When various members of Hamburg heavyweights Iron Fist and Gentry sat down over a couple of jars in the local bierkeller it’s unlikely those cradling their pints could possibly imagine the decision to form Helloween would be such a monumental game changer. But record sales in excess of eight million coupled with the band’s hugely popular Pumpkins United comeback shows – reuniting the classic line-up – confirm there’s still much love for the ultimate power metal pioneers.
This stunning box set bundles together the band’s first two EPs alongside debut album Walls Of Jericho and the genre-defining Keeper Of The Seven Keys Parts One and Two. In addition, there’s a delightful re-release of quirky compilation The Best, The Rest, The Rare. Presented on seven slabs of coloured vinyl, Starlight revisits the Noise years in suitably flamboyant style: there’s an energy and an enthusiasm underpinning the band’s early work that more than justified flattering comparisons to Iron Maiden et al. Given a timely 21st century reboot, Helloween have never sounded – or looked – so good.
If a generation of metal heads – caught somewhere between the raw adrenaline rush of thrash and the reliable polish of hard rock – took Kai Hansen and co. to their hearts on the back of minor hits Future World, Dr. Stein and I Want Out then many more missed out on the treasure trove of proto power metal that preceded the career-defining Keeper records. At a time when Def Leppard were priming Hysteria, Europe and Bon Jovi were dominating the charts, Metallica were making their move on the other side of the Atlantic and Maiden were sticking rigidly to their tried and tested NWOBHM blueprint, a slew of new German bands had their own vision for the future.
Helloween may have taken their lead from fellow countrymen Accept and the fast-emerging Bay Area heavyweights but 1985’s self-titled EP was neither heavy metal nor thrash. Lead track Starlight took a fast-evolving genre in a fresh direction and Judas, released the following year, offered further evidence that metal’s rule book was ripe for revision. Hansen – combining breakneck solos with soaring vocals – appeared to have it all as Helloween belied their lack of experience to make music that demanded attention.
Ultimately, however, the band sensed something was missing as they laid out a bold blueprint for global domination. Accomplished debut album Walls Of Jericho, presented here on transparent orange vinyl, confirmed Helloween were fast learners but their ambition would surely be curtailed by Hansen having to double up time and time again. Set closer How Many Tears, a seven minute-plus epic, stands out as a classic case in point – a titanic tune which, on reflection, required Hansen to make the most difficult choice of all: sing or play.
That decision had been made by the time the groundbreaking Keeper Of The Seven Keys Part One had been readied for release in 1987. Hansen had stepped aside from the mic (although he still contributed backing vocals) and in his place stood blond bombshell Michael Kiske – a man for whom no note was ever out of reach. As Helloween’s new frontman soared on I’m Alive, Twilight Of The Gods and Future World, the band’s sound had been revolutionised. Hansen was reborn as the foil for fellow lead guitarist and founder member Michael Weikath as Hamburg’s molten metal gods made their play for commercial success and critical acclaim.
Propelled by the insanely catchy Dr Stein and a series of high profile tours, Helloween’s power metal vision was finally realised on Keeper Of The Seven Keys Part Two – the band’s final album for Noise and a compelling pitch to the increasingly intrigued major labels. Kiske’s canny knack for recognising when to elevate his vocal range to the next level, always complementing the Hansen/Weikath dual axe attack, ensured Germany’s next big thing would impact on fans spanning metal’s various, fractured genres. Fast becoming a unifying force, Helloween looked set to challenge Maiden, Metallica and the rest.
But less than a year later Hansen quit to form Gamma Ray and even that sought after major label deal with EMI couldn’t soften the blow. Had Helloween peaked? Quite possibly, according to this fantastic insight into the birth of no-holds-barred power metal.
Helloween – Starlight is out now on BMG Records.