HELLOWEEN's The Time Of The Oath Turns 20 – “People Thought We Had A Screw Loose…”
March 19, 2016, 2 years ago
1996. Bill Clinton was President of the United States, collecting pogs was cool, the Toronto Raptors were finishing up their inaugural season in the NBA, and heavy metal was staunchly in the underground. While more extreme forms of metal were blossoming, the older hard rock/heavy metal guard had shut down, changed musical structure, or were focusing on audiences overseas. One of Germany’s best exports, Helloween, were having their own struggles at the time. Still reeling from the failures of a major record deal with EMI, the band were slowly forging a comeback and getting back in the good graces of their fans after the disappointments of 1991’s Pink Bubbles Go Ape and 1993’s Chameleon. It started with a revamped lineup of Michael Weikath on guitar, Markus Grosskopf on bass, Roland Grapow on guitar, and newcomers Uli Kusch on drums, and shrieker Andi Deris on vocals, who was much different than the graceful Michael Kiske. 1994’s Master Of The Rings got the pumpkin rolling in the right direction, showcasing the band back to its raw, power metal style and forgetting the experimentations of Chameleon. Next up was The Time Of The Oath, perfectly blending the heaviness of the band with tracks like “Before The War” and “Kings Will Be Kings” along with the fun, empowering songs like “Power” and “Anything My Mama Don’t Like”. The best part was it was all wrapped around this mysterious Nostradamus theme, espousing on his predictions for the upcoming century.
“People thought we had a screw loose because Andi was saying something in the predictions of Nostradamus that said like maybe New York would be the target of something explosive”, says the main pumpkin man Weikath. Weikath and Deris were doing phone interviews in New York and saying that there would be an attack on the city was not the best idea. “When we did that promo back then, just knowing that he said it, we kind of felt awkward and naturally all the people around us thought we were out of our mind. They’re like ‘yeah we need these guys from Hamburg, Germany to tell you what’s going to happen to New York soon’.”
On the musical side of things, Master Of The Rings started a solid streak of full metal flavor from the Germans and they never felt a pull to doing something alternative as Weikath wasn’t a fan of Nirvana. “Maybe Nirvana was a good band, but that didn’t impress me much. I just didn’t fucking care about that.” Weikath then explains his then girlfriend was a big fan of Nirvana and “cried her eyes out” when Kurt Cobain committed suicide, and he didn’t know what to say to her because of his disinterest in the group.
On the flip side of the coin, Helloween’s buddies in Gamma Ray, featuring former guitarist Kai Hansen, had released Land Of The Free, which has become a much heralded classic in heavy metal, but Weikath didn’t look at them as rivals. “No”, the staunch German flatly says. “I never look at what others are doing. If there’s some kind of competition or a way you got to follow; that’s exactly the way it was back then. Everybody behaved like you have to do something else someone else is doing and I was going like, ‘why’?”
Happening also at this time was the death of former drummer Ingo Schwichtenberg in March 1995. The sticksman was fired after the 1993 Chameleon tour, but even though his death hit hard, it did not affect the writing process for the album. “That kind of was a closed chapter whether you like it or not. He wouldn’t be back glorious and powerful as he was”, Weikath says. He then adds, “We can’t say everyone was surprised at that time” about his death.
With the album clocking in at just over an hour, The Time Of The Oath was the first Helloween album featuring writing contribution from every band member (including b-sides/bonus tracks). There are thunderous numbers like the title track and “Mission Motherland” and scorchers like “We Burn” and the Judas Priest inspired “Steel Tormentor”.
“I wrote that because they (Judas Priest) did the Jugulator album (with new singer Tim ‘Ripper’ Owens replacing Rob Halford) and I didn’t like that direction very much so that’s my own Judas Priest track.”
One aspect Helloween does great are the little pumpkin animations that go along with each song. I showed Weikath the booklet and asked him to pick his favorite drawing and he immediately chose the “If I Knew” animation (which can be seen above). I mentioned to him how he said that the song sounded too much like The Beatles, and this caused Weikath to sound off on the ballad that he was once proud of.
“It’s a little bit like ‘From Me To You’ or something I found out later and I was pretty pissed of at myself that I didn’t find out earlier. And then there’s strange similarities to a Finnish singer who had a very similar track, but still it’s a great track and I didn’t mean to,” says the guitarist.
Expanding on the track some more, Weikath states, “I’m sorry about it, I just had this CD and I listened to it a long time ago and then gave it to a friend so it must have made it into my mind and you can find some allegations on YouTube somewhere where somebody compiles the audio and says ‘oh, this is too obvious’.”
The artwork though sticks with him. “I really like this artwork, it’s really cute. It was meant to be serious and I was really proud of it until I found those things afterwards and if that happens to you as composer, that’s not really nice.”
To round off this conversation, I had to get Weikath’s thoughts on former guitarist Grapow’s plans to re-record his Helloween material and claims that the band ignores his time with the group.
“To begin with, he didn’t really offer much and what he did on Masterplan, that one track he offered maybe on (1998’s) Better Than Raw in fact was like a half-assed, half-baked demo with like something fly over a mountain (makes a disgusted face) and that was it. There was no structure to be found on that so-called demo that would lead to the assumption that it could be a track like what he did on his Masterplan record afterwards. But that’s his point-of-view and he could’ve spoken up a bit more. First of all, he could’ve finished his tracks, and he could’ve presented them like everybody else, and I want to say that if that is his opinion, we don’t need to be fierce about this or enemies or something. Let’s just say when I did some open part on ‘Mission Motherland’, Uli would say ‘He didn’t finish his song, there are parts missing’ and Roland would say ‘Yeah right’.”
Helloween just recently finished up a North American tour where they played four tracks off The Time Of The Oath, which Weikath says was “no coincidence” considering the anniversary. They start a short European run in April before heading off to Japan in June.