Thursday, March 27, 2014

Album Review: Gamma Ray - Empire of the Undead

Album Score: B-
Considering it was originally a side project, Gamma Ray has showed some remarkable staying power at the core of Europe’s power metal scene. 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 in its fourth decade. The fact that fans were disappointed with 1999’s Powerplant – an album with no less than four classic songs, including the band’s opener and encore ever since – says a lot about how much respect the band has in the metal sphere. Lately, however, singer/guitarist Kai 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.

If first impressions were everything,
Empire of the Undead would be golden. “Avalon” harkens back to the quartet’s glory days, winding through nine minutes of shimmering guitar verses and thunderous peaks, as if “Rebellion in Dreamland” called and demanded a true successor. 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. While there aren’t any jaw-dropping drum featurettes a la Somewhere Out in Space’s title track, fans should be pleased with Gamma Ray’s newest addition. After a charging middle section and lengthy guitar flourish, “Avalon” concludes with a tremendous mid-tempo gallop, with Hansen’s calls of “Don’t close your eyes and turn away!” bringing the piece home. Basically, if Gamma Ray doesn’t feature this prominently in their next tour and every one after it, they’re crazy.

Empire of the Undead’s recording and mixing, Hansen claimed the album would have a more “thrashy” sound, and there are a number of songs that live up to that promise. “Hellbent,” in particular, showcases some of the Painkiller-inspired riffing that made 2005’s Majestic so much fun. There’s also an old-school guitar solo battle in the middle of the song, giving Henjo Richter’s underrated chops a moment in the spotlight. Still, the all-too-obvious lyrical nods to “Metal Meltdown” and “All Guns Blazing” are pretty cringe-worthy: “A merciless tempest, a flash underground / The sky ripped to pieces, the flames all around / Revolts on the sidewalks, screams in the dark / The world sinks in chaos, the world falls apart.” But whatever, this is power metal. As long as the song rocks nobody really cares about the lyrics, and “Pale Rider” promptly keeps things rolling with its confident strut and quirky modulations, though Kai’s insistence on over-singing every line gets old quickly.

Farther along, “Master of Confusion” 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”). Listen closely and you’ll hear “Send Me a Sign” in there, too. There are certainly worse songs to steal from, but Hansen’s song-recycling here comes off as an uninspired, if not downright lazy, approach to songwriting. “Born to Fly” may not be a bad song in its own right, but come on – another anthem about flying high like an eagle in the sky? It’s like Kai thinks power metal fans haven’t heard “Eagle Fly Free” ten different ways, and frankly, it’s a little insulting.

It is worth pointing out that “Master of Confusion” is still quite a fun song despite its thinly-veiled pedigree. The song’s lyrics reference Gamma Ray’s troubles with actually making
Empire of the Undead, as Dan Zimmerman unexpectedly retired and the band’s studio burned to the ground during mixing (“The label’s calling – boys, are you done? / The deadline’s passed, time to deliver / I am so sorry, we’re running late / Some unexpected ghost in the machine”). During the song’s post-solo build, Dirk Schlächter lays down some walking bass as Hansen changes the lyrics up a bit, lending the final chorus a feeling of satisfying resolution. Further solidifying the album’s center is “Empire of the Undead,” another thrash/speed number built on unrelenting drumming and shredded guitar leads. Kai’s countertenor screech fits much better here than on “Pale Rider,” with his signature dramatic screams ushering in both the bridge and solo section. The chorus suffers from the dreaded “sing the title four times” syndrome, but there’s enough energy to keep “Empire of the Undead” rolling to its furious conclusion.

Empire of the Undead
does, however, continue some unsettling trends in the Gamma Ray discography. For starters, somebody needs to tell Mr. Hansen and co. that it’s not okay to simply copy and paste pieces of classic songs they didn’t write into their own compositions. You might remember hearing Iron Maiden’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” on Land of the Free Pt. II or “Metal Gods” on To the Metal!…well, here we go again. “Time for Deliverance” lifts the chorus of Queen’s “We Are the Champions” almost note-for-note, and if anyone sings anything other than, “and weeee’ll keep on fiiiighting ‘til the end!” at Gamma Ray’s next show, they ought to be ashamed of themselves. Plagiarism has become a real problem over the band’s last few albums and it’s clearly not getting any better. Another sore thumb is Kai’s newfound affinity for cursing, which isn’t so much an objective problem as a perplexing artistic choice. From a band that’s had a generally mature approach, hearing words like “mother***er” is rather jarring. Leave the shock-rock tactics to Five Finger Death Punch and their punk metal cronies.

Fortunately, Gamma Ray has one very big bullet left in the chamber with “I Will Return,” a seven-minute shot of energy that brings to mind previous album anchors “Revelation” and “Armageddon.” Ehré again shows his versatility during the song’s numerous sonic shifts, while Hansen and Richter thrill with a huge solo section. 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 yes, Kai Hansen deserves a slap on the wrist for copyright infringement, and yes, Empire of the Undead has 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 worth your attention.

Track List:

1. Avalon
2. Hellbent
3. Pale Rider
4. Born To Fly
5. Master Of Confusion
6. Empire Of The Undead
7. Time For Deliverance
8. Demonseed
9. Seven
10. I Will Return
11. Built A World

1 comment:

  1. Excellent review! I feel like I did it myself. Really outrageous the degree of copy and paste Gamma Ray has displayed on the previous albums, and this comes to the worst level in this new album. It is still a great album if you don't pay too much attention to these, and if you don't know much about rock and metal. I got angry with the Queen and the fly like an eagle issues. They do it since New World Order, where a song like Solid is a "copy and paste" version of Rapid Fire from Judas Priest. The song is great, but the comparison comes straight to our minds. It is a shame that they lost that creativity as shown in albums such as Somewhere out in Space. I'm a fan of Gamma Ray, but I'm very disatisfied with these issues... Congrats again for this review!