May 21, 2014 Gamma Ray – Empire Of The Undead (Album review)
Kai Hansen may be a name most people associate with the German thrash institution Helloween. The truth is, although the guitarist did co-found the band, he soon went on to form another globally successful powerhouse called Gamma Ray. Beginning life in 1989, Hansen did not assume vocal duties until 1995. Taking over the mic for a power metal band while grunge was taking over the airwaves might have seemed like a big risk, but Gamma Ray plunged on with their unapologetic style, earning world tour after world tour and record sales in the millions.
Their eleventh studio album, Empire Of The Undead has just emerged and is looking ready to thrash our collective heads into oblivion. Hansen, along with guitarist Henjo Richter, bassist Dirk Schlacter, and drummer Michael Ehre, experienced a major setback during the recording process when a fire destroyed their home studio. But if nearly 30 years in the business does anything for a band, it makes them persistent. Victory would be Gamma Ray’s eventually, but how does victory sound in 2014?
“Empire of the Undead” begins with the nearly ten minute long “Avalon.” Hansen’s voice sounds richer and less raspy than past years. Whether that is a result of studio magic or just plain old clean living, the man is on top of his game. The song features one of those fist in the air choruses sung almost like a mantra. A touch of keys upholds the melodies as the epic factor is raised exponentially. Its final four minutes are up-tempo with the classic trade-off soloing that Kai Hansen and company do as naturally as anyone in metal. There’s no time to take a breather though, as “Hellbent” erupts from the speakers. This is fast, double-bass laden meat and potatoes speed metal. Next up is the the stomping “Pale Rider,” a true metal anthem that would make any Accept fan proud.
“Born to Fly” and “Master of Confusion” have those super catchy choruses that Kai Hansen seems to secrete like beads of sweat in a sauna. The man has never had a hard time making exciting and infectious music. Time has not diminished this skill one iota. The title track gallops with the requisite double-bass and keyboard flourishes, Hansen’s vocals dropping a register into a more husky thrash-metal intonation worthy of Sebastian Bach at his most gravelly. (Think “Slave to the Grind”). After the workout of the first half of the album, “Time for Deliverance” presents another highly competent ballad. This song sounds like something Ray Charles might have written, and that is meant with a high degree of respect. As heavy metal ballads go, it won’t rock any foundations, but its Motown-esque melodies display Hansen and company’s amazing grasp of rock music.
The mood goes from calm and reflective to a suffering female character lamenting her involuntary transformation into a demon. More of a pure rock song, “Demonseed” comes off as a little bit jarring following the prior song. “Seven” puts things quickly back in order, though, speeding things up nicely. The drums are reminiscent of something Mikkey Dee would do for Motorhead, and while the track hammers along it retains the epic chorus so aptly – and so often – used by Gamma Ray. The album closes on a thrashy, yet progressive note with “I Will Return.”
One can only hope that Kai Hansen and the rest of Gamma Ray meant that title literally, and are planning to pass through these parts on their current world tour. Even after all these years, they can still make this style of music sound as fresh as when they spearheaded it three decades in the past. CrypticRock gives this album 4.5 out of 5 stars.