By Carl Begai
"Andi Deris sounds like a hamster being pushed through a pencil sharpener."
The steaming little nugget above directed at HELLOWEEN's vocalist can be found on YouTube. It was slapped down by a keyboard warrior from somewhere on this planet as his or her take on 'Nabataea', the first single from Helloween's new album Straight Out Of Hell. Hardly surprising given the faceless stone-throwing that goes on in this mighty digital age, and worth exactly nothing given the band's current and ongoing popularity. Sure, said "critic" is no doubt a diehard fan of original Helloween singer Michael Kiske - revered by many as one of the greatest metal singers of our time - but Deris has been on board for 20 years to Kiske's seven and Helloween is still kicking up a storm.
"Those people are actually a minority, and as you know from your business it's the smallest that always shout the loudest," says an unperturbed Michael Weikath, one of Helloween's founding guitarists. "I'm not saying this to dumb down these people because they have a right to say those things, but it doesn't help me fill my cup so I don’t worry about those kinds of negative opinions."
Get beyond the mudslinging and 'Nabataea' has all the birthmarks of classic old school Helloween, setting the tone for the full album. The instantly memorable guitar riffs, soaring vocals, epic drums, and some not so subtle tips of the hat to their past (see 'Halloween' from Keeper Of The Seven Keys: Pt 1). The fans coudn't have asked or bargained for a better introduction to the record.
"It's strange," Weikath says. "We asked around, management asked around, and what we kept hearing was how much everybody liked that 'Nabataea' track. It wasn't entirely clear from the start. You send the stuff to someone and they say ''Nabataea' rocks!' so that ends up being the first song off the album. It's up to par in certain areas, but there's something about this album, definitely. You can clearly tell from the feedback that there is a particular magic about it. Maybe it's more than the last one, I don't know."
Since the release of 'Nabataea' the band has received plenty of love from their fanbase. Straight Out Of Hell is anything but a disappointment, having been compared to their massive 1996 wallop Time Of The Oath by some people, and pegged by the majority as the worthy follow-up to Helloween's last outing, 7 Sinners (2010). Read the reviews and interviews; there's no shortage of ass-kissing from an impressed and, in some cases, utterly gobsmacked public.
"I like having my ass kissed," Weikath deadpans. "I'm just not supposed to admit to it. And all those tracks are just fucking great."
As a fan it's hard to argue with Weikath on that score. And it's fair to say Straight Out Of Hell reaffirms Helloween as a viable entity, an opinion that has built serious momentum since 2007's Gambling With The Devil album.
"You can say so, but that's due to a steady line-up. Not everyone likes every character in the band but it seems that the majority of fans don't freaking care. Those people just care about a functioning band, something they can associate themselves with. They can see that we've done four or five records over the last 10 years and they're used to us as this line-up. I liked when Cozy Powell was in RAINBOW, I liked when Graham Bonnett was in there, and I hated to see them go. As a fan I said 'I want to hear more from that guy.' You never know how the guy is as a person, but as a fan you get used to having them in the band. Next thing I know, Graham Bonnett was in the MICHAEL SCHENKER GROUP and I was like 'Yeah man, wow!' You want these things to last and you're sad when things change."
No question, the band was in a good place going in to make Straight Out Of Hell. From what Weikath says the creative process wasn't the chore it could have been.
"Making the album was easy because there was so much stuff to pick from. We were able to say 'Okay, this song will be the B-side and that one will be the bonus track...' Charlie (Bauerfeind/producer) said he wanted the album to be more in the classic Helloween vein with the big vocals and big guitars, lots of harmonies, but he wanted to keep the modern elements as well and make sure it had a lot of variety. So it shall be written, so it shall be done (laughs). The one thing he didn't want was something dark."
Bauerfeind has been behind the board for Helloween since 2000 and The Dark Ride, an album that wasn't a huge success and one that Weikath has admitted in previous interviews he can do without. Producer and band have come a long way together since then...
"He's never been a purveyor of the idea of doing The Dark Ride," says Weikath, clearing Bauerfeind of any supposed wrongdoing. "It was more a suggestion from management and the band itself. Everybody was hooked on dark and negative and Seattle stuff, and that was the general feel of the world at that time. I just exclude myself from that because I was sick of reading in magazines about what I have to hear, what's better, what's more modern during those times. I'd pick up the new issue of Metal Hammer and it was always like, 'Oh, don't listen to Riot, it's too old fashioned. You have to listen to this and that band...' It was as if everyone woke up one day and said 'Yeah, now you have to think about negative and dark things...' and that went on for about eight years. The Dark Ride was done during that time. It wasn't Charlie's fault; he just did what we said. Actually, after doing all kinds of Helloween sound-alike bands Charlie got to do his first real Helloween record, and he was expected to do something dark. He thought that was strange."
Straight Out Of Hell boasts a total of 15 songs depending on the chosen edition. Now at the ripe young age of 50, Weikath admits that it "always" bugs him when the powers-that-be insist on loading an album with material.
"It bores the heck out of me. I appreciate an album where there's six or seven tracks. I like the classic SCORPIONS, ACCEPT or JUDAS PRIEST albums; they were ideal. I don't want a Judas Priest album with 12 tracks on it unless they're as good as British Steel or Defenders Of The Faith. Even Defenders Of The Faith is a bit long for me."
"It's strange," he continues. "People arguably want larger screens on their freaking smart phones. What for? You have to learn that sometimes people want things that are different from what you consider practical or good or cool. I see a majority of people that want to go in a certain direction and I sit here wondering why. So, 13 tracks, 10 tracks, eight tracks or what? I long for a time when people were less greedy. Back then there was always quality instead of quantity; that's what's being said as a measure and I agree. And now the big thing is to do double albums, like we weren't supposed to do with the Keeper records even though we came up with enough material at one time for a possible Keeper Of The Seven Keys double album. Doing that now is doing double the work for a fifth of the money compared to what artists used to make. Now people are like baby birds in a nest with their beaks wide open waiting to be fed, and we keep throwing in more and more songs."
"I don't want to complain too much, though. I don't want to come across as whining because this is principle stuff. We have good management, things are running smoothly, you can say we're well established, but that's been some hard work for us and our management."
In closing, Weikath comments on the upcoming Hellish Rock II World Tour featuring Helloween and GAMMA RAY hitting the road together starting at the end of Febtuary. Gamma Ray, of course, is the brainchild of former/founding Helloween guitarist Kai Hansen launched after he left the band in 1989, and things haven't always friendly between the camps. Hansen recently spoke with BW&BK and made it clear there's no bad blood between them anymore, which is why the first Hellish Rock Tour in 2007/2008 happened in the first place.
"We received a lot of posts from people saying 'Oh, I couldn't make it to the show the last time you did the Hellish Rock Tour. Is there a chance you could do it again?'" says Weikath. "The usual answer would be (raises voice) 'No! It won't be repeated! That was it and you weren't there!' But instead we decided to do it a second time. It's almost ridiculous but we can actually do it. It's crazy to do something that is in a way completely predictable, but that's what I like about it."