Rumour has had it for over a decade that GAMMA RAY frontman Kai Hansen isn't a fan of touring, yet every time you turn around he and his Rayniac bandmates are on the road somewhere in the world either as headliners or a support act. He added to UNISONIC to his to-do list in 2011, which put him on the international live circuit in between Gamma Ray commitments and personal life in 2012. And at press time - well before the release of the band's new album Empire Of The Undead - Hansen was preparing to take the band through Europe for a month. You have to wonder if Hansen started the "Kai Hates Touring" rumour himself for shits and giggles, just to see how far the press and fandom would stretch it.
"The things is, I like touring and I liked it back then as well," laughs Hansen, "but I didn't like to be on tour for too long. Two or three months in a row is a bit heavy for me, but I think I can cope with the whole touring business better now than I did when I was younger. In general I don't like long tours."
Hansen also isn't a fan of the constant push-pull in the metal world about who's playing what kind of metal, whether an artist is metal enough, or if a band/album/song even warrants the stamp to begin with. Some fans, for example, raked Gamma Ray's previous album To The Metal! (2010) over the coals for not being heavy enough. Going back for a listen to refresh the memory, it's a ridiculous complaint
"It's very hard to find a definition of what metal is," Hansen says. "I never made a big distinction when I was growing up with glam rock and hard rock, and then later on heavy rock and heavy metal. In the end, for me, it's all hard music with distorted guitars and attitude. Of course all these bands sound different, but to me it's one thing. The spirit is the same so I don't see the necessity to make a distinction, so I don't."
"I personally don't understand what people were complaining about in To The Metal! because there was fast and heavy stuff on it. The song 'All You Need To Know' is even thrashy (laughs). And if the song 'To The Metal' isn't heavy metal then I don't have a clue."
Empire Of The Undead is a step in the right direction for anyone that disliked To The Metal!, featuring moments reminiscent of Gamma Ray's breakthrough album Land Of The Free, and Walls Of Jericho-era HELLOWEEN. In fact, the title track dates back to long before Gamma Ray was even a thought.
"The basis for 'Empire Of The Undead' goes back to '78 or '79, when I was playing with Piet Sielck (IRON SAVIOR) in our first band.We were going under the name SECOND HELL. It was the first real fast song I ever wrote, actually. I never forgot about it; it came back to mind from time to time but I never got down to doing anything with it. There was something about it this time, though, and I dug it out from the depths of my mind (laughs) and turned into something for the modern day."
"The song 'Hellbent' is completely new," Hansen adds, "but the basic riffing at the beginning, I've had that for a while now and I always chose to call it 'Ride The Sky 2' (referring to Helloween's classic 'Ride The Sky, penned by Hansen) because I didn't have a title for it (laughs)."
There were some frightening moments at the end of 2013 that seemingly made it unlikely that Gamma Ray would have any new songs to push, let alone a full length album On November 13th, Hammer Studios in Hamburg, Germany - owned by Hansen, Schlächter (bass), and DARK AGE's 'Eike Freese was destroyed by a fire. To make matters worse, Gamma Ray was on tour with Helloween on the Hellish Rock Part II when it broke out and destroyed the complex where it was located.
"We just kept going," Hansen shrugs. "Sure, it was definitely a distraction and a concern, but on stage it wasn't. I didn't sit there and think about it all the time. We did what we could from there and let it go because that was all we could do. The new album wasn't in any danger, at least not in terms of files and stuff, that was all safe because Dirk had a copy, I had a copy, and when Eike realized the studio was burning he grabbed the hard drives and ran out. When we came back we had to settle ourselves and figure out how to continue. We already had the other studio to work in, and because we know a lot of other bands we were able to borrow a rehearsal room to continue working. Luckily, about 80% of the gear that was in the studio was retrieved because our rooms were the only ones that didn't have any direct fire damage. It's a miracle because we were on the waterfront side on the left side of the building. The right side is just a steel skeleton now. There was smoke and water damage, of course, and we're still in the process of cleaning up and figuring out what we can use and what has to be thrown away."
"I don't know if they're still investigating the cause of the fire, but I don't think so," continues Hansen. "As far as I heard - and this is only a rumour - somebody who was in the building complex had a barbeque and threw the coals in the trash, but there's no proof of that."
Not only is Empire Of The Undead everything the old school could want, it also features some of Hansen's strongest vocal work to date, a fact he is extremely proud of.
"On this album I think I found myself more than ever before," he offers. "In some ways my voice is better than it was. Maybe it's because I don't try to sing in keys or ranges that I don't sound good in. I just let my voice sound the way it is; I don't try to make it sound nice (laughs). Maybe that's a good thing. I feel very comfortable and so far quite a few people have said that I sound much better. I think that's from training and smoking a lot of cigarettes (laughs), and I guess they can't all be wrong."
The aforementioned Hellish Rock Part II tour did cause a slight delay in Empire Of The Undead's recording/release window, potentially throwing Unisonic's schedule for their next album out of whack at the same time.
"Fortunately, it didn't affect Unisonic in a way that put the band on ice," Hansen says. "The guys kept working, and when I came back from the Hellish Rock Part II tour we got together and I found out they 14 or 16 songs in the making, and several of them were finished. The songs that were unfinished, rough and raw, we got together for a week, jammed, and finalized all the arrangements. It was quick and effective work. I have to say that especially Dennis (bass/producer) did a fantastic job coming up with ideas. The next Unisonic album is going to be faster, harder, and for my taste it's more metal somehow."
Something Unisonic vocalist Michael Kiske (ex-Helloween), who is very open about his disdain for the metal lifestyle, doesn't have a problem with?
"No, obviously not (laughs)."
So yeah, expect Hansen's state of metal health to continue to bleed down from Empire Of The Undead and into Unisonic over the next year.
"I'm not forced to write in Unisonic, I just play guitar," says Hansen, feigning innocence. "Of course, there was a riff that I came up with that had a RAINBOW feel to it and now it sounds like METALLICA (laughs). Maybe that's because I'm more into this aggressive Randy Rhoads style of playing at the moment, which I think is good. I love it, I love metal, and I think that will come across on the new Unisonic album."