Generally speaking, heavy metal isn’t happy music – it’s fueled by aggression, anger, frustration, depression, misery; it tends toward an obsession with darkness, violence, and evil; it’s almost always loud, and it’s as often ugly. Those traits are as much a part of why many people don’t like heavy metal as they are a part of why many others do.
But of course, as with any rule, there are exceptions.
Three decades ago, Germany’s Helloween helped define the European power metal scene. Their debut, 1985’s speed metal classic Walls Of Jericho, was as melodic as it was furious, aggressive by virtue of velocity versus ferocity, taking cues from the NWOBHM and the burgeoning thrash scene. By the time of Jericho’s two-part follow-up, the iconic Keeper Of The Seven Keys, Helloween had perfected a form of metal that was upbeat, pompous, epic, with instantly memorable melodies and soaring choruses atop neoclassical riffs. The band was unabashedly silly at times, and with that tongue-in-cheek humor and that penchant for sing-along melody, Helloween’s metal was fun. And they were fun because they were having fun, and they made you happy because they sounded happy.
Of course, that was twenty-five years ago. Helloween has had its share of stumbles in the interim, for sure – Pink Bubbles Go Ape was as confounding as its title, and Chameleon changed colors like its namesake, camouflaging the band’s skill in the shifting misdirection of what amounted to a haphazardly compiled collection of each then-member’s solo efforts. Kiske went out; Deris came in; and though the band hasn’t since equaled the brilliance of Walls or the genre-defining level of Keepers, the Deris era has been remarkably consistent. (The 25th anniversary collection Unarmed is the exception to that rule – the re-recordings of Helloween classics contained therein are best left forgotten.)
Coming off duelling greatness in 2007’s Gambling With The Devil and 2010’s 7 Sinners, this latest incarnation of Helloween is on a roll. Neither of those discs shook up the established formula too much, but both were exceptionally solid reminders that these old dogs haven’t learned new tricks, just refined the ones they helped develop. Though it’s a bit of a qualitative step down from 7 Sinners, Straight Out Of Hell is still very much a damn good modern Helloween album, through and through. All the touchstones are here, and they’re each expertly crafted. Nothing is outside the box – Helloween‘s days of breaking ground appear to be behind them – but when happy metal is done this well, only the staunchest of critics is really concerned with innovation.
Straight Out Of Hell opens strong with the epic and near-perfect “Nabataea,” one of the best Helloween songs of the Andi era, just pure speed-metal pomp, done absolutely brilliantly. Keyboards duel with the guitars; Deris soars and snarls; the track ebbs and flows; the whole thing is exactly what Helloween does best, seven minutes of pure power metal glory. From there, Straight Out Of Hell remains mostly strong, with a few low marks – still, “World At War,” “Burning Sun,” “Live Now!”, “Make Fire Catch The Fly,” and “Straight Out Of Hell” are all great Helloween tunes, just great straight-ahead metal. “Wanna Be God” is a bit goofy, but still rocks, and both “Far From The Stars” and “Wating For The Thunder” are the kind of sing-along melodic numbers that power metal detractors point to as “lame,” when, in fact, they aren’t – they’re just catchy as all hell, fun-as-anything happy metal, guaranteed to put a smile on your face.
Still, there are some hurdles to overcome: The power ballad “Hold Me In Your Arms” could be drug out behind the proverbial barn and shot and no one would care at all. It’s just a mediocre example of a power metal ballad, nothing special and mostly dull, and only the fact that Helloween is as professional as it is makes it remotely tolerable. Further, with its chorus comprised mostly of the likes of “You’re an asshole… you motherfucker,” the subtly titled “Asshole” comes off equally as juvenile as it is admittedly (kind of) enjoyable in its vindictive stupidity.
Nevertheless, though it struggles in a few places, Straight Out Of Hell still rocks like…. well, like a bat straight out of hell. It’s not perfect, that much is true, but it’s the work of a band that knows its skill set, and works brilliantly within that. Helloween rocks – they know it; I know it; and you should know it, too. This disc is another in their recent line of successes, perhaps not quite as excellent as Gambling With The Devil and 7 Sinners, but nevertheless, absolutely worth investigating by anyone with the slightest penchant for melodic metal goodness, because this band does power metal better than almost any other. And this is further proof of that, and that makes me happy, without exception.