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Helloween – Keeper of the Power Metal Keys 

The mid-1980s.

Traditional Heavy Metal was firmly established at this point, still expanding in strength and reach, becoming well-defined and familiar to its core audience. This was the era when offshoots like Thrash Metal, Speed Metal, Death Metal, and Black Metal began pushing heavy music toward extremes. But there was another boundary-smashing sub-genre on the rise, one that would forever fly high, touch the sky. . .  

Power Metal. 

We’d heard sped up tempos and guitars before from the likes of Randy Rhoads, Iron Maiden, Motorhead, Diamond Head, Accept, Jag Panzer, and the young Thrash maniacs,* but early Power Metal bands took pedal-to-the-floor tempos and fused them with high melody, soaring vocals, harmonized lead guitars, neo-classical flourishes, and epic lyrical storytelling.

Many, many bands would emerge and populate the sub-genre over the years, some good, some bad, some great, and a number of sound-alikes, but no band ever embodied the essence of Power Metal more than the German legends, Helloween. 

1987. 

Their “Keeper of the Seven Keys – Part 1” album hit stores in May, 1987. It was their fourth release – – second full-length – – but their first to reach – -and subsequently transfix- – the broader U.S. Metal community. The most iconic track from the album has proven to be the 13-minute+ “Halloween,” an epic journey of movements and shifts and changes beyond anything we’d heard before.** 

“Keeper 1” was all over the place, in all the right ways. Side A opened with a nursery-rhyme melody and the transcendent build of “Initiation,” leading into the blistering “I’m Alive,” followed by goofy “A Little Time,” followed by the neck-breaking awe of “Twilight of the Gods,”*** and capping off with a lovely, sappy heartbreak ballad in “A Tale That Wasn’t Right.” Side B featured the shiny happy banger, “Futureworld,” the aforementioned “Halloween,” and the moody, ambient, barely-a-song, cool-as-fuck outro: “Follow the Sign.” In the 37 minutes it took for your first full listen, the entire world was irrevocably changed.

Most of us were immediately hungry for more Helloween, so we dived into their pre-Michael Kiske releases, The “Helloween” EP, “Walls of Jericho,” and “Judas,” with guitarist Kai Hansen singing squeaky-clean lead (if we hadn’t already discovered it). The early stuff is much more raw than “Keeper,” but still amazing, still timeless. As an opinionated young fan, heavily invested in this scene, my oversimplified take was that Helloween were Iron Maiden on the Autobahn with no speed limits. As an “Up-the-Irons” fanatic, this felt like the exact thing I needed in my life. 

The outside world, however – – the few media and parents who were forced to acknowledge “Keeper,” that is – –  had no idea what to do with Helloween. The band name inspired all kinds of pearl-clutching. Yet, while Helloween were touching on scary stuff like demons, devils, warring gods and doomsday, they were also delivering Metal with an upbeat, positive tone, infused with. . . wait. . . Joy? Affirmation? Nerdiness? Optimism? Happy Metal? “But the word, ‘Hell’ is in their name; they must be Satanic!


Sigh.

In another major fumble, the official MTV video for “Halloween” hacked the song from 13:18 down to a ridiculous 5:05. It was a surgery more careless than any by Dr. Stein. 

1988.

One year later, Helloween delivered their coup de grace, the near-perfect “Keeper of the Seven Keys – Part II.” Still playful at times, but just a bit heavier, just a bit faster, just a bit more serious, just a bit more epic than its predecessors. Thirty-five years after its release, it’s still my ultimate Power Metal album. “Eagle Fly Free,” “Save Us,” “I Want Out,” the 14+ minute title track; I can’t imagine it will ever be dethroned. If anyone ever asks for a starter kit for the sub-genre, this is the record I hand them. 

“Keeper 2” felt like the walls had been smashed, like a glorious future life was just beginning, but alas, it was more the end of an era than a launch forward. The years and albums that directly followed were fraught with conflict for the band, who contended with divisive album reactions, internal changes in musical identity, and personnel shifts. Kai Hansen left in 1989 and Michael Kiske departed in 1993, which led to the long-running era with vocalist, Andi Deris. With Deris on the mic, they’d release many more albums and create hours and hours of new classic tunes. They’d also endure more lineup changes, but would keep the franchise going, as Helloween soldiered on into the 21st Century. 

2017.

Thirty years after the release of “Keeper of the Seven Keys -Part 1,” something unprecedented happened. Something miraculous.

All of these men who’d become great rock musicians (and funny creatures) were suddenly together in Helloween again, reunified. In a show of class and humility rarely shown by musicians of any genre, Kai Hansen and Michael Kiske were back on the roster, joining Andi Deris as a triumvirate of lead singers. With seven current members, Michael Weikath (co-founder), Kai Hansen (co-founder), Sascha Gerstner, Markus Grosskopf (co-founder), Daniel Loble, Andi Deris, and Michael Kiske released a “Pumpkins United” single in 2017, and then undertook a global reunion tour. In 2021, this rejuvenated crew put out a new full-length album, appropriately titled: “Helloween.” Just like their best songs, this latest act was a raucous, high-decibel, feel-good triumph. 

The 5 major eras of Helloween history:

  1. Ride the Kai. (Early days, Kai Hansen on lead vox.)

  2. Kiske of the Seven Keys. (Michael Kiske on vocals). 

  3. Helloween Goes Ape. (Experimenting with changes in branding, dabbling in other musical styles, fucking bizarre album cover art). 

  4. Who Deris Wins. (Andi Deris on lead vocals. Widely considered a return to form). 

  5. Pumpkins United. (Hansen, Kiske, and Deris alternating lead vocals).   

Is there more to the Helloween story? Time marches on without us all. We’ll have to watch and see.

All of Helloween’s phases are praise-worthy and important (even their chameleon days), but I’ve kept this article focused mainly on the “Keeper” era. This was the most critical and impactful time – – for the band and for all of Heavy Metal. 

These are the songs that locked up the seven seas.

This is where Power Metal came alive. 

This is the music that empowered the eagle to fly free. 

Helloween were inducted into the Metal Hall of Fame in May, 2023. 

****

 

Jack Mangan is best known in the Metal world as lead author/project runner for the “Am I Evil?” graphic novel, as a journalist with MetalAsylum.net and the official Metal Hall of Fame. and also as co-host of the popular (sporadic these days) Metal Hall of Fame and MetalAsylum.net livestreams with Rich Catino. He’s made a few guest appearances as a panelist on The Metal Voice. In an adjacent life, he was a podcast pioneer, with numerous appearances on Technorama, Dragon Page, Escape Pod/Pseudopod, and many others, including his own productions: Jack Mangan’s Deadpan, and the Podcast novel, “Spherical Tomi.” Friend him on Facebook if you can find him, but be warned: he’s not great about checking Facebook Messenger.

~~~~~~~~~~~

*And many more speedy players not listed here. 

**Maiden’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” from a few years earlier had prepped most of us younguns for songs of this length, not to mention Prog Rock full-album-side tunes for the older kids, but “Halloween” was still something new. 

***”Twilight of the Gods” is of Metal’s greatest deep cuts. 

 **** Many thanks to Sam Saltman for fact-checking this article.

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