HELLOWEEN: RIDE THE SKY
THE VERY BEST OF 1985- 1998
One of Noise Records most successful signings were German rockers Helloween. After recording two tracks (Metal Invaders and Oernst For Life) for a Noise compilation entitled Death Metal in 1984, the band gathered a lot of interest and went on to record their debut EP (Helloween) which sold 60,000 copies – outselling everyone else on the label. The EP was more speed metal than the power metal they are known for, but with tracks like Starlight (which also cleverly references the film Halloween III in it's opening) and Murderer, it was enough to make the impact that was needed.
The band released their full-length debut Walls Of Jericho in 1985, which broke them into the Japanese market. Featuring classic Helloween tracks such as Ride The Sky and Gorgar which boasted not only Kai Hansen's screaming banshee vocals, but a gradual move away from the more aggressive speed metal elements and towards the more progressive. Love them or hate them, Hansen's Marmite vocals were always an idiosyncratic part of the Helloween sound. However, Hansen's penchant for the rock and roll lifestyle was starting to affect his voice meaning a replacement was needed. Ironically Judas was the last track he recorded as lead vocalist, make of that what you will.
It was little surprise when 18-year-old Michael Kiske from III Prophecy joined as his vocal acrobatics were pretty similar, if not as shrill. With Hansen still dominating on guitar, The Keeper Of The Keys Part 1 was released in 1987 and Part II a year later. Seen by many as a masterpiece of power metal, this is where that prog-power metal sound that the band is best known for really starts to cement itself. It's unsurprising that most of disc one is given over to this period, in particular, Part II which has some of the band's best work. March Of Time, I Want Out and Eagle Fly Free being some of the best tracks on the compilation. There is some outstanding dual guitar work going on during the first half of the album, it's raw, un-sanitized and matched only in scale by the rest of the band's outlandish energy.
By the time we arrive at disc 2 it's 1991 and the band have split from Noise records, joined EMI and replaced Hansen with Roland Grapow. Pink Bubbles Go Ape produced by Chris Tsangarides continues the humorous and light-hearted elements the band had started with tracks like Dr. Stein and Halloween. The fans loved the tongue-in-cheek approach the band had started to develop, but Rod Smallwood who was managing them wanted them to become a more serious rock band similar to the other band on his roster (Iron who?) Guitarist Michael Weikath hated the sound and opted for a total change in direction for the aptly named Chameleon in 1993. The eclectic mix of sounds on the record was inventive and unlike anything the band had approached before; choirs, jazz, church organs, it wasn't a bad album, but it wasn't Helloween and as a result the record was a critical and commercial failure.
After a troubled few years with line up changes and the suicide of original drummer Ingo Schwichtenberg, the band returned to form with 1994's Master of Rings. Mr Ego (Take Me Down) and Where The Rain Grows certainly show a clearer sense of direction and a heavier focus on melody. The album was closer to the style of 'Keeper' and would chronicle the beginning of their first full concept album Time Of Oath which is also heralded by many as the 'pinnacle' of their career. 1998's Better Than Raw marked the most successful album since 'Keeper II'. With Andy Deris once again at the helm, and with some slick production on tracks like Hey Lord and I Can you have to ask if the title is a jibe at the uncooked and rough elements of the band's earlier work. Even vocally Deris is far from the piecing cackles of the previous front-men, but he is a fine successor.
Helloween is a band that has a prolific canon of work but has always been torn in different directions stylistically both internally and externally. The drive for their freedom to experiment artistically, where other bands were backed into a corner, may have been unpopular and at times made them difficult to categorise commercially, but it has given them the lasting legacy as one of the genre's best trailblazers.