Album Review: Gamma Ray – Empire Of The Undead (2014)

21 Apr

7/10

Guitarist Kai Hansen first emerged onto the heavy metal music scene in 1984 as one of the founding members of Helloween. During his tenure with the band, he made an appearance as both lead guitarist and lead vocalist on the band’s debut EP and studio album, before ultimately stepping away from the mic in ’87 to allow Michael Kiske to take over vocal duties and provide Halloween their first taste of International stardom. Soon after departing in 1989 he formed the highly influential German Power Metal band, Gamma Ray.

It’s been almost twenty years since Gamma Ray released two of the genre’s defining albums in “Land Of The Free” and “Somewhere Out In Space,” but the quartet is still alive and well into its fourth decade. Lately, however, Hansen seems content to rest on his laurels, as the band’s last two albums have played things about as safely as possible. It’s been a full four years since “To the Metal!” raised concerns over whether Gamma Ray had anything left in the tank, between the album’s inconsistency and borderline plagiarism, so “Empire Of The Undead” has some questions to answer.

The album begins promisingly enough with “Avalon”, a song that harkens back to the glory days, winding through nine minutes of shimmering guitar verses, melodic grooves and a nice solo. New drummer Michael Ehré certainly proves his mettle, if somewhat more conservatively than the departed Dan Zimmerman, as he effortlessly throws in back-beat fills and changes styles on a dime throughout the song. This song showcases Hansen’s striking vocal abilities, engaging guitar work and a handful of energetic tempo changes that strap the listener down for a chaotic ride. Seven minutes into this nine minute long anthem, you begin to believe the song has reached it’s triumphant end, only to be launched off once again into another melody driven chorus.

Throughout “Empire Of The Undead’s” recording and mixing, Hansen stated that the album would have a more “thrashy” sound, and there are a number of songs that live up to that promise. “Hellbent,” “Empire Of The Undead”, and “Seven” are the more speedy sides of this album, all of which are incredibly fun and catchy whilst ballad “Time For Deliverance” provides a Queen/Freddie Mercury inspired moment. Listen to the chorus and try your best not to sing “Weeeeee are the chaaaaampions”

“Master Of Confusion” references the bands troubles with actually making the album, as drummer Dan Zimmerman unexpectedly retired and the band’s studio burned to the ground during the mixing stage. This track is a clear stand-out and has the feel of a classic Gamma Ray song, probably because it’s almost literally a composite of previous Hansen-penned singles.
The main riff, verse, and solo are ripped straight from Helloween’s “I Want Out,” while both the chords and lyrics of the pre-chorus (“and now I’m riding on the wind, but I won’t have much time”) echo “No World Order!’s” “Heaven and Hell” (“riding on the wind, there’s only one place left to go”).
During the song’s post-solo build, Dirk Schlächter lays down some walking bass as Hansen changes the lyrics up a bit, giving the final chorus a feeling of satisfying resolution.

“Born To Fly” may not be a bad song in its own right, perhaps the lowest point of the album maybe, but guess what? It’s another anthem about flying high like an eagle in the sky! Though I’m not going to bash the lyrics because it’s Power Metal and all Power Metal lyrics are cheesy, you do have to ask the question,’how many more songs can be written about soaring like an eagle?’

Further solidifying the album’s centre is the title track “Empire Of The Undead,” a thrash/speed number built on unrelenting drumming and shredded guitar leads. Kai’s screech fits much better here than say, on “Pale Rider,” with his signature dramatic screams ushering in both the bridge and solo section. With “Pale Rider” he just has a tendency to oversing every line and it gets very old, very fast.

“I Will Return” starts off with a sample from Terminator with Arnie saying the classic line “I’ll Be Back”. With strong leads and catchy verses and choruses, this seven-minute shot of energy is a Gamma Ray classic right from the start.
Placing the album’s two best songs as the opener and closer really increases “Empire Of The Undead’s” replay value, and in the end, weaker cuts like “Demonseed” prove relatively easy to gloss over.

So my final thoughts? Well, whilst “Empire Of The Undead” does have largely the same DNA as Gamma Ray’s last three albums, the difference here is that “Empire Of The Undead” showcases flashes of the top-notch Power Metal Gamma Ray built its reputation on for the first time in a while, and that, in itself, is worthy of your attention.
My only issue with this record is that Kai Hansen’s song-recycling comes off as an uninspired and, dare I say, lazy approach to songwriting.
The singing/screeching, killer guitar leads, melodic choruses and dynamic synths should make this an appealing listen for any Power Metal fan and, I think, could offer a way in for newcomers to the genre also.

David

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