Helloween – The Dark Ride

July 21, 2012 in Artist Rewind, Reviews by blackwindmetal

The Dark Ride

In recent years, I have noticed in some of the more established metal acts a tendency to move from writing highly focused and meticulously crafted albums to writing albums that are much more varied but often less cohesive. I usually illustrate my thoughts on the matter with (or one could say I “pick on”) Blind Guardian’s latest record, At The Edge Of Time. Don’t get me wrong – I enjoy it quite a bit – but it does a really good job of illustrating this trend. It’s a neat idea for an album, and it’s full of really good songs – covering a variety of Blind Guardian styles, from straightforward speed metal to extended symphonic pieces and the occasional folky tune – but again, it sacrifices a lot of cohesion to do this. Some people love it for its variation and the fact that it’s a constantly entertaining album, but to me it almost feels that at the end of each song the band is telling the listener “you’ve been at exhibit B for long enough; time to move along to C.” Sure, you get to see plenty of neat exhibits, but it’s tough to really sink in and experience the album when the band keeps poking and prodding you to go look at something new.

Now, back to Helloween. I’m sure it can be agreed that no Helloween album is quite as focused as Blind Guardian’s Nightfall In Middle-Earth (or, for that matter, Follow The Blind). Helloween, especially during the Deris era, has always been much more focused on writing songs that are individually catchy than on carefully crafting entire albums. “How, then,” you may ask, “does a grumpy whole-album-nut such as yourself like Helloween enough to consider them one of your favorite bands?” Let me explain…

Apart from the poorly-written and overlong Chameleon, The Dark Ride is quite probably Helloween’s most varied album. The album, after a short introductory track, begins in earnest with “Mr. Torture,” a truly hilarious track about the owner of a torture-fetish shop, and thence to “All Over The Nations,” a catchy power metal tune about togetherness. After that it barrels ahead into the uncharted waters of “Escalation 666,” an extremely heavy track with cryptic and rather angry lyrics. I’ll spare you the track-by-track, but you get the idea; there are a lot of things going on here, and in rapid succession.

By my own criteria, it would seem that I’m trying to set up a case against The Dark Ride. But variation itself is not the problem; the problem is when bands forsake the coherence of their albums in favor of variation. Oftentimes it appears that there exists a dichotomy between the two that works on a scale of inverse variation; at least among albums worth listening to, it seems that those with enough cohesion to really take flight as a whole usually “feel” the same from song to song (certainly there will be slow and fast songs, and maybe some changes in instrumentation, but the general vibe will remain the same), and those that try to do more than one or two things generally don’t create much more of an impression than the tracks would, say, if they were arranged in a different order.

Verily, it is quite a feat to write an album this varied and to make it flow smoothly, yet this is exactly what Helloween did; The Dark Ride goes a lot of different places, but it never feels clunky or awkward. Perhaps the best way to describe it is by how it feels: imagine, for a moment, that you’re sitting in a foreign hotel room watching some strange program you’ve never heard of before. When it begins, it seems to be some sort of comedy – maybe a bit strange, but kind of amusing – and before you know it, it’s become much darker – a murder mystery, perhaps – and you nearly start laughing before you realize that they’re serious this time. After that, you learn that the entire thing takes place a thousand years from now on Mars, and you see wild crowds filling the streets and chanting praises to the sun god, and then you learn that they are all puppets under the control of a tall cartoon figure in coattails and a top hat, and that you’ve been watching this dratted program for two and a half hours and you should really be getting some sleep. You experience strange dreams that night – strange, but fascinating, like the program – and in the morning you can’t really remember what happened on the television and what happened in your dream. It all blurs together into the singular feeling that you experienced something magical and beautiful, if eerie and not a little trippy.

I have seen The Dark Ride get a little flak for not being as “dark” as it purports to be, and I suppose I’m guilty of painting a bit darker a picture of it than is accurate This is Helloween, after all, and songs like “All Over The Nations,” “Salvation,” and the single “If I Could Fly” are not even dark by Helloween standards. But all of this is necessary to the album; it’s not a relentless kind of darkness like that purveyed by a Kamelot or Sonata Arctica, but a playfully mischivious kind of darkness that keeps the listener guessing. One could name a few standout tracks – the catchy “Mr. Torture,” the massive “The Departed (Sun Is Going Down),” and the intense, extended title track – but everything here is great, and despite the huge variety of material present, the whole package coalesces beautifully into one splendid, exhilarating dark ride. Take a spin…

 Tom’s Rating: 5 out of 5