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Classic Album Study: Keeper of the Seven Keys Pt. 2

The "Helloween sound" has sometimes gotten flack in recent years, with the upsurge in European power metal. Certainly many of the new power metal bands are quite generic and some downright silly, but it is worth noting that no two of Helloween's albums in the '80s were quite alike (with the exception of the Helloween EP and Walls of Jericho, which I usually think of almost as a single album), and no one today really sounds exactly as Helloween ever did, even though legions of bands have been influenced by them.

Keeper of the Seven Keys Pt. 2 is my favorite Helloween album. It is certainly more accessible (commercial?) than Part One and also giddily, joyously happy, which led a friend of mine once to call it "Sesame Street metal"! Well, I have no problem with that. After all, wallowing in death and despair can get tiresome once in a while, nay?

In my view, no traditional power metal band has yet to match this album, with some of the most classic guitar leads in the history of metal and Kiske's clear, acrobatic vocals. (Why is it all the other German singers I've ever heard have rough voices? Say what you will about Kiske's personality, he had one hell of a set of pipes.)


Not much to be said about this track: just a one-minute quasi-symphonic intro.

"Eagle Fly Free"

Ah yes - just a gloriously rollicking, over-the-top power metal song, with unbelievably fast, hyperactive guitar riffs, double-bass drumming, and a fantastic vocal performance, especially at the end of the song. The chorus is simply great. Overall, a feeling of transcendence and liberation comes through - which is really what metal is all about. "Iron Maiden on amphetamines" is what they used to call Helloween, and this song fits the description aptly - though Helloween by this point had developed more of a classical influence than Iron Maiden.

"You Always Walk Alone"

"You Always Walk Alone" is something of a breather compared to "Eagle Fly Free." It's heavier but slower and more complex, taking some time and attention to digest aurally. It's also more in a traditional metal vein, with a chaotic guitar solo (not the usual tightly structured Helloween riffing) filling in the middle. The bass playing is actually one of the most interesting elements of this song, both for the noodling in the quieter parts and the controlled gallop of the speedier parts.

"Rise and Fall"

This song and the next one are the ones that deserve the epithet "Sesame Street metal," but I can't help but enjoy them both! "Rise and Fall" especially is a fun, flouncy, bouncy tune with odd, heavily rhymed lyrics, chattering guitars, goofy sound effects, and lots of vocal harmonies (which one suspects are rather heavily produced). It's a reasonably heavy song, really, but so inimitably major-key and sunny that you think a five-year-old kid might well enjoy it. Well, maybe not: the devilishly fast guitar solo in the third minute might turn him off.

"Dr. Stein"

Despite the bizarre subject matter (genetically engineered beings that eventually kill their maker), the lyrics and the music both are on the lighthearted side. An example of the lyrics: "His assistant's hips were nice/So he cloned her once or twice/Now his hips are aching/What a deal!" "Dr. Stein" also brings those ingenuous-sounding vocal harmonies into the chorus. Overall, it's a heavier song than "Rise and Fall," with more aggressive drumming, crunchy rhythm guitars, more chaotic soloing, and organ-sounding keyboards at one point.

"We Got the Right

"We Got the Right" returns to more serious territory. It starts off slowly and softly and builds up. The vocals are definitely the focus for most of the song, as they transition from the clean, laid-back style to the operatic falsetto. Background vocals punctuate Kiske's performance at key moments. The solo in the middle is controlled and melodic, very Maiden-ish. The vocals in the last repetition of the chorus are very powerful, especially with the organish keyboards providing a grand backdrop.

"Save Us"

"Save Us" is a fast, speed-metal song, very much in the style that Edguy would later copy. Guitars are overlaid in several layers, often with dual guitar harmonies dancing over shifting rhythmic riffing. Double-bass drumming is a given. Kai and Michael's tradeoff soloing and dual harmonies in the middle of the song are absolutely one of the best moments on the album and really epitomizing the blazing glory of late-80s guitar hero metal.

"March of Time"

"March of Time" is another fast, heavy one, musically in the style of Helloween's first two albums. The difference from those albums of course is in the vocals, which are really a highlight, Kiske reaching ever more stratospheric heights and cascading depths seemingly effortlessly. The chorus succeeds in giving us a sweeping scope:

Time . . . marches
Time . . . marches on
Without us all, never stops
Yes, time . . . marches
Time . . . marches on
And on and on, flies eternally

The mindblowingly fast, "chattering" guitars return in the segue between the last two repetitions of the chorus.

"I Want Out"

"I Want Out" opens up with one of the best guitar melodies of all time, deservedly making "I Want Out" one of the best-loved metal songs of the '80s. The lyrics also mirror the transcendental, liberating nature of Helloween's music: "I want out - to live my life and to be free." Kiske's vocals are more diverse on this song, rather than just remaining in the upper register as they do on most of the songs on this album. Background vocals are almost omnipresent. Anyway, those are the most noticeable elements of this song, but they can't really convey the indescribable qualities that make a really classic metal tune different from just a good one.

"Keeper of the Seven Keys"

The album ends with this thirteen-minute "epic," that term actually fitting this song more than some others to which the term is applied. An "epic" is not just a long song - or book or film or whatever - but a story that follows a central character who embodies the central values of a culture and who reaches a final destination by succeeding in maintaining those values in dire circumstances. Well, probably no song can really do all that, but "Keeper of the Seven Keys" uses a vague fantasy motif to follow the decisions of a central character, addressed in the second person, who succeeds in throwing away keys into the seas of "hate," "fear," "senselessness," "greed," "ignorance," "disease," and a final unnamed sea. Musically, "Keeper" doesn't have the punch of some of the other songs, possibly because it lacks a central musical theme. Like most long metal songs, it has a tendency to be rambling, which is I guess why we're supposed to like it. The best part is the five back-to-back solos taking place in the tenth, eleventh, and twelfth minutes!

Thus ends Keeper of the Seven Keys Pt. 2, which has to be on the short list of best and most influential metal albums from the '80s. There isn't a bad song on the whole album, and there are several songs that are classics.

February 16, 2002
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