Helloween - Helloween

Helloween ST cover 2021
Nuclear Blast
Well, this eponymous album by the Pumpkins reunited with not one but two prodigal sons, namely the godfather of European Power Metal, Kai Hansen and the charismatic Michael “Michi” Kiske, is something that cynics might say that was expected, after their “reunion” tour of a couple of years ago. On the other hand, just like “classic” bands reunion albums it’s also a benchmark to see if the chemistry is still present when the classic writers of a band, get back together. It worked at first for Maiden and it still seems to work for Priest – despite the ups and downs… but is that the case with Helloween in 2021.
The entire record tries to both follow the blueprints of the classic Helloween sound, but at the same time it utilizes the experience of almost forty years to be savvier at the same time, largely succeeding on both accounts.
“Out for the Glory” opens the album gloriously, in a way that feels like a throwback to the “Keeper” days when Kiske – gracefully glides above the heavy metal chaos going on below and even prior to that, when Kai shrieks out, about iron minions and such cutely “teenage” themes. Little does it matter that the members of the aforementioned minions might be fat, Trve and bald, to paraphrase some other Europower heroes, this shit still makes the hair on the back of my neck stand as if it were 1987 all over again…
Very wisely the band puts “Fear of the Fallen” next, as this song that begins unassumingly with Andi Deris, melodically singing the intro soon, goes into high gear with Kiske and Deris trading vocals almost seamlessly over an amazing chorus. It is easily Keeperworthy material which is truly high praise for a band well into their forth decade being able to re-capture their heyday form. The production might not have the headroom of what the 80s ones did – but it manages to maintain a good amount of ambiance and to not sound bad, despite a relatively busy mix. It’s got the right amount of grit, oomph and warmth, which is commendable.
“Best Time” takes a couple of pages from the “I Want Out” thematic and style book (if such a thing exists). It’s nowhere near as good, but it’s got a charm all of its own, a more 80s neoromantic-pop-rock take on it all, that gets extinguished only when the solo comes in… basically it’s what Helloween should have sounded post “Keepers” and they didn’t exactly manage to, due to the lineup changes and pressure… this might have worked back then and it fits well enough with the rest of the material now.
“Mass Pollution” sounds like someone took post millennial noisemaking hellraising Helloween and put them on collision course with The Sweet… in a twisted way and it works, to a good degree. It doesn’t exactly feel like the most natural thing ever, but the melodies and nice soloing along with a smart singalong portion make it move along quite nicely, never allowing doubt to set in.
“Angels” begins with a persistent bassline and a Kiske wallowing in his lower register for a bit before the whole thing erupts in a heavy and melodic mid-tempo combo that alone, he carries quite capably. It manages to recapture the grandiosity of the peaks of Kiske’s past time with the band, without entirely having the same magnitude or scope as say, “Keeper” – the song – but neither it’s length. Still it’s pretty good. Deris intervenes – providing some nice contrast and backing in places – answering Kiske’s half of lines… which shows that this dual singer synergy is actually quite effective and smart for reasons not only practical when touring and wanting to perform songs from all eras but also because they do complement each other quite nicely.
“Rise Without Chains” sees another friendly “vocal-battle” that is ongoing straight out of the door. It’s a speedinous track that wouldn’t feel out of place in a “Keepers” album. I might have had liked a few lines traded around or mixed a little lower, but overall the objections I have on the track are both minimal and trivial.
“Indestructible” begins with some really dark, out of phase guitars that come into focus in a way that feels like it’s combining the “Dark Ride” era with Unisonic, via the 80s link. While it sounds like a bit of a Dr Fronkon’ Stein experiment gone wrong, it actually ends up working great.
“Robot King” feels like pushing Andi into doing something pretty Keepery, but also hybriding in his era’s more ambitious stuff. Think half part something Keepery ie “Eagle Fly Free” and half part “Nabatea” … and almost all cool, despite the weird fusion. It sounds as it could come apart at the seams at any moment, but it doesn’t, which is a small victory in the grand scheme of things.
“Cyanide” feels a little more contemporary, modern era Helloween, experimenting within the confines of the post millennial sound of the band and coming off as a pretty pleasant weirdly major piece.
“Down in the Dumps” has a nice classically influenced intro that leads it in a classic sympho-metal mode by the time Kiske first vocalizes in a way that makes you want to check what year it is… Deris and Kai also intertwine in a way that feels quite organic and fitting. It has all the makings of a great tune, but due to its buildup it doesn’t manage to directly compete with some of the more inspired moments on the two keepers, even though it makes a pretty valiant effort to do so.
Last but not least, there’s the duo of “Orbit” an instrumental piece, which Vangelis might as well claim parentage of, which acts as an intro to “Skyfall”, the sole Kai composition on the album and not a bad track at all; here presented in a somewhat different configuration than on the single, with various lines switched about. This “album version” is more rocking and grandiose, slightly more Kiske centric, with Deris mostly augmenting things around and taking the lead here and there. Well, the riff comes courtesy of Dream Theater’s early days, but it’s only a small part of this twelve minute epic and it’s not the sort of hopeless rip-off, but probably somewhat of a nod to, that might have happened on purpose, or even unconsciously… who knows or cares. It’s an enjoyable song and I like the middle Bowie-esque, interlude before things go back into metal mode, via 70s prog nods. I suppose some of the nods might be intentional – ie namechecking “Hangar 18”. Due to its ambition – this is the “Keeper” like epic of this album, in all its dozen minute glory and it surely doesn’t disappoint – this specific mention making a lot of sense within the flow of the album and not sounding a moment too long. And who can even disapprove or dislike the Rainbowesque closing of this song?! None should.
Special editions of the album are to receive a wealth of bonuses including “Golden Times”, “Save My Hide”, the already known and rather enjoyable standalone single “Pumpkins United”, from back in 2017 and “We Are Real” reserved for Japan only.
The album has me in a real pickle. It’s more consistent than a lot of the band’s post millennial output that has only two really strong albums to boast, ie the third “Keeper” and 2013’s “Straight Out of Hell”. “Dark Ride” might have been awesome, but it was so ahead of its time, that it ended up having the band’s contract terminated so… while it was a victory it sort of lost the war…
Given that the band has been responsible for both some of the coolest, as well as some of the most disappointing (at least commercially) albums in heavy metal, it’s nice to see that the much talked about reunion manages to really score above average.
Is this, on par, with the band’s classic “Keepers”? Hmm, even if it bears a good portion of the DNA, it’s not that good, but that would have been a monumental task. Very much like “Brave New World” or “Angel of Retribution” – this is a fine reunion album by a band that once again displays great chemistry and inspiration and with the aid of the latter day members manages to bridge the past with the present, quite elegantly. It’s an album for right now. Not bad. Not bad at all, even “exceptional” here and there.
Is it among the band’s best albums? No, but it doesn’t trail too far behind and it’s all a matter of perspective. I have my doubts that this could capture the imagination of neo-powermetal heads, even if every band in the scene currently owes everything to bands like Helloween and after them, to Stratovarius and Hammerfall that successfully carried the torch for many years, keeping the genre alive. But while it might not be the end all album for the new-kids on the metal block, it will surely warm the hearts of a shitload of older fans.
Twenty year old me might have creamed in his pants, listening to this, but I’m no longer that person. Forty year old me is still excited about it, but can also see the forest for the trees and at the same time appreciate what it takes for “this” to happen, besides wanting to capitalize on nostalgia.  If “this” didn’t have the accumulated heart, sweat and tears of almost forty years, it would definitely show and thankfully “Helloween” is the sum of its parts. Not bad. Not bad at all, even “exceptional” here and there.