When we think of thrash metal, we think of certain things. The “Big Four” of Anthrax, Metallica, Slayer and Megadeth. We may also think of album covers that feature skulls…
Back in 1985 however, it wasn’t just US bands that were playing metal. Across the U.K. and Europe there was a new movement of bands, not all thrash, but many inspired by Maiden and Priest rather than Led Zep and Deep Purple, and supported by publications such as Metal Forces and by record shops such as Shades. Germany had Helloween and Accept, Holland had Helloise, Sweden had Candlemass and even the most neutral of countries, Switzerland, had Celtic Frost who were being lauded as “the new Black Sabbath.”
In 1985 a German heavy metal album was released, titled “Walls Of Jericho”.
Pleasingly the album cover not only featured a skull, but one which belonged to a demon.
It started with a brief instrumental orchestral theme, as many such heavy metal albums did back then, albeit this one took the melody from “London Bridge is Falling Down”. This reference to Jericho clearly betrayed someone in the band had been paying attention at Sunday school. It swiftly moved on to a blistering track that evoked classic “Unleashed In The East” era Judas Priest: all machine gun riffs, twin lead guitars leaping all over each other like excited puppies, constant and maniacal tub-thumping and (keeping up the canine theme for a moment) vocals pitched somewhere in the range between “very high” and “dog-whistle”.
Whilst the vocals weren’t the greatest, the track was a belter and called itself “Ride The Sky”. The accompanying album was more than decent, with tunes like “How Many Tears” and “Victim of Fate”. It wasn’t perfect: elsewhere there was little troubling of the brain to be found with song titles like “Heavy Metal Is The Law”. But it was good. More than good. And the band that recorded it called themselves Helloween.
It sold modestly, as many such heavy metal albums did back then, but as an early example of European speed metal it was a cut above many of its peers.
Undaunted by the lack of attention, within two years the same band hired themselves a tall, blond eighteen year old vocalist called Michael Kiske. Guitarist/vocalist Kai Hansen stepped back to focus solely on guitar, and they presented a new album called “The Keeper of the Seven Keys”, which, in keeping with the custom of the day, had a demon dressed as a monk on the cover.
Firstly, he was a much better singer than Hansen, and secondly he allowed Hansen greater freedom on guitar. The album was a revelation, with a thirteen minute epic track at it’s heart called “Halloween”, which on the face of it appeared to be about the Big Pumpkin, a demon figure hitherto much overlooked in the realms of metal generally. The song is also one of very few songs in any genre to refer to both Charlie Brown and Linus in the same verse. You don’t get that in your Sodom or Bathory albums. Or Taylor Swift, for that matter.
(Almost) more importantly than references to Peanuts characters, it carried a sound that was new, and which appealed to different camps of metal fans.
Back in 1987, the emergence of Metallica and Anthrax had divided some rock fans. The fresh sound of thrash excited many, but there were still those who felt the emphasis on speed came at the expense of melody and “feel”. Rock papers like Kerrang! frequently carried letters debating both sides of the argument.
What the dissenters – typically older fans – needed was a halfway house…something to get them used to the time changes and harsh riffage of thrash metal, but which also had the melody of traditional Maiden/Priest-style metal.
Helloween’s new album finessed the early promise of the first record, added better vocals and produced exactly this sound. A new sub-genre was born, which later became known as Power Metal.
Helloween became the “thrash” metal band that those who disliked the genre found themselves liking. Before long, these fans had got used to the faster style and they began buying Metallica and Anthrax albums. The Helloween album acted as an accessible gateway to the thrashier bands, helping acceptance of the movement more generally.
Helloween themselves became highly popular amongst metal fans. Keeper of the Seven Keys sold 20,000 copies in the U.K. on import. Halloween signed to Iron Maiden’s management. They sold out Hammersmith Odeon after an appearance at Monsters of Rock in 1988 at Castle Donington, opening a bill that saw Guns n Roses, Megadeth, David Lee Roth, Kiss and Iron Maiden follow. Their follow up, Keeper of the Seven Keys part 2 (they had originally intended to release a double album) hit the UK top 30 albums and single Doctor Stein reached the lofty heights of #57, with the band having unsuccessfully attempted to get Ade Edmonson to direct the video. They even planned to float 7,777 balloons over the Berlin Wall into East Germany, all carrying cassettes with extracts of the LP, a stunt that was thwarted by the authorities…
If ever there was a band that was poised to rival the commercial success of the “big four” of thrash it was Helloween.
So why do we not talk about Helloween in the same way we do about Metallica?
First, the tag of “Thrash Metal” still bemused the band. In April 1989 Helloween toured America with Anthrax and Exodus on an MTV sponsored “Headbanger’s Ball” and Kiske reflected at the time “I can see why it made sense for us to get involved with MTV but I really don’t think we fit this bill at all. We’re playing our hardest songs every night, but we’re not thrash.”
Secondly, and more crucially, in 1989 Kai Hansen left the band, and his departure subsequently led to the release of a follow up album which sadly will go down in history as one of the most disappointing follow up albums by any band, ever. It remains genuinely, shockingly poor, a pale shadow of what had gone before.
What was extraordinary about 1991’s “Pink Bubbles Go Ape” was that the album was even worse than the title, with songs like “Heavy Metal Hamsters” and “I’m Doing Fine Crazy Man” living up to their titles. Without reaching too far into the world of racial stereotypes it fulfills every worst fear you may hold about a German heavy metal “comedy” album. We can only be grateful that one song in particular was held back from the album purely based on name alone. It carried the title “Sh*t and Lobster”.
The album put an immediate halt to the band’s upward trajectory. Then grunge happened, and that was that.
Over the past twenty-odd years, away from the pressures of commercial success, Helloween have continued to release albums with some receiving decent critical praise.
Looking back at the first few records however, it is perhaps the debut that now sounds the least dated. Everything that was good about Helloween was right there at the start in songs like “How Many Tears” and that early promise was fulfilled on the follow up album. Their sound was retrospectively identified as Power Metal, but as Billy Joel once said about his favourite black metal bands, “It’s All Rock and Roll To Me”…
Categories: Heavy Metal