Helloween – Chameleon
Well, now we come to it. Chameleon is the most derided (whether fairly or unfairly) album in Helloween’s discography, the band’s most experimental recording, and the album that more or less led to the departures of singer Michael Kiske and drummer Ingo Schwichtenberg. Because of this, it is Helloween’s most controversial album, and so I will treat it as such; I will address the two primary criticisms of this album and try to achieve a reasonable position with regard to both of these.
First of all, Chameleon is often disliked by metal fans for not being a metal album. This makes sense, but does not constitute a basis for legitimate criticism. However, it does point to something with a bit more weight: Chameleon plays out like something of an identity crisis for the band; a 71-minute, out-of-character, bloated monstrosity of an identity crisis. The band tries out a lot of ideas here, from the (good!) saxophone solo in “When The Sinner” to the liberal use of horns in “Crazy Cat” to the ill-concieved lyrics of “Music” (“Music is like a sunrise for me/It’s joyful like a trip in a time machine”). Some of these ideas work well,some don’t, but ultimately, none are truly representative of the Helloween we have come to know and love.
This presents another problem for Helloween: even the good material here falls out of line with the underlying aesthetic of the band. Much of the genius of Helloween lies in their ability to create an alternate sort of reality – not another dimension per se, but an altered version of the reality in which we dwell. They’re not working in a purely fantastical paradigm, but neither are their feet entirely on earthly ground, and so we get to meet all sorts of strange characters, from Dr. Stein and the Keeper of the Seven Keys to Mr. Torture, Mrs. God, and the Perfect Gentleman. Even though these characters comprise only a small section of Helloween’s alternate reality, they function as good representations of the unique world which Helloween appears to have forsaken on Chameleon, opting to take on issues in a more straightforward manner and more often than not sounding either pretentious or painfully earnest. More fundamentally, Helloween is simply a metal band, and a great one at that. No group with a name like Helloween can play a song like “Windmill” (famously dubbed “Shitmill” by Schwichtenberg) without looking silly, and the same goes for the rest of the album, however good or bad it may be.
The second standard accusation against Chameleon is that it is too commercial, which is almost entirely false. Pink Bubbles Go Ape was a commercial record, certainly – Helloween was taking a step or two back from innovating to create a simplified, more commercially viable metal record – but Chameleon saw Helloween at their most experimental, however misguided their experiments may have been. Really, it’s quite an anti-commercial record: however catchy they might be, no ’80s-style rock song along the lines of “First Time” or “When The Sinner” (the single from the record) would have made it far in 1993, and anything like the horn-driven “Crazy Cat” or some of the drawn-out ballads would have been akin to the proverbial shot in one’s commercial foot. Chameleon may not have been representative of Helloween, or even a good record, but it was certainly not a sellout.
That said, there were some strong moments on the record. “First Time” features a catchy, melodic chorus that could almost have fit on one of Helloween’s heavier records. “Crazy Cat” is another catchy tune, bringing in a horn section to spice things up. The 9-minute “I Believe” is a respectable track as well, if not close to the power of the group’s earlier epics. Ultimately, Chameleon is quite a bit different from Pink Bubbles Go Ape; whereas Pink Bubbles‘ weakness lay in the shortage of good ideas, Chameleon‘s weaknesses lay in the ill-concieved nature of the album. There were some really good ideas, but there were also a lot of bad ideas, mediocre ideas, and ideas stretched beyond the realms of good taste (see some of the longer tracks here), none of it truly fitting the “Helloween” label. Maybe it was inevitable – maybe the band needed to purge itself of these 71 minutes of material lest they resurface and wreck later metal records – but Chameleon remains as inexplicable as it did eighteen years ago. Give it a spin, if you dare, but don’t expect anything resembling a normal Helloween record.
Tom’s Rating: 2.25/5