Helloween – Keeper Of The Seven Keys, Part I
Keeper Of The Seven Keys, Part I
As 1987 drew nigh, it became apparent that speed metal was in need of a bit of reinvention. Though the style was at its peak in terms of popularity, little was being done that hadn’t been done previously, and the style as a whole was in risk of falling into stagnation. The answer to this problem would come in May of that year, with the release of two groundbreaking albums that would shake the world of metal and lay the groundwork for the genre as we know it. The legendary Chuck Schuldiner – at the time a mere lad of twenty – would push metal in a darker direction than ever before with the release of Death’s unprecedentedly harsh Scream Bloody Gore. Arguably the founding document of death metal (not to mention a wonderful listen for those of you who like that kind of stuff), it became an instant classic, a model for all bands looking to play truly grotesque metal. At the same time (or to be technical, two days earlier), Helloween would release their second full-length record, Keeper Of The Seven Keys, Part I.
With this, they would do quite the opposite – rather than push metal in a harsher direction, they would add their signature sense of melody and burgeoning compositional skill to create and album that was at once melodic, catchy, and deep, without sacrificing any of the intensity of their earlier works. If you’ll forgive the cliché, this is the album through which Helloween came into their own. No longer were they one of a thousand speed-metal bands running with the pack; they were the masters and heralds of a powerful new force in metal (pun intended).
My introduction to Keeper Of The Seven Keys was not this dramatic. Having just discovered power metal at the tender age of thirteen, I was poking around online for new music when I read somewhere that Keeper was considered an important power metal album, as well as a classic in the genre. When I found a copy on sale at the local record store, I decided to give it a shot. To be quite honest, I was not overly impressed upon first listen. I certainly liked it, but I found it to be somewhat lacking compared to the bombasticity (is that a word?) of Rhapsody or the sheer heaviness of HammerFall. (In fairness to myself, I preferred it to the then-up-and-coming Dragonforce). However, like most of my favorite albums, Keeper Of The Seven Keys grew on me. As evidenced by the rating below, this has become one of my favorite albums, and this is due neither to its status as a classic, nor to its influence (though I certainly respect the band for these things), but simply to the quality of the material.
While the band showed quite a bit of potential on Walls Of Jericho, there were a number of inconsistencies that kept it from being great. The production was poor, the songwriting was inconsistent, the vocals were occasionally weak, the band’s sense of melody was not fully developed, and the record lacked cohesion as a whole. That said, it wasn’t a bad album by any stretch – the energy put out by Walls was incredible and a number of the songs were rather brilliant – but it lacked the focus and professionalism that it needed to be truly great. The strength of Keeper Of The Seven Keys, then, lies in the fact that it retains the energy of Walls while making vast improvements in all the aforementioned areas. The production, while not quite to modern standards, is miles ahead of Walls. The singing, this time courtesy of Michael Kiske, is much stronger than before – and might I dare posit that Hansen’s guitar playing has become more interesting with his dropping of the vocal duties?
Helloween has also matured immensely in terms of melody. Not only are the vocal melodies stronger and more memorable than those on their earlier works, but the guitar and bass are taking much more melodic roles in the music. Melody no longer takes a backseat to intensity; it is fully ingrained in the music, and it is the combination of intensity and melodicism that makes these songs so memorable.
Perhaps most importantly, though, the band has gained a sense of composition. While Walls Of Jericho functioned as a decent collection of songs, it had little in the way of internal cohesion; the only thing connecting the songs was their unrelenting intensity. Keeper Of The Seven Keys, on the other hand, must be taken as a whole; more than a collection of songs, it is a complete composition in and of itself. There are eight tracks here – an intro, an outro, and six proper songs – and each fulfills an important role as part of the complete work. As with Zero Hour’s superb The Towers Of Avarice, we see a sort of rising-action sequence throughout the album, culminating here in the massive closing epic “Halloween” and the eerie outro “Follow The Sign.”
I suppose the lyrics should also be mentioned. Helloween has earned a reputation as a rather goofy band over the years, and this has been both a gift and a curse. While the lyrics may be silly at times (“Come and take a trip with me/to Future World”), I would advise the listener not to write them off as stupid or shallow. If one truly takes time to get into the music, the lyrics have a surprising level of emotional depth, and in any case, the occasional goofiness lends the album a certain charm. As any good metal fan knows, a bit of cheese goes well with anything.
Simply put, Keeper Of The Seven Keys, Part I is a masterpiece. Sure, it was an important album as well, but what more is an important album than the first to do something? Catchy, energetic, melodic, and powerful, Keeper is not only innovative, but enjoyable and memorable to the extreme. Helloween had learned to harness and focus their energy, and in doing so had created something truly brilliant, the praises of which were to be sung throughout the ages. It would be only one year until their next offering, so be sure to come back soon…
Tom’s Rating: 5 out of 5