Album Review: Gamma Ray - "Empire of the Undead"

How's this for a heavy metal story - a band works on an album at their own studio for the better part of a year and, just as they near completion, the studio burns and destroys most of the contents. One of the few surviving items are the master tapes of the album. This is what happened to Gamma Ray and the tapes that made it through the fire became their latest offering, "Empire of the Undead". It makes sense, though. Everyone knows metal cannot be destroyed by fire.

Recently, right here at Bloody Good Horror, there was a terrific discussion about the movie "This is Spinal Tap" and it's effect on heavy metal, among other things. Part of that discussion referred to the over-the-top nature of metal and how, in spite of "Spinal Tap" being a parody, much of the film was embraced by film goers and metalheads alike as real life. Much of the "metal lifestyle" and metal music in general is so outrageous that it risks being perceived as goofy.

I feel there is a sort of unwritten heavy metal handbook (which should be written) that requires certain criteria be met to be considered "true metal". Among other things, these include massive guitar distortion, double-kick drumming, angry gang vocals and/or demonic chanting and speed, man. Lots of speed.

Gamma Ray knows the rules and "Empire of the Undead" demonstrates just how well.

"Empire of the Undead" is a fitting name for a heavy metal album as it includes two types of classic metal imagery - a fascination with death (the undead) and references to unbridled power (empire).

Gamma Ray is a German metal band and the songs contained within the album are chock full of everything you'd expect from a German metal band. It's thrashy with symphonic elements, two guitarists, gang vocals and the power pipes of Kai Hansen.

Some of you old-school metal fans may recognize the name Kai Hansen as the songwriter/ guitarist and, briefly, vocalist for Helloween. Kai split with the band in 1988 and went on to form his current band Gamma Ray. I will spare you the list of personnel changes (you can look them up on the wiki if you like). Suffice it to say, Hansen is the current guitarist and vocalist and is joined by Henjo Richter on guitar and keyboards, Dirk Schlachter on bass and Michael Ehre on drums. Together they have put together one heck of an album.

The band has clearly been influenced by the NWOBHM, specifically Iron Maiden and Judas Priest. If you are a fan of this particular brand of metal, as I am, then read on. I just may have something you'll be interested in.

The album starts with the epic "Avalon". I've written before about the importance of selecting the right tracks in the right order and "Avalon" is spot on as an opening track. With a running time of just over 9 minutes, it is a smorgasbord of metal offerings. A little Maiden influence, a bit of Queen and just a touch of Judas Priest.

Speaking of Judas Priest, I am hard pressed to think of another band who immediately comes to mind with the utterance of a single word. In this case, the word is "hellbent". It is near impossible to hear the word "hellbent" and not think of the Priest classic "Hellbent for Leather". Whether intentional or not, Gamma Ray channels Halford et al on track two, "Hellbent".

"Pale Rider" is another Priest influenced, hard rock number that segues nicely into "Born To Fly", with its awesome, groovy riff at the head and tail. By the way, did they get Billy Idol to sing guest vocals on "Master of Confusion"? Seriously, if you're familiar with the work of Kai Hansen then you'll hardly recognize his usually high-pitched singing on this song.

One of the more amazing things in metal, perfected by Iron Maiden, is the duel guitar solo, when two guitars play, note for note, the same blazing lead. Yep, you'll hear that bit of awesomeness on this record too.

If you're in the mood for something a little on the heavier side then look no further than the scorching title track, "Empire of the Undead". And it's pretty hard to top the chorus singing "Un-deeeaaad, un-deeeaad" at the end unless you're a fan of heavy metal ballads. In that case, "Time For Deliverance" is just what the doctor ordered.

I found a familiarity to a lot of the songs on "Empire of the Undead". Certainly, one can pick out some of the influences of the band but it's more than that. It's the structure of the songs, the compositions, the expectation that the solo should come next and it does. Or, there should be a drum break-down here and there is. It's not a lack of originality, Gamma Ray has that in spades. It's a comfortable feeling like visiting a friend you haven't seen in a while a picking up a conversation right where you left off.

I'm glad the fire that destroyed Gamma Ray's studio didn't destroy the "Empire of the Undead" tapes. It is a super-enjoyable record. It is metal from the playbook, with a nod to the pioneers, without sounding dated. It is over-the-top outrageousness without being silly. It is heavy metal thunder without becoming a parody of itself. I encourage you to spend some time with Gamma-Ray and, when you do, don't forget to turn the volume up to eleven.

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