Review Summary: A classic in the power metal genre, featuring one of the best vocalists to have ever gone through metal.
At my high school, there were only three metalheads. There was me, of course, but I couldn’t be considered a «real» metalhead.- for one, I didn’t dress like a metalhead, nor did I have long hair, and I would just as quickly listen to Slipknot or Metallica than Green Day or any of my mum’s alternative-weird records. Then there was another guy who was a real metalhead - long hair, black t-shirts, satanic goatee, big-*** boots, the whole deal. His favourite band was Cradle Of Filth and he listened to scary-sounding groups like Burzum and Darkthrone and Emperor. And last but not least, there was our local guitar-hero, a guy who worshipped Jimi Hendrix and Slash, but also liked old blues records and such.
The three of us hung out together – in pairs or as a trio – simply on account of we had something to talk about. We all knew more or less the same bands, and we all had a point in common: we’d all heard a lot of good stuff about Keeper of the Seven Keys
by Helloween, but none of us had ever actually heard it.
So when “Jimmy” – that’s the guitar hero, folks, any doubts as to how he got that nickname? – came across a CD-R copy of Keepers II
, I immediately borrowed off him so that I could tape it (this was 2000, folks, tapes were still somewhat in fashion). I ended up keeping it, scanned cover and all, because “Jimmy” got the real deal from his father (or so he said, maybe he just didn’t want to offend me by asking for his record back).
So finally, I had it. Keeper of the Seven Keys Part II
. One of the early Holy Grails of my metal career. I immediately appraised it, and wasn’t disappointed one bit.
This is, put simply, a great record to use if you want to get someone into metal. It’s accessible, it’s ear-friendly, it’s melodic, but it’s got enough credibility for you to still be able to state that it’s «real metal». In fact, a girl I knew who used to listen to Neil Diamond absolutely loved I Want Out
(and no, she didn’t want to do me or anything). I lent her the CD and she never listened to it in full, but somehow I have this notion that when, years later, she became a pseudo-goth chick, it was on account of my CD…
Anyhoo, on to the review. Helloween are one of the leading bands of the power metal scene, having pre-dated Stratovarius and Sonata Arctica, over in Finland, and having been the direct heirs of Accept and Running Wild, the first big bands from their native Germany. What the band did on their first few records – including the excellent Walls Of Jericho
– was fast heavy metal with lots of keyboards and effects, kind of similar to what DragonForce do these days. However, over the course of the years, their sound molded into the melodic power metal that we hear on Keepers
. Also, the band’s first vocalist was Kai Hansen – later of Gamma Ray fame – but on the two Keepers
albums they debuted Michael Kiske, with Kai limiting himself to the guitar.
Now, Kiske is widely seen as one of the best vocalists in metal. His range is awesome, his technique flawless and his confidence shines through on every note he sings. Sadly, Kiske recently admitted that his heart is no longer in metal, and that playing this style is now a chore for him. Instead, after a failed modern-rock experiment with Supared, he now dedicates himself to making crappy acoustic pop music. A shame, because on this album he is - deservedly – one of the stars.
That’s not to say that the whole band isn’t proficient. Drummer Ingo Switzchenberg – who would later kill himself under a train – is particularly excellent throughout these ten songs, driving them forward with inventive and skilful drumming. His is the first instrument we hear after the intro Invitation
, and he is what elevates Rise and Fall
and Eagle Fly Free
to such high standards. Bassist Markus Grosskopf is also in focus, with inventive mast runs worthy of a guitar player, as well as strong accompaniments to Kai’s and Michael Weikath’s riffs and harmonies. Once again, Rise and Fall
is his tour de force, while on I Want Out
he shows that simpler is sometimes better.
But what really made this band famous were the guitars. Hansen and Weikath deliver crunchy riffs and wonderful twin-guitar harmonies in the old Iron Maiden tradition – only faster. Kai is the simpler of the two, delivering harmony-based riffs and leads, while Weikath prefers to shred a bit more, and it is noticeable who is doing which solo (on Dr. Stain
, for example, it’s Weikath, then Hansen) – but if you’re having doubts, they say who does what in the excellent booklet (which, by the way, is also full of really funny doodlings and illustrations).
But all of this technicality would be no good if the songs didn’t rock, right? Well, fortunately, they do. Simply put, Keepers II
has one introduction, four instant classics, one awesome prog song, two OK songs and two fillers. Any questions?
Seriously, though, most of the songs here are of incredibly high standard. The absolute best are Rise and Fall
and Dr. Stein
, but the instant-classic group can just as well accommodate Eagle Fly Free
and I Want Out
. The title track would have made the list if only it wasn’t 14 minutes long.
In fact, apart from that track and Invitation
, all of the songs on here are about 5 minutes in length, give or take a few seconds. However, while they last the same, the feel
very different. Rise and Fall
, the shortest song apart from the intro, is 4:20, but it feels like it’s only two minutes long, because it’s just so awesome. On the other hand, You’ll Always Walk Alone
is 5:02 or something, yet it feels longer because it’s quite dull. Fortunately, that and We Got The Right
are the only filler songs on here; all seven of the others are great.
The best song on this album is definitely Dr. Stein
. It’s one of Helloween’s biggest hits, and proof positive that the band can work well within a mid-tempo mold. The best part of this song are probably its lyrics, that talk about a mad scientist. You see, apparently ”Dr. Stein grows funny creatures/lets them run into the night/they became great rock musicians/when their time is right”
. They can also become politicians, a great possession or a great attraction, depending on which chorus Kiske is singing. The lyrics are hilarious, and the music does them justice, with a huge riff, a great shredding solo (I’m betting Weikath did most of this one) and an awesome mock-horror-movie keyboard sweep on the bridge. Truly one of the power metal greats.
Second in line on the album is Rise And Fall
. Apart from a great performance from Schwitzenberg, this song has the absolute best lyrics on this album. Transcribing them all would take up too much space, but I will leave you with two of my favourite examples:
Romeo loved his Juliet
Their parents told them “stop!”
And then it all turned out peculiar
He couldn’t get ‘it’ up
And later we have:
The King of Los Angeles
Bought himself a teddy-bear
And the Queen became shameless
She did ‘it’ with a chair
As I gave these two, I could have given any number of examples, they’re all equally hilarious. There’s also a mammoth performance from Kiske – high-pitched when needed, wink-and-nudge malicious on other occasions, humorous on others, but always excellent and never dropping in quality.
Actually, Kiske is also the only redeeming factor on You Always Walk Alone
. This is a dull ballad, with next to no chorus, but all the while you’re thinking «Man, can this guy sing
!». Another example of his vocal power is the scream after the solo on I Want Out
. How many vocalists do you know that could keep it up for that
long? Studio trickery or no, Kiske still remains a force of nature.
And by the way, I Want Out
commercial hit of Keepers
, and the song that propelled Helloween to power metal stardom. Featuring insurrect lyrics reminiscent of Judas Priest and a great lead harmony, this song will surely convert many a nonbeliever (it converted my friend). It does, however, grow tiredsome for being so unabashedly commercial.
The same can be said of Eagle Fly Free
. Another big hit, this is not as commercial as I Want Out
, but it still grows a bit stale after ten or so auditions. There is, however, great work from all involved (particularly Schwitenberg and Kiske), and another great chorus, on a fast track reminiscent of the band’s early career.
At the other end of the spectrum is the title track itself, 14 minutes of prog-tinged tempo changes that never once become dull or dragging. There’s another great chorus to link all of the parts together, and the lyrics really are telling a story – each verse starts ”throw the first key…”
(or the second key, or the third, etc), until the “Keeper” has finally destroyed all seven of them, ”wiped out the demons and rescued mankind”
. This song, along with sixth track Save Us
, also gave the band their religious connotations, which may or may not be justified.
and March Of Time
are both fun throwaway tracks, the first quick-paced and the second moving along at a steady mid-to-fast tempo. None of them is a patch on the classics, but they’re good songs on their own right. As for You’ll Never Walk Alone
, it’s basically plodding, lifeless filler, while We Got The Right
gets by a bit better, but proves Helloween shouldn’t try to do ballads (they would do them much better on later albums).
Still, the filler songs end up fitting well into the whole and not causing this album to decrease in quality. It remains, therefore, a classic of its genre, and a record all metalheads should definitely look into.
Rise And Fall
I Want Out
Eagle Fly Free