[Artwork by the unrivaled Eliran Kantor]
If humankind ever ends up with a tombstone somewhere out there in the great beyond, a solid argument could be made for the following words to be written across the front: “They Judged Every Single Book By Its Cover.” It would ultimately lose out to something along the lines of, “Well, They Gave It A Pretty Half-Assed Shot,” but expect it to at least crack the top five. That old adage pertaining to not judging things by their cover is an ordinance we’ve all had beaten into us right from the jump, but humans will always continue to judge as if our lives depend on it because… well, frankly, there was a time when our lives literally did depend on judging everything by its cover, so it’s now patterned in our DNA. Cavemen such as Gronk and Ator would’ve met an even more untimely end had they not avoided the slimy, grim, or vividly speckled in favor of the more fluffy and friendly looking nutrients.
Now, if you feel like showing metal fans—old and forthcoming alike—that something big is on the horizon and you very much mean Business with a capital “B,” get Eliran Kantor on the horn. I’m guessing Helloween long ago fell into the habit of leaving this part of the puzzle up to the record label, and thankfully, Nuclear Blast has been quite familiar with Kantor’s labor over the years, seeing his work bedeck everything from My Dying Bride to Testament to Soulfly. There seems to be just a little extra added oomph with Helloween, though—perhaps evidence that Kantor was exceptionally thrilled with the idea of providing artwork for a band with as deep a history and influence as these particular Hamburgers. Everything about the cover artwork for Helloween erupts with intensity, and even the pronounced trademark pumpkin gets a rightful and exhilarating throw-back to the glory days to further stoke the fires of anticipation for this, the band’s sixteenth full-length (not counting 1999’s Metal Jukebox or 2010’s Unarmed).
Beyond the bolt from the blue cover artwork, here are a couple points showcasing why this release looms as large as Jupiter’s eye:
- Helloween is the first studio recording to feature Helloween co-founder / guitarist / vocalist Kai Hansen since 1988’s Keeper of the Seven Keys Part II.
- Helloween is the first studio recording to feature vocalist Michael Kiske since 1993’s Chameleon.
For those who’ve been living beneath a winter squash the size of a meteor for the last five years, Helloween welcomed back Kai Hansen and Michael Kiske on November 16th, 2016 to prepare for the Pumpkins United tour that was scheduled to run from October 2017 through December 2018. The Hansen addition was more of a pleasant surprise than something outright earthshaking, as he’d already occasionally found himself on stage with the band over the years to perform classics, but the Kiske news was truly significant, for reasons connected to the trace elements of bad blood that still existed, stemming from the manner in which Kiske was let go from the band back in 1993. However, a chance meetup with Michael Weikath at the Sweden Rock Festival around 2013, paired with some friendly nudges from Hansen finally set the Hellowheels in the right direction, and the ensuing tour roared across the globe with great success—evidence of which was captured on the wonderful United Alive double Blu-Ray release from 2019, which showcases loads of frolicsome antics and an abundance of validation that this pleasant pile of power metal prime movers happen to play very well together in the modern age. Might that rekindling of unique chemistry transfer to a new studio recording following the longest gap (6 years) between albums in Helloween’s storied career?
The short answer, in a word, is youbetterfuckingbelieveit. But it comes with one caveat: You best pack a majestic lunch, because this particular trip takes just over an hour to reach its conclusion. One might expect a need for some “trimming of fat” when it comes to most any record in the modern age that insists on stretching past the 45-minute mark, but let’s be bold and admit that, beyond one fairly dispensable 1-minute interlude, Helloween actually contains zero filler. Will you be biting it off in more manageable chunks in the future? Perhaps… Especially considering the grim truth that most people seem incapable of doing most anything for an hour straight these days without their attention shifting to something equally or even more sparkly. Blame TikTok. However, every time you hit a song in the middle or toward the end of this record that fires yet another signature move from the Helloween playbook that might make you think, “Okay, I get it, but the last three songs already made me feel like I could fight an F-16 with my bare hands,” the cut suddenly does something that makes you appreciate its presence. So, yeah, despite the hour length, no trimming is necessary when you have the best elements of Helloween’s career on full display and every player sounds at the top of their game.
Helloween kicks off sounding eerily similar to the start of South of Heaven.
No, it really does. But then “Out for the Glory” [7:19] quickly gets to the business of power metalling its ass off after about 30 seconds of making you wonder what the hell is going on. This is one of three epics on the record penned solely by Michael Weikath, the others being “Robot King” [7:08] and “Down in the Dumps” [6:01], and all three twist, turn, and detonate with the sort of pageantry you’d hope to hear from Helloween tunes that stretch beyond the standard four minutes. With three guitarists now in tow, expect solos to fly in from virtually every corner, and the Weikath epics take that to another level—though extra points should be awarded to “Down in the Dumps” for getting the deed done with an extra pinch of classic Helloween aggression.
Despite some fairly playful song titles—the aforementioned “Robot King” and “Down in the Dumps,” along with “Best Time”—the record doesn’t actually bother with the more mischievous face of the band that authored songs like “Rise and Fall,” “Dr. Stein,” and “Future World,” so those who generally recoil upon hearing slide whistles, barn animals, and impish laughter in power metal can be at peace. The closest thing the record comes to being radio-friendly is “Best Time” (written by Sascha Gerstner and Andi Deris), an infectious, straightforward little number that is pretty playful, but it still manages to hit the target because it finds its poppy stride without relying on ancillary gimmicks. Use this song as a soundtrack to taking a treasure bath with Scarlett Johansson, Idris Elba, or a Playstation 5, and you could very well find yourself having the best time of your life, for certain. (YES, I realize one could listen to Russell Crowe reciting a transmission rebuild manual and still have the best time of their life in said treasure baths, but you get the point.)
There are ballsy rockers here, too. Three of ‘em, actually. “Mass Pollution” is a supremely catchy Deris-penned charger that leaves you wondering if the other members warned, “You realize that title is suspiciously close to… well, you know,” and Deris of course responded, “Yes, I know! Isn’t it wonderful?” Deris is also responsible for “Cyanide,” a slightly more heavy-footed belter that throws down one of the record’s more weighty riff breakouts just after the 2.5-minute mark. The biggest kick to the chiclets, though, lands with “Indestructible”—the only cut written by Markus Grosskopf, and one that comes out of the gate with an iron-clad riff and gets even grittier with Hansen joining in on vocals.
Ballads are also not part of this record’s design, but Helloween does continue to excel when it comes to writing power metal anthems intended to make the heart glow through warm choruses and sweeping melodies. The Gerstner-penned “Angels,” for example, which punctuates a sort of “spooky church” feel with one of Kiske’s more heartening refrains. “Fear of the Fallen” as well, a song that serves as a textbook definition of how well the record manages to balance the full breadth of Helloween’s trademark elements inside one tidy song; glints of pretty mellowness are offset by stretches of charged power, the midpoint has enough lead guitar exchanges to make Iron Maiden to sweat for a week, and the symmetry between the unmistakable voices of Deris and Kiske is flawless.
No song is more deserving of that glorious return to the classic pumpkin in the logo than the epic closer, “Skyfall.” Written by Kai Hansen, this heroic epilogue (epiclogue?) flashes all the energy, pluck and spectacle of songs such as “Halloween” and “Keeper of the Seven Keys,” and hellohowdoyoudo, that riff right around the 30-second mark just teleported in from the Walls of Jericho-era of the band. The tidier 7:21 youtube version does a clever job of summarizing the record’s 12-minute variant, but I’d be lying if I didn’t confess that the latter is necessary for full dramatic effect, especially once you hit the acoustic guitars around 9-minutes in and the song begins its magnificently impassioned and melodic conclusion.
There’s no denying that the proposal to unite forces from across Helloween’s full career was risky; on its own, stacking three guitarists together with a collective century of power metal experience had the potential for overload the likes of which we’ve never seen. And adding three voices to the scheme, two of which come standard with larger than life theatricality? Let’s just say the chance of heartbreak from either side of the spectrum was definitely lurking, whether it be at the behest of too many years in the rearview, resulting in a too-dim a version of the early energy, or the other end of the scale where some level of “Spider-Man the Musical” disaster hits our eyes and ears. The Pumpkins United tour did the job of mitigating those fears, though. And now with Helloween, it’s clear that not only can this collective pull things off with nary a hitch from the stage, they’re equally capable of grappling in the studio sans injury, resulting in new material that’s triumphant enough to stand toe-to-toe with any other top-tier Helloween release.
Is Helloween over the top? Well, yes, of course it is—it’s over the top by design. But everyone sounds truly terrific, the balance between players is ideal, and the record pulls off everything we love about Helloween without really bothering with the sillier face of the band, which, to be honest, was a very smart move. In short, it’s precisely the sort of record where the absolutely brilliant cover artwork finally matches the splendor of music contained therein.