were writing what ended up being part one, but this situation changed before completion and it ultimately got released in two parts, like Guns N Roses’ Use Your Illusions 1&2, or SOADs Mesemerise/Hypnotise duo.
Upon listening to the albums I can hear really clear Iron Maiden and Judas Priest influences musically, as well as a lot of Thrash Metal still in the sound despite the linear notes saying that the band were deliberately moving away from Thrash. I can especially pick up on Thrash sounds on the bonus track ‘Savage’ which honestly sounds like it has a guest appearance from Anthrax’s Scott Ian due to how the Rhythm Guitarist’s wrist is moving on some of the riffs.
One thing that instantly jumps out at me is that Helloween are exceptionally gifted musicians; their drum fills, double-kick speed, guitar solos, bass guitar brakes and vocal range are absolutely remarkable, they are all absolute virtuosos on their instruments in a way that genuinely took me aback at first listen. The two thirteen-minute tracks containing the band name and album-title ‘Helloween’ and ‘Keeper Of The Seven Keys’ in particular are impressive to a surprising degree.
On the first Keeper album, I can hear the Thrash more disinctly, and on the second I hear the primary focus has changed to what I am assuming has to be the actual Power Metal. Obviously, it is present on the first one too, but it definitely seems a bit more up-front on the second to my ears.
I can also hear a rather large Prog Metal touch on both records, which I did expect back when I thought they were a Rock Opera but stopped expecting once I found this wasn’t the case. In the same way that Metallica’s Master Of Puppets and Iron Maiden’s Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son are a lot more complicated and varied than they first seem and both display clear progressive tendencies, Keeper 1&2 are more than just Kill ‘Em All or British Steel played faster by German musicians. The title track even has a moment that sounds like ‘Breathe’ by Pink Floyd and another part that is reminiscent of ‘La Villa Strangiato’ by Rush… alongside its normal parts that sound like ‘Apocalyptic City’ by Testament and ‘Wrathchild’ by Iron Maiden, as well of course as all its original and totally unique sounding bits… it isn’t actually just a patchwork of stolen riffs like I may have accidentally made it sound just now.
My concerns about the threat of Euro-Metal scales spoiling my enjoyment of the music luckily turned out to be unfounded. I’ve discussed my basic understanding but vivid feeling of synesthesia before on this Blog, but I’ll reiterate that Melodeath sounds orange to me, Judas Priest/Maiden style leads sound yellow and Neo-Classical stuff sounds light-green. If Helloween sounded too orange for me, its fairly safe to say I wouldn’t be able to properly enjoy them, and if they were too green I would have to “get over myself” to like it, but luckily they sit on the Yellow end of the spectrum for a lot of the time and consequently suit my current palate rather well.
One thing I always had heard about Power Metal was that the music was very joyous, melodic and triumphant sounding and that some fans even jokingly call it Happy-Metal. This is incredibly audible on the tracks ‘Future World’ ‘Rise And Fall’ ‘I Want Out’ and ‘Dr. Stein’ which are jaunty up-tempo numbers that feel very fun, as well as the more serious and melodic ‘Eagle Fly Free’ and ‘I’m Alive.’
‘Rise And Fall’ in particular sounds as though it should be the theme-tune to a children’s TV show about King Arthur and his sidekick, who is a talking Owl.
Its undeniable that some of the more distinctly Power Metal moments on the album are outside of my musical comfort-zone and that, as recently as two years ago, I may have dismissed it all as too cheesy, but at this precise moment in time, having gotten into Judas Priest to a huge degree and recently discovering Anvil, Accept and Queensryche, I am really predisposed to enjoy these albums an awful lot.
This moment-in-musical-taste-time coupled with the ridiculously impressive and brilliant talent of the band as actual musicians and the time-defyingly superb quality of the production job all converge to leave me at the conclusion that Keeper Of The Seven Keys 1 & 2 are indeed two of the best Metal albums I’ve ever heard, they absolutely deserve their reputation and lovers of virtuoso displays of musicianship or just plain fun music should absolutely check them out.
A final thought about the albums; their artwork is very interesting. It shares something with Nuclear Assault’s Survive, Mercyful Fate’s Don’t Break The Oath & Testament’s Souls Of Black. It isn’t that the artwork is tasteful and sells the albums with the promise of intelligent ideas, but it is intriguing nonetheless, in a toy-packaging kind of a way that appeals to the inner-child, to the boy who the man once was. Brann Dailor from Mastodon once said that he bought Iron Maiden’s Piece Of Mind with the following mental process: ‘There’s A Monster On It. I’m Getting It!’ and I can see people in the 1980s seeing these albums on Vinyl and doing the exact same thing.
Overall; I am unsure how my attitude to Power Metal in general is affected by hearing these two records, and I have only a small idea of how they fit into Helloween as a whole, but I know for sure that these two albums are absolutely exceptional and in an information-vacuum still stand up as an incredible achievement. I’m really glad I finally got around to listening to them, and I certainly believe I’ll be listening to them a hell of a lot for the next few months.