Despite being the pioneers of the so called European brand of power metal, and remaining to this day one of the genre’s most highly regarded acts, Germany’s Helloween have had a pretty up and down career. Straight Out of Hell is the fourteenth studio album from the group (or fifteenth if you count the non-metal re-recordings album Unarmed (2009)), released in 2013. Helloween has never had the most stable of line-ups but are currently in one of their more stable phases, having remained constant since the release of Keeper of the Seven Keys - The Legacy (2005). The current line-up of the group has, in my opinion, produced some of the best albums of the group since Andi Deris took over lead vocal duties from their iconic former frontman Michael Kiske, including Straight Out of Hell’s direct predecessor 7 Sinners (2010) but even more so, Gambling with the Devil (2007), which I personal regard as the best of the Deris era, as well as the second best Helloween release overall, only bested by the classic Keeper of the Seven Keys Part I (1987). While I wasn’t personally very enthralled with Keeper of the Seven Keys - The Legacy beyond it being another solid, business as usual Helloween release, and Unarmed being the very definition of a die-hard fans only release, after the last two proper studio albums I have to say I had a lot of hopes riding on Straight Out of Hell.
And early on in the album, with the opening track Nabataea, it seemed as if those hopes of mine had not only been met, but exceeded in every possible way. Nabataea easily ranks among the best songs from the Deris era and even gives much of the stuff from the classic first three albums a run for its money. The song shows a new side to Helloween which hasn’t been heard before expect in very small amounts on a couple of previous albums as the song is very much a symphonic power metal song. The symphonic element adds an extra layer to the Helloween sound which results in it being much more epic than ever before, while it retains all of the guitar driven heaviness that German power metal is characterised by. While still not a symphonic power metal album per se, the element is featured consistently across the album. Whether it’s there or not though, the first half of the album keeps up the pace almost all the time, with World of War being one of the heaviest and most intense tracks on offer. Aside from adding a symphonic element, the band’s riffs stay focused on power metal for much more of the album’s running time than ever before, with surprisingly very little of their more mid-paced traditional metal moments.
The problem however is that starting from track seven, Hold Me in Your Arms, Helloween seems to have run out of the creative steam, and the record begins to stall. This track in particular falls straight into the cliché ballad zone that power metal albums have become infamous for. It’s an area that Helloween have more or less managed to either avoid entirely or pull off in the past, but unfortunately they’ve finally fallen victim to it. The song isn’t too bad for what it is I suppose but it does feel unnecessary when you consider it alongside tracks like Nabataea, World of War and Burning Sun, which showcase a band still at the top of their game so far into a lengthy career. The real probably is that Straight Out of Hell’s downturn continues from here in, with the completely useless two minute excuse of a song called Wanna Be God. I honestly don’t know what the band was trying to achieve with this one. Featuring pretty much just vocals and drums, it somehow manages to bring to mind Queen’s We Will Rock You, the structure and style of the song is that similar. Only it just doesn’t manage to work for them, and all I can really consider the track to be is wasted playing time. It also appeared on the Burning Sun single, which is where it should have stayed if the band had to have it at all.
After this a little bit of redemption is found within the title track, but the song does pale in comparison next to some of the earlier tracks. The magic seems to have been lost by this time and the album takes its biggest downturn of all straight after in the form of Asshole, which in some aspects has claims to being the worst song Helloween have ever done. It seems to be an attempt to make an angry sounding song, but it simply fails to capture that mood on all levels, and ultimately ends up sounding like an immature exercise in swearing. The song has some redeeming features, and is actually pretty good until the chorus
The final three tracks offer up some more redemption, but when taking the album as a whole I’m just left in such shock at how Helloween thought a track like Asshole was worthy of one of their albums that the last three songs just failed to leave much of an impression the first time around, though fortunately they opened up a lot on subsequent spins. It’s pretty rare where one song can destroy much of the regard I have for an album so completely, but somehow Helloween managed it with this Asshole. Even Hold Me in Your Arms and Wanna Be God come across as acceptable filler compared to it. Fortunately with Church Breaks Down Helloween do manage to end on one of the album’s finest moments though.
At the end of the day I still have to objectively consider this another great Helloween release, because the first half rarely is not top tier material and it does indeed really pick up again after the majority of that dodgy middle is done with, title track aside. Subjectively however Helloween disappointed me with this one, as it’s one of their most inconsistent albums released to date. They gave their fans all the makings of another classic, and then spoilt it with a few failed experiments/sub-par songs. I suppose it’s quite the achievement in itself to make an album as bipolar as this. It’s far from their weakest album overall, those top tier songs do save it, but it is their weakest in some time and I can’t quite manage to justify rewarding it with anymore than a highest end ‘great album’ tier rating.
(Originally written for Heavy Metal Haven (http://metaltube.freeforums.org/helloween-straight-out-of-hell-t2769.html))