Monday, 21 April 2014

Gamma Ray's 'Empire of the Undead' - Album Review

Kai Hansen is probably the single most important person in the power metal genre. As a founding member of Helloween, who were probably the first true power metal band, he wrote two albums that would define the genre. The Keeper of the Seven Keys albums are bona fide classics and still hold up today, despite the fact that the genre has evolved and become hugely popular since. After leaving Helloween in 1989, Hansen formed Gamma Ray which has been his main project ever since. With Gamma Ray, Hansen took a heavier path more akin to Helloween's 1985 debut album Walls of Jericho than the more polished Keeper... albums - although, ironically, Helloween's last couple of albums have been even heavier still! Empire of the Undead is the band's eleventh album, and their first in over four years. Musically, it is trademark Hansen and everything you would expect from a Gamma Ray album is present. Hansen's raspy voice might not be the best, but it is extremely distinctive and suits the rawness of Gamma Ray's material. There is nothing groundbreaking about this album but fans of the band, and anyone who likes good melodic metal, will find plenty to enjoy here. Despite the rawness of Gamma Ray's sound, Hansen has always been able to craft a memorable tune. There are always plenty of rousing choruses to enjoy, and Hansen and Henjo Richter are a formidable guitar duo. They trade riffs and solos all the way through this album and always remember to inject plenty of melody into their playing. This is also the band's first album since 1995's Land of the Free to not feature long-time drummer Daniel Zimmermann who retired from the music business in 2012. Michael Ehré (Metalium; Firewind) takes his place and acquits himself very well. His playing style suits the band down to the ground and makes a good impression on his first studio outing with Gamma Ray. Losing Zimmermann has meant that the band have not only lost a drummer, but also a key songwriter. While Gamma Ray has always been Hansen's band, the other three members have always contributed excellent songs and Zimmermann was no exception. I think his songwriting is missed on this album, and a couple of great songs from him would have alleviated a couple of the more average songs here. It does feel that in a couple of places, Hansen was spread a little thin trying to make up for his absence.

The album gets off to a very strong start with the epic Avalon. It starts off with some clean guitar and Hansen's melancholic voice before the rest of the band join in with some excellent mid-paced riffing. It is a song that slowly builds over time, as the verses retain the clean guitar and gentle atmosphere of the intro, while the choruses are real fist-pumping affiars where Hansen is backed up by a huge choir of backing vocals. The second half of the nine minute plus song picks up the pace and sees plenty of excellent soloing from Hansen and Richter. Excellent lead guitar and soloing has always been part of Gamma Ray's DNA, and the standard is maintained here. After a false ending, one final chorus is played and the song comes to a powerful, chanting end. Hellbent is a traditional Hansen speed metal song that gives us our first chance to see what Ehré has got to offer in the drumming department. His fast footwork propels the song along with some tight riffing. Hansen uses the harsher end of his voice, as opposed to the melodic side used on the previous song. The way he almost screeches the chorus is extremely powerful and reminds us that Hansen certainly has his moments as a vocalist, despite the fact he will never win any awards for his vocal talents. It is heavy, yet catchy and that has been Hansen's modus operandi for years now. Pale Rider is up next and this is one of the songs that does not really seem up to their usual standard. The slightly childish 'Burn Motherfucker...' chorus just does not fit with the band's usual style and the music is plodding and uninspiring. However, the solo section of the song is excellent and sees Hansen take a slow, melodic solo before Richter begins to shred. It is not the worst song ever, but it does seem weak compared to the rest of the material on offer her. Thankfully the next song, Born to Fly, gets the album back on track. Hansen's melodic snarl really suits the verses before the extremely catchy pre-choruses and choruses take hold, the latter being washed with plenty of keyboards. This is the sort of song that has dominated Gamma Ray albums for years and it is what the fans want and expect. It is nothing groundbreaking, but it really rocks and the melodies will be in your head for days. Master of Confusion follows and is probably the best song on the album. The main riff harks back to Hansen's Helloween days and the rest of the song just sums up everything that is great about his writing style. Just listen to the chorus and try to get it out of your head, it is almost impossible to do so!

After the melodic heaven of Master of Confusion, the album's thrashy title track hits you like a sledgehammer. It has a very old-school sound and Ehré's powerful, fast drumming shows us why he was chosen to replace Zimmermann. The big, uncompromising riffing is furious and nevet lets up throughout the song. The solo spot sees Hansen and Richter duelling furiously. Each of the two guitarists gets a turn to show off, but the highlight is the short section where they solo together. Dual solos are an key part of heavy metal, and they always sound awesome. You need a break after a song like that, and Time for Deliverance is just that. Good metal albums always have some light to go with the shade and a good ballad can be just as good as a relentless thrash tune. Hansen's moody lead breaks and the distant piano create an excellent mood and the chorus is a real 'lighters in the air' moment, and it has a natural swing to it. There are certain melodies here that really remind me of Queen's We Are The Champions though, which can be distracting. I am not sure whether this was intentional or not, but it does seem rather odd. Luckily, the song is strong enough for this not to be a problem, and gives your ears a rest from the heaviness of the rest of the album. Demonseed is another riff-heavy piece that steams along at a mid-piece. However, it is another song that never really gets going in the same way as many of the others. It is hard to put my finger on exactly what it is, but it just does not feel as good as the rest of the album. Again, it is not terrible, but it is not anything special either. Seven is another quality song however, and all thoughts of mediocrity are soon forgotten. I really like the song's main riff and, like Master of Confusion, it has that old Helloween vibe about it. However, it is the song's chorus that steals the show. It all comes together so well. Hansen's vocal melodies are instantly memorable, and Ehré's drumming accentuates them perfectly. It has an Iron Maiden-esque swagger, which is not faint praise at all! The album comes to an end with the modern-sounding I Will Return. The main riff has a whiff of the Gothenburg sound about it, but certain sections of the song are backed up by some hammond organ which gives it a bit of a retro edge too. It is another solid Gamma Ray song that brings the album to a memorable and enjoyable close. Overall, this album is another success for the long-standing band. They are very good at what they do, and fans of good metal will surely enjoy this!

The album was released on 28th March 2014 via earMusic. Below is the band's official lyric video for Hellbent.

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