I don’t think I’ve ever heard the word “careful” used this forcefully in a song before. Repeatedly. Here’s Tankard: generally renowned for songs about drinking beer and being a thrash metal ne’er-do-well. But on Mercenary (taken from 1986’s Zombie Attack) the Germans take on the subject of soldiers for hire in their endearing “English as a second language” way. It’s just great fun: a punky, speed metal mosh. And the chorus gang shout of “Mercenary! Be careful! Mercenary! Careful! Carefully, carefully! The mercenary, the mercenary” is unforgettably demented. You might enjoy it a little too much so… careful!
I can’t think of many metal instrumentals I would pick out as album highlights but here’s one: Final Gates, from Running Wild’s 1988 pirate metal classic Port Royal. Written by, and showcasing, Running Wild’s new bassist Jens Becker, Final Gates is a cut above: avoiding the usual pitfalls of skippable atmospheric scene-setting or virtuoso showboating. Instead, it’s a track that stands on its own: creative and restrained with wonderful guitar solos and Becker going all Geddy Lee on some infuriatingly catchy bass lines. It’s a wonderful, funky odd-man-out amidst a bounty of power metal swashbuckling.
Back to 1989 for a song that puts the “power” into power metal. It’s German legends Helloween with a storming version of How Many Tears from their Live In The U.K. album. It’s a full-on assault of pounding vrrrs, grrrs and drrrs. The riffs are Scorpions-on-steroids, late drummer Ingo Schwichtenberg is on ferocious form and when the intro riff returns after a dreamy interlude it manages the impossible feat of being even more gigantic than before.
It’s also a thrill to hear Michael Kiske add his high-flying vocal stamp to a song originally sung by the grittier Kai Hansen (who just plays guitar here). And I believe this is the last recording to feature both Kiske and Hansen until they reunited with the band in 2017. Both are set to appear on the band’s new studio album Helloween, released 18th June. If the album is even half as good as this then I’ll be one happy pumpkin.
The joyous glory of the middle eight. Is there anything better? I’m talking about the section, usually 8-bars in length and two thirds of the way into the song, that introduces a new element and adds a new layer of feeling and meaning. One famous example would be the “looks like nothing’s gonna change” vocal part in (Sitting On) The Dock Of The Bay.
Metal artists will often use guitar solos, rifferamas and mosh-friendly breakdowns to get that variety and shifting intensity into their songs and we all know our favourite examples of those. But what about the classic vocal middle eights in metal? Here’s a great one: Gamma Ray’s Lust For Life. Taken from their debut album Heading For Tomorrow, it’s a definitive power metal track with all the happy hallmarks of the genre. It’s already intense stuff but, following a superb and sprawling guitar solo, vocalist Ralf Scheepers whooooaas into a middle eight that takes the track into a transcendent area of giant awesomeness. It’s the best part of the song and it just wouldn’t be the same without it. Maybe it’s that uplifting or transcendent feeling that isn’t always a great fit for metal songs, especially as you get into the more extreme echelons. But on a track called Lust For Life it’s just what the doctor ordered.
I’m instantly thinking of other great ones (like the “take my hand” section in Maiden’s Heaven Can Wait) but what are your favourites? Let me know in the comments.
A Burnt Offering For The Bone Idol is a grand medieval banquet full of succulent folk, juicy classic metal and meaty thrash. Skyclad’s 1992 album was a truly original and pioneering work that built on their debut album’s idiosyncratic promise. The addition of a full-time violinist Fritha Jenkins adds class and colour to a rich and varied set of pagan metal all graced by the gifted lyrics and charismatic vocals of Martin Walkyier. The lusty jig Spinning Jenny and the fist-pumping The Declaration Of Indifference are the enduring set-list faves but every track here is special. The mix of traditional metal mastery à la Maiden and Manowar coupled with the rage and darkness of the underground made this the album to beat in a year when proper epic metal seemed to be in short-supply. From the dystopian anger of Broken Promised Land to the historical tragedy of R’Vannith and the mellow moon-lit ley lines of Ring Stone Round, A Burnt Offering… is a treasure from start to finish.
With vocalist Ralf Scheepers out the band, hell bent on joining Judas Priest, Gamma Ray guitarist (and former Helloween guitarist/lead vocalist) Kai Hansen decided to make a surprise, and welcome, return to the mic. The re-jigged German band found a renewed sense of vitality and their fourth album, 1995’s Land Of The Free, proved to be their best yet. It’s a definitive power metal classic: humungous, anthemic heavy metal goods properly delivered by a band on a mission.
The opening track Rebellion In Dreamland is metal at its gloriously epic best and tracks like Man On A Mission and All Of The Damned feature precision hooks. The band’s earlier albums often stumbled into silliness but this is a more serious and consistent effort. The only overly jolly moment comes when, yet another former Helloween vocalist, Michael Kiske joins the band for Time To Break Free. But it’s a very minor grumble and, for the most part, this has all the stately riffage, wild soloing, singalong choruses, fairy feller interludes and last-ale balladry you could possibly want. Gamma Ray achieve hero status for persevering with bombastic trad metal at a time when it was totally out of fashion and their musical bravado found the perfect home in Land Of The Free.