To the Metal
Released: 2010, ear Music/EDEL
As a long-time Gamma Ray fan, it pains me to say that TO THE METAL is an unmitigated pile of wank, which has few redeeming features and so many flaws that it’d be quicker to right the world’s economy than to list them all. While 2007’s imaginatively titled LAND OF THE FREE II was widely criticised for plagiarising bands such as Iron Maiden and Judas Priest, at least it was remotely recognisable as a Gamma Ray album. The blatantly ripped-off parts were, as Kai freely admits, not-so-subtle tributes to the bands that influenced him – and admit it, which one of us didn’t feel a little smug by picking up on the little nods here and there to ‘Exciter’, ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’, ‘The Clairvoyant’ etc.? At least LAND OF THE FREE II was fun, if not a patch on the original LAND OF THE FREE (retrospectively re-designated I?)
What’s wrong with TO THE METAL? For one, Kai Hansen’s voice is shot to fuck. He’s never been the world’s best power metal singer, and he’d be the first to say so. In the top pantheon of singers like Halford/Scheepers, Dickinson, Kiske, Dio, Tate, Sean Peck, Roy Khan, Hansi Kursch etc, he’d never fit. But he always had a distinctive voice – that throaty plaintive wail that never quite reached Scheepers or Kiske heights, but always recognisable as Kai Hansen’s. Here on TO THE METAL, his voice verges on breaking a lot of the time, he is frequently slightly off-key, and what is left is over-produced/layered with effects to disguise the fact that he really shouldn’t be singing any more – some of the choruses and verses are so multi-tracked and buried that it’s hard to make out what’s being sung. The screams aren’t convincing at all, and it’s a good thing that he rarely ventures to the highest registers. For Gamma Ray, it’s a difficult situation, Kai Hansen having been the voice of the band for 15 odd years – but I think it has to be done. A replacement has to be found, and let Kai stick to playing his Gibson Flying V and grinning like a maniac.
Other than the singing, it seems as if the band took the criticism of LAND OF THE FREE II to heart. There aren’t any more overt nods to Iron Maiden and Judas Priest, except for the title track, which owes pretty much 80% of itself to Priest’s ‘Metal Gods’. But that’s not to say that there aren’t other non-Gamma Ray flourishes here on the record, which may or may not have been done on purpose. For example, there’s a real Dragonforce vibe on ‘All You Need To Know’, especially in the terribly simplistic chord changes and vocal structuring (incidentally, Michael Kiske makes an appearance on this song). On the closer ‘No Need To Cry’, there’s an overwhelmingly Manowar feel, reminding me of their power ballads like ‘Courage’, even down to the little bass licks in the background – but there is also a rock-musical-type interlude a la Queen or Andrew Lloyd Webber around the mid-point of the song. ‘Mother Angel’ has a definite ‘Balls to the Wall’ vibe in the intro, and I don’t think I’ll be the only one to hear the keyboard driven hard rock/metal of later-era Edguy in the chorus. The beginning of the first verse to ‘Rise’ just screams ‘Eagle Fly Free’ to me, and hints of ‘Save Us’ show up on ‘Shine Forever’.
After all that, is there any vestige of Gamma Ray left on this disappointment of an album? ‘Empathy’, the first track, sounds like it could fit nicely on NO WORLD ORDER – its dark and down-tuned grunt coupled with a surprisingly cool solo would flow nicely with ‘Heart of the Unicorn’ or ‘Heaven or Hell’. Tracks like ‘Time To Live’, ‘Chasing Shadows’ and ‘Shine Forever’ could, in the right context, easily be mistaken for actual Gamma Ray songs. But in such a mishmash of an album, the distinctly Gamma Ray sound is the exception to the rule. Where LAND OF THE FREE II was unabashedly Gamma Ray, Helloween, Maiden and Priest, TO THE METAL is timidly un-Gamma Ray. It’s a pity, because albums like POWERPLANT and NO WORLD ORDER showed that there was room for variation and progression within the ‘confines’ of the Gamma Ray sound. Fans aren’t asking for another HEADING FOR TOMORROW or LOTF I. Even songs like ‘Empress’ on LOTF II showed Kai/GR writing something different sounding, but still recognisably Gamma Ray. TO THE METAL receives a low score for its poor vocals, unimaginative drumming, ambitionless riff-writing and guitar-playing, and unfocused and incoherent experimentation.