In 1989 Kai Hansen left Helloween, at the height of their success. Arguably the most important member (and co-founder) of the extremely successful and historical european power metal band, at the time it was quite inconceivable that he would abandon his child, right after the worldwide success of the Keeper of the Seven Keys albums.
Yet, citing personal problems, that it did not feel fun anymore, with rumours that he did not get along with Michael Weikath that much, he did just that. In a short time he started working on his next project, Gamma Ray. The idea, as articulated in interviews of the time, was to take the Keeper of the Seven Keys sound a step further, "taking it to the 21st century". Joining him in this effort was Ralf Scheepers, of the band Tyran' Pace, handling the vocals. A very impressive set of pipes and a style suited for Kai's music,. ie the Kiske/Tate/Halford style. Uwe Wessel on bass (nice, warm player), Matthias Burchardt on drums (excellent and definitely not cliche - the main problem of the genre's players) completed the line-up. Kai Hansen handled all guitars and a couple of vocal lines as well. Finally, on the (beautiful) ballad The Silence, we see the first appearance of Dirk Schlachter, the band's later guitarist who even more later switched to his original instrument, the bass.
The album begins with Welcome, a beautiful semi-epic intro of the Helloween-variety (think Initiation and Invitation from the Keepers), where violins and a nice guitar melody lead to a single note that explodes into Lust for Life, the album's true opener. A speed/power metal dynamite, the song showcases the band's strengths and intentions. Very good musicianship, tight playing, tons of melodies, an aura of that particular Kai Hansen optimism throughout and a MAGNIFICENT solo (see 3:30 for the part I kept rewinding to for my fix of chills down the spine). An excellent song that indeed seems like the next logical step after the Keeper of the Seven Keys. And may I add, quite more inspiring than then awfully bland Pink Bubbles Go Ape from Helloween (their first post-Kai effort).
The same speed and power can be found in Hold Your Ground, which also features a playful, classically inspired verse until it erupts to a very impressive pre-chorus, where the underlying guitar lick accentuates the riff perfectly. Another grand chorus and an amazing bridge, where the sound also evokes memories from the 70s (Deep Purple perhaps?) before the fire of the solo. An equally playful, classically inspired finale marks the end of another great song.
The Silence, as mentioned, is an epic ballad, one of Kai's best in my opinion, where Ralf's vocals shine through. Very tasty bridge in the middle, with acoustic guitars blending with the bass nicely, leading to yet another magnificent solo, which in turn leads to the natural epic finale. Truly a great song.
Greatest and grandest of them all however, is the 13 minute epic "Heading for Tomorrow". Unlike the Helloween epics from the Keepers (Halloween and Keeper of the Seven Keys), this song does not have a narrative, full of changes structure. It rather follows a quite straight-forward rock structure: verse-chorus x2 - solo - bridge - finale. But it takes its time at every part, especially the solo. The main part is based on a lovely riff, very similar to the Victim of Changes riff. But the similarity ends there, as the vocals of the song really give it its own identity and it is a really epic and touching one. While the lyrics themselves might not really be anything unique (a cynic might even call them "lame") but the songwriting makes up for that. In fact, not only the songwriting but the whole album itself. Remember, here is an album by a man who abandoned his extremely successful band because he could not "breathe" artistically or (as the rumours go) socially. That meant also abandoning the guaranteed cash-flow of the pumpkin success and practically starting over. That in itself, is a very strong statement and the music reflects this air of relief, optimism and looking forward. Or in short, Heading for Tomorrow. Nowhere is this more evident than in the solo section of the song. For five minutes Kai Hansen plays over a quiet, atmospheric part, with a very impressive touch and feel, that owes much to Gilmour for example (the Pink Floyd influence can also be glimpsed on Heal Me, which is on Insanity & Genius - Gamma Ray's third album). Indeed, very beautifully played, the solo shifts gears and introduces the power metal bridge until the glorious finale.
Now for the weird stuff: Money, which also features Kai Hansen's vocals in the bridge (oh, had I missed them so!) is a rather bold little song, with a groovy riff and a "crazy" feel, which expresses the band's sentiments on the subject. Again, the "german" lyrics are easily overshadowed by the overall feel of the album and the sincerity of Kai's own career choices. I personally love this song, which also highlights the band's desire to try different things, something they would further develop in the next two releases (Sigh No More and Insanity and Genius) and sadly abandon after the tremendous success of Land of the Free.
Space Eater was the single and video-clip of the album. A very catchy, very straight beat leads to a semi-psychedelic verse (accentuating the theme of the song - drug use). The vocals steal the show on this number, particularly in the bridge section ("dude goes HIGH man!" as a friend put it so eloquently).
For fans of the lighter side of Kai Hansen (think Future World or I Want Out), you can try Heaven Can Wait. Personally, I find the song too happilly naive for my tastes (unlike the aforementioned Helloween classics) but it was a major hit in Japan (surprise there!) and warranted an EP of the same name a few months later.
Freetime, the only composition by someone other than Kai Hansen (Scheepers in fact) is the only song I skip. It's a little rock tune, with a rather silly chorus, nothing much to see here.
The whole package is wrapped up (on the CD) by a very well done cover of Uriah Heep's Look At Yourself. One of Kai's favourite bands (later the band also did Return to Fantasy).
At the beginning Noise Records promoted the album as "Kai Hansen's Gamma Ray" and even enclosed the (vinyl) album in a white sleeve with that very inscription. Did not do much good for the sales, since Helloween (although they released two crappy albums in succession) always sold better than Gamma Ray.
On a much more personal note, this is an album I really, really love very much. At the time I had not really realized what it meant for Helloween to lose Kai Hansen and I first bought Pink Bubbles Go Ape (in 1991) and thoroughly regretted it (we are talking huge disappointment here - imagine after the Keepers...) and only gave Gamma Ray a chance later. I cannot really express how happy I was to find the missing strand of brilliance that I lost after the Keepers. More importantly, the whole stance kept by Kai Hansen at the time, looking forward instead of back, never badmouthing his old bandmates (even though there were apparently plenty of reasons), really inspired me. This is an album that is very sincere and although there are parts of it that leave something to be desired (some lyrics, "coolness" factor perhaps - see photo insert!), overall this is a pretty brilliant power metal album. Most people know Gamma Ray with Kai Hansen behind the microphone. If you are a fan of the genre (european power metal that is), you need this album in your collection. I actually put it to you that you need all Scheepers-era Gamma Ray albums, starting with this one. Kai Hansen is the de facto founder of the genre and here he is in top form, in the middle of his golden years (1985-1995).