Released: 2007, Steamhammer/SPV
Because of what he has accomplished across two of power metal’s most influential bands, Kai Hansen gets a free pass with anything he releases; i.e. if he is involved, you should expect great things and blindly buy it. At his worst, with Gamma Ray’s 2001 release, NO WORLD ORDER, he lets his band’s sound stagnate, but still offers an enjoyable album. At his best, with this new album’s precursor, LAND OF THE FREE, his band travels a vast musical landscape, offering surprises at every turn, all while delivering a pinnacle of unique, heavy and melodic, guitar-drenched power metal. Because of this history, Gamma Ray can be forgiven for following in the footsteps of other aging metal outfits, like Helloween and Queensryche, by trying to market this new material under the banner of an old classic’s title. And since LAND OF THE FREE II represents their best work since at least POWERPLANT, there is no reason to be bothered by the title at all.
The kick ass opener, “Into the Storm,” is very catchy. It features a great run of guitar solos about halfway through the song that gallop over a varied bit of riff changes. “From the Ashes” starts off like an Iron Maiden song with a slow guitar and bass part that speeds up with repeating guitar and bass interplay. The chorus in this track is typical Gamma Ray power metal as heard before on just about every album they’ve done since the first chapter of LAND OF THE FREE. The solo part of this song, though, offers a nice break from the speed of the choruses with lots of variety and melodic guitar lines that lead to a great bass and vocal only part that builds back to the speed. “To Mother Earth” is way too typical a song for Gamma Ray, and is perhaps the only misstep on the entire album. Every moment of this song has been heard on a previous album more than once. Double bass, lightning guitar riffs and a slowed-down melody over the speedy for chorus. This being said, though, typical for Gamma Ray is still better than ninety-five percent of all other metal bands out there.
“Rain” is perhaps the first great song of the album. The verses have a groovy bass and vocal combination that builds to an ultra-catchy pre-chorus. The chorus here is also highly melodic and infectious, making it stick with you from the beginning like other classic Gamma Ray tracks. The breakdown is fantastic as the song slows to a near stop, adding in some clean guitars, offbeat drums, and guitar leads that mirror some classic, weird Kai Hansen melodies. “Empress” is one of the most unique songs on the album. The whole thing has an interesting mid-tempo beat and a prominent electronic piano sounding keyboard part that follows the guitars to get it going. The vocal delivery for the choruses is rather different as Kai employs a sort of breathy approach followed by a group chant in response.
“Opportunity” is a classic Gamma Ray epic, starting off with a slow anthemic clean guitar that builds to a heavy marching beat with an emotional vocal performance. A full harmonized vocal section grabs the listener as the song begins to slowly build to a heavier tempo. This song has that progressive vibe that past epics, like “Heal Me” for example, have had. The song has a wide range of melodies and musical motifs that capture the passion of the story to the highest level on the album. “Real World” is a great, upbeat, sing along track that reminds one of the more poppy sound of Helloween’s recent output than the more classic speed and heaviness of Gamma Ray, but it works splendidly. The closer for the album, “Insurrection,” is the other epic, and it has all the hallmarks that make this feel like it should be the closing chapter of something grand: moody, tone-setting clean guitar intro and vocal lines, a majestic guitar line similar to what started this two part adventure, “Rebellion in Dreamland,” and plenty of head-banging moments and tons of emotion.
If there is one thing to complain about the album it would be the ordering of the tracks. The album seems to be front-loaded with the more in-your-face burners, while the more varied tracks make up the second half of the disc. This tends to make the overall feel of the album a little uneven.
So often, bands are slammed for changing too much. Just as often bands are criticized for not changing at all. In Gamma Ray’s case, they don’t change, but you should not want them to. As long as they can continue to deliver this kind of high quality metal, without too much stagnation, offering a few new tidbits every time around, it will be welcome. This time, things are not as balls-out heavy as NO WORLD ORDER and MAJESTIC, and it’s not as diverse as LAND OF THE FREE, but at the end of the day, it is their most refreshing and varied album in the last decade. LAND OF THE FREE II is unmistakably Gamma Ray, but it has enough distinction to make it another hallmark of a brilliant career, rather than just a middle of the road selection.