Review Summary: Gamma Ray shoots for a Land of the Free and scores a (worse) Power Plant. Ouch.
Say what you will about Kamelot, Blind Guardian, Helloween, or Iced Earth, but if you ask me, Gamma Ray has always been the definitive power metal band. The group's 1995 and 1997 albums, Land of the Free and Somewhere Out in Space are two of the finest recordings metal has to offer, and though the latter's follow up, Power Plant, wasn't exactly up to par, the band has enjoyed a solid career ever since. Needless to say, this has heaped a ton of expectations on Germany's finest (and naming the effort Land of the Free II doesn't exactly help). Unfortunately, Gamma Ray hasn't exactly met these expectations gracefully, as Land of the Free II just might be their weakest album yet.
Gamma Ray's latest offering marks a departure from the more aggressive, riff based structure of Majestic and No World Order. Instead the band opts for a musical style more appropriate to its namesake. Indeed, Land of the Free II stresses a melodic (at least more so than the past couple Gamma Ray albums) variant of power metal, with particular emphasis on Iron Maiden influenced leads and harmonies. Basically, it sounds almost exactly like Land of the Free. However, Gamma Ray's ninth album differs from the 1995 classic in several ways as well. Most notable is the almost sterile song writing heard throughout the hour long record. Land of the Free II just doesn't impress enough to warrant more than one listen. Leaving Hell plods along for almost four and a half minutes without a decent lick or melody. Empress features some of the worst lyrics the band has ever penned – "Kiss the princess, empress of the dark / Feel the poison flowing through your heart"
– Yeah. Opportunity is the record's second longest song, and not only can it not decide whether it wants to be a ballad, a hard-hitting Sigh No More-esque track in the mould of Dream Healer, or a rousing power metal anthem, but it also sports some of the most ridiculous, blatant plagiarism I've ever heard. Skip ahead to the middle of the track and then listen to Iron Maiden's Rime of the Ancient Mariner. It's exactly the same.
Another grating aspect of Land of the Free II is just how cheerful it sounds. Kai Hansen and co. will follow up a decent riff or melody with a nauseatingly happy sing-along chorus that sounds eerily like one of those church hymns they play at Sunday morning mass. Except happier, if that's possible. The biggest offender in this regard is To Mother Earth ("Sheeee was so beautifuuuuuuuuuul"
– what the hell?), which very well may be the most annoying song on the album after Opportunity. Kai Hansen's singing may be to blame, at least partially, as it sounds passive and weak, losing much of the edge which enhanced the likes of New World Order or My Temple.
Land of the Free II isn't all bad, however. In Nearly every song, there seems to be one or two musical passages (usually instrumental but sometimes held together by Kai Hansen's midrange singing - when it doesn't sound tired - as in the song Rain) which remind listeners why Gamma Ray is/was one of the premiere bands in the scene. Unfortunately, these brief moments of excellence aren't quite as numerous as the failings. As for standout tracks, well the album does contain a few worth listening to. Into the Storm opens Land of the Free II on a high note with its energetic flow and relentless riffing. The album's closer, Insurrection, is an eleven minute epic similar to Armageddon off Power Plant. The strongest track off the LP, it features Gamma Ray at its most comfortable (no church hymns or random bouts of shred ala To Mother Earth!). Each member is complimented rather nicely, and while there are guitar dominated pieces and catchy vocal lines featured throughout the song, neither Kai Hansen nor Henjo Richter get carried away in their role as dual lead guitarists. It may not top songs like Rebellion in Dreamland, Eagle, or Changes, but it still proves to be an entertaining listen on an album full of duds.
Considering Gamma Ray's track record, Land of the Free II just might end up being the most disappointing album of early 2008 (or 2007, if you live outside North America). Most of the songs have a very pedestrian feel to them, either failing to capitalize on decent musical ideas, such as in From the Ashes, attempting to make good out of stupid ideas that have no place on a Gamma Ray album, as in Here Me Calling, or the shameless plagiarism heard throughout the album, most notably in, again, Opportunity. Kai Hansen can definitely do better, as the likes of Insurrection, When in the World, or Into the Storm show. It's just a matter of putting a little more effort into the music. Or maybe trying something new. That would be cool too.