Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Album Review; Gamma Ray - Empire Of The Undead

Track Listing:

1. Avalon
2. Hellblazer
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

Gamma Ray have long sat high as one of the more revered of the European Power Metal bands. To my mind, this is probably a combination of the musical nature of the band, which is trademark Power Metal, with no real surprises and a lot of memorable songs, and the fact that the band's frontman and one of two guitarists is former Helloween singer Kai Hansen. Whatever the big reason is, this is their eleventh album, which follows four years after 'To The Metal!'. It's been a long enough wait, but the rewards for our patience are apparent rather quickly.

There have been many albums over recent years that have had some eight to twelve minute song at the end, designed to be an epic, that have been little more than drawn-out bores that are never over quickly enough. Well, Gamma Ray have switched that trend around - the album's opener 'Avalon' is a nine minute monster, and is truly epic! Kai Hansen's vocals cut through music that moves between subtlety, bombast, heaviness, speed and choral majesty. With a narrative that turns the Arthurian legend of Avalon and the Holy Grail from a tale of hope and righteous triumph into one of uncertainty and foolishness found in blind faith. It's one of the finest songs that has all the dynamics of a whole album, and sets the bar high for the rest of the album. The band play tight and with memorable execution, especially in the chorus riff and the guitar solos. There's a Thrash feel to be found in the faster sections around the six minute mark of this song that make for a happy headbanger.

After the knockout punch that the opening track delivers, 'Hellbent' feels rather odd. On the one hand it's a decent Judas Priest honouring sing-along song with some good riffs, but on the other hand, the chorus reminds you a little too much of 'Hellbent For Leather' by the aforementioned band. This doesn't change the fact that we will all likely sing along with it at any Gamma Ray gig we go to.

By the time 'Pale Rider' comes on, any epic feel that 'Avalon' brought with it is well and truly gone. What we get here is rather old school Heavy Metal, as opposed to the kind of grandeur we'd want from such a big name in the Power Metal ranks. Good guitar solos aside, this continues to feel overly like Judas Priest worship. A questionable, and arguably flat melody at the chorus makes this listener cringe.

The Priest problem continues into 'Born To Fly'. By this point, it's quite grating. The cheesy lyrical content here doesn't help either. The opening riff sounds just a bit too similar to Motley Crue's 'Dr. Feelgood', of all things. 'Master Of Confusion' sounds like the album is getting back on track, there's a bigger sound to it, although the start of each verse sees the guitars fall out of the song while Kai Hansen sing alone, with some very questionable lyrics, yet again.

The title track comes in with a Thrash Metal riff and drum beat, so the excitement steps back up in that respect. However good the track is as a stand-alone song, it's very out of place on the album. The simplicity of it reminds me slightly of Venom, not necessarily in a bad way, but ultimately Thrash Metal is done far better by actual Thrash bands. Nice try though!

'Time Of Deliverance' - The mandatory Power Metal ballad. The cheese on show is unbelievable, and personally I can't decide if I find Kai Hansen's heartfelt delivery admirable or ridiculous. It swithers back and forth between the two. Irritatingly, just when you feel the song is about to get more majestic with some sort of soaring guitar solo, the music falls away in an instant, leaving a rather minimalist guitar solo to play. Certainly has me scratching my head.

'Demonseed' opens with a horror film sample before striking with a big stomping riff that Rob Zombie would be proud of. It's not long before the Power Metal comes back though, the shifting dynamic between the faster and slower riff helps the song stand as one of the catchier songs on the album so far. It's also not as boring as many of the songs prior to it have been. 'Seven' sees the Power Metal come back pure and strong, and there's no Judas Priest whiff to it. It does sound rather like an Iron Maiden song that never was, though. Everything from the song structure to the vocal melody and accentuations of certain notes used, especially in the chorus, are so reminiscent you could be forgiven for thinking that Bruce Dickinson was Kai Hansen's vocal coach for the song. Not a bad song, but possibly good for all the wrong reasons.

'I Will Return' (opens with a sample of Schwarzenegger saying "I'll Be Back!) brings back a sense of identity that was lost somewhere in the album's second song. This has been the biggest problem I've had with this album; with the exception of that first song, it's felt like Gamma Ray have tried to do everything on this album; as if they can't decide if they want to do Power Metal, Symphonic Metal, Trad Metal or Hard Rock. It's made for an album that flows very clumsily, if at all. I had a lot higher expectations about this album when I got it, and there was a quality promised both by the band's reputation and by the track 'Avalon' (which will be one of the best songs of the year!) but it is a promise that is just not upheld. I cannot imagine I'll have this album playing too much at all, and it'll likely be all but forgotten before too long.

Rating: 4/10

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