FIRST IMPRESSIONS Volume 19: Gamma Ray – Land Of The Free

FIRST IMPRESSIONS Volume 19: Gamma Ray - Land Of The Free

FIRST IMPRESSIONS Volume 19: Gamma Ray – Land Of The Free

This is the Ninteenth entry of First Impressions. In this series of Blog Posts I listen to an album for the first time and then write about that experience in a semi-planned, semi-stream of consciousness manner that is less helpful a traditional album-review, but which does contain more flavour. Each album that gets chosen for the series (unless otherwise noted) is a historically important or influential album within its genre, and discovering it for the first time will further my understanding of that form of music.

You usually need to know a fair amount about Metal and the history of Rock and Metal to fully understand absolutely every point I will make, and having listened to the album yourself will also help. If you don’t have a clue what I’m writing about but still wish to read, having a tab open on Wikipedia to intermittently check anything you don’t understand, as well as a tab open on Grooveshark, Youtube or something Spotify-esque to check any musical reference points you haven’t heard will help too. Of course, that’s not to say I’m some more-metal-than-thou elitist preacher type, its just that having to give context or explanations to absolutely every point as it comes to mind would severely derail these articles.

The album that I will be listening to this time around is Land Of The Free, which is the fourth studio album by the German Power Metal band Gamma Ray. The reason that this album was chosen was firstly because when I had asked people about the most important Power Metal albums it came up in the convrsation, and because when I looked it up, it turned out that it was mostly written by Kai Hansen and features guest vocals from Michael Kiske, both of whom had been in Helloween.

Since I had enjoyed Helloween’s two Keeper Of The Seven Keys albums so much from their own First Impressions entry (and ever since, I might add), this seemed too good not to check out.

Since listening to those albums my interest and knowledge of Power Metal has expanded a little bit, its still something I’m lagging behind in, but I’ve since explored a few tracks by bands like Falconer, Rhapsody, Statovarius and Metallium to a more or less constant degree of mild-enjoyment and definitely to great promise. I had also listened to the last First Impressions entry, Savatage’s Hall Of The Mountain King, which is borderline Power Metal in the way that several of the early Prog Metal bands were.

I read the linear notes before hand and found out that as well as Michael Kiske guesting, the album also features Hansi Kursch of Blind Guardian guesting on three tracks. Blind Guardian, by all accounts, are one such of those Prog Metal from a Power Metal perspective bands… in case you didn’t know.

Listening to Land Of The Free Now, the album opens up with the eight-minute ‘Rebellion In Dream Land’ which sounds exactly like all the bits of Helloween I liked, from the touches of background keyboards, to the big Queen inspired vocals, to the really satisfying crunchy thrash guitars. The riff at 3.30 for example sounds like the best parts of The Legacy or …And Justice For All, but the vocal lines like ‘Only The People I Am Fighting For’ and the ‘Rebellion/Revolution’ chants take it right out of the realm of Thrash and add that differentiating spark that makes it Power Metal.

The lead guitar work on the track is also nothing shot of spectacular. I’ve always been a big fan of lead guitar; be it shereddy solos or melodic leads, twin guitar harmonies or effects laden noddling… or any other high pitched showing off you can think of. This track has a lot of melody and shred combined, and what I enjoy about it is that it always manages to sound musical.

I also like how all of the ‘slow bits’ of the song, with long ringing chords and prominent bass always sound as if they were written to be slow but got played at 1.5 times their intended speed in the studio. Kind of like how Reign In Blood actually was.

The next track, ‘Man On A Mission’ kicks right in with symphonic backing, super happy guitar leads, and that double-kick/wrist syncing-up that the best Helloween tracks always contain. Its melodic chorus sounds very grand and majestic and like it would be the most fun you’d have all month if you got to sing along to it live. I remember seeing a documentary (I think it was Metal Evolution) that suggested Power Metal is built for festivals, and I can certainly see why.

Its interesting that with the low pitched thrashy riffs and the storming double kicks; and basically, you know… its heaviness, it manages to sound light and breezy. Its actually closer to ‘Raining Blood’ than say ‘Peace Sells,’ but somehow it feels like it would be acceptable to play it on School Radio without getting into too much trouble. It wouldn’t by the way. It utterly wouldn’t and teachers wouldn’t hear the difference… but it feels that way anyway, despite boring reality.

Interestingly, at the three-minute mark it just turns into something off of Queen’s second album, maybe like ‘The Fairy Feller’s Master Stroke’ or ‘March Of The Black Queen.’

The ‘give us a chance before you kill us all…’ sections are tremendous fun. They’ve got the same feel as ‘Rise And Fall,’ ‘Dr. Stein’ and ‘I Want Out’ off of Keeper 2. The fun parts basically.

The next track ‘Fairy Tale’ is just still part of this song as far as I can tell, a semi-arbitrary (oxymoron?) or at least semi-necessary split in a long song, like Gentle Giant’s ‘Mr. Class and Quality’ and ‘Three Friends.’

‘All Of The Damned’ is next. It’s a bit darker than the preceding tracks. It reminds me a lot of Dio and Dio era Rainbow, and not just because it keeps mentioning rainbows in the lyrics either. But then again, can anyone sing about a rainbow without sounding like Dio? Anyway; the neo-classical sounding guitar solo really reminds me of ‘Highway Star’ by Deep Purple’s solo.

‘Rising Of The Damned’ which follows is once again just part of the song that preceded it more or less.

The next track, ‘Gods Of Deliverance,’ is a little Schizophrenic sounding (a phrase I hate by the way, but whatever, I’m too lazy and mentally-drained right now after working out in the blazing summer sun to find an alternative).

It opens up sounding almost illegally close to Wicked Mystic by Annihilator. I half expect to hear about ‘buckets and buckets, yeah, buckets of SIN!’ in a minute. Then it turns into Rainbow’s ‘Stargazer,’ but then the chorus is big, joyous fun-Helloween stuff. Then the riff under the first solo is heavy as Hell and more like Machine Head or something, before the other solos get played over faster more Power Metally stuff. Then it cycles back through all of those bits quickly before ending. Its all over the place, in a good way.

The band then follow up that performance with a lush Piano and strings ballad called ‘Farewell,’ which is about the suicide of a former Helloween member (Ingo Schwichtenberg). Some of the vocal phrasing is really similar to Roger Water’s solo career and some of it is very close to Freddy Mercury’s deeper voiced tracks. Despite being really emotional, it actually sounds genuinely mountain-top epic as well when the electric guitars come in, and then a bit like Kansas meets Use Your Illusion era Guns N’ Roses after three minutes.

Incidentally, why do they make all the interesting parts happen after three minutes? Is it intentional? Is it a complex mathematical solution to writing the perfect Power Metal album?

Anyway, for something that I would undoubtedly have stupidly called ‘Gay’ when I was 15, (as a colloquial substitute for ‘cheesy’ that I unthinkingly used before I met, studied with and worked with any actual openly homosexual humans and learned to stop), it was actually an amazing song and something I’m surprised I liked on first go, without having to overcome the cheese factor that I’m usually initially snobby about.

The next track, ‘Salvation’s Calling,’ is another mixture of sounding like Annihlator and Keeper 2 in turns. It’s a bit meatier and less cheesy than anything else so far and it’s the track I’d use to acclimatize a Thrash fan to checking out the band. Also its ending-on guitar solo sounds like celebrating St. Patrick’s Day in Scotland… if that makes any sense.

The title-track comes next, which has intermittent stabs at proggy backwards-reverb creepy vocals at the beginning, but then the biggest football stadium chant chorus of them all. Its ‘hold your hand’ and ‘high above on the edge of the world’… no! in fact all of it… sounds like the actual song ‘Keeper Of The Seven Keys’ and is consequently ABSOLUTE FUCKING GOLD.

Its good that it was the album’s title track because its exactly what I wanted from this record. It is the definition of mountain-top-epic. Oh, and the sort of vocal solo that it ends on sounds so much like Bruce Dickinson its disconcerting.

The next track is one more ‘shouldn’t this just be part of another song’ parts.

The beginning of ‘Abyss Of The Void’ actually reminds me of ‘My Friend In Misery’ and maybe even ‘Good Mourning/Black Friday’ by Metallica and Megadeth respectively. More so, it reminds me of the slow haunted bit of Iron Maiden’s ‘Rhime Of The Ancient Mariner.’ The following floor tom bits remind me of ‘For Whom The Bell Tolls’ as well. The song in general is so big and grand that you can understand why this got called ‘Power’ Metal. As opposed to, I dunno, ‘Fantasy’ Metal or ‘Dragon’ Metal or whatever.

When the song quiets down, the teasing subtle lead guitar that operates quietly in the background during the talking build up is amazing and reminds me of both Camel and Pink Floyd.

When the pre-chorus and ‘Bell Tolls bits kick back in, it feels like a real end of concert moment. I’d be surprised if this wasn’t a last-track-before-the-encore song at some stage in the band’s career. I don’t know why this isn’t the album closer, unless something even more closery happens later.

The chorus of the next song ‘Time To Break Free’ operates on the exact same mechanics as certain 90s Green Day songs do. It seems weird that its even connected to the bouncy rest of the song, or the band at all, but then I guess if fits fine with its lyrics about Elvis and hound dogs. Also, the guitar solo sounds like it’s a national anthem, you know, the way bands Rock-ify National Anthems… but I don’t know if it is or not. What even is Germany’s national anthem post-Hitler anyway? Maybe its ‘Time To Break Free’ by Gamma Ray, I guess…

The album closer ‘Afterlife’ is a fairly solid, double-kick pattern based mid-tempo rocker like Savatage’s ‘24 Hours Ago’ from last time, with more dynamic cuts to clean guitar and the most tasteful inclusion of super Queen-esque vocals on the whole disc. It also has a guitar part that sounds like a piece of classical music I can’t remember right now, but which may just be Tubular Bells as well. This also has a touch of Egypt-Dio about it too and it’s a very good song… but it doesn’t sound as much of an album closer as ‘Abyss Of The Void’ did. I may swap the order of the two around in my iTunes later.

That should be the end. Should be, but the version I bought has three bonus tracks. Firstly, there’s a cover of the NWOBHM band Holcaust’s ‘Heavy Metal Mania’ which has both another ‘is that tubular bells or what’ opener and also the scream/riff opener from ‘Queen Of The Reich’ by Queensryche almost cloned. Also they mixed the bass drum on this track like a massive furry Chewbacca-wang being slapped against a bass drum head right in front of the mic. It actually sounds like the bass drum is saying the word ‘doom’ on each hit.

I don’t know what the original song was like, but this version is brilliant.

Next up is ‘As Time Goes By’ which sounds just like Judas Priest. Like ‘Delivering The Goods’ or ‘Steeler’ or ‘Rapid Fire’ or ‘Exciter’ (which they do cover) or something along those lines.

Then comes ‘The Silence’ which is absolutely dripping in Queen. Dripping. It also has a sort of Styx, Boston, Journey slant to it as well, but only the slightest bit. I read in the linear notes that it’s a reworking of a track from their second album, which I haven’t heard so cant compare.

When it cuts to the ‘Great King Rat’/’Keep Yourself Alive’ style bit at the two-and-a-half minute (NOT THREE!) mark, it becomes one of my favourite moments on the album. I’m disappointed to see it go so soon… I’d have based a whole song around just that bit. Everything that follows is gold though. Its proggy as balls, but only in the switching too and fro sense… there are some seriously chunky riffs in there. It’s the most all-over-the-place track on the entire disc hands down… but still seriously enjoyable in a beyond-the-novelty sense as well.

I have to admit, I really, really enjoyed this record. It didn’t knock Operation:Mindcrime from the top-spot of favourite-First-Impressions-Entry… or in-one-go make me like it more than the Keepers either, but other than that, its probably the third best one so far. It’s a superb record and I can absolutely see why it was recommended to me. I’m very glad to have heard it and I’m sure after seven or eight listens I’ll be all over it, properly, like I am with the Keepers and Mindcrime.

By the way… if you like these entries and want a personal one, send me an album (legally) to do one about. Yes… what do I think of Gojira, Messugah, Sikth, Snot, Sick Of It All, Fugazi, In Flames, Brutal Truth, Ensalved or Suffocation’s most famous albums?

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