BY JAY ROBERTS
The Cassette Chronicles is a continuing series of mini reviews and reflections on albums from the 1980’s and 1990’s. The aim of this series is to highlight both known and underappreciated albums from rock, pop and metal genres from this time period through the cassette editions of their releases. Some of the albums I have known about and loved for years, while others are new to me and were music I’ve always wanted to hear. There will be some review analysis and my own personal stories about my connection with various albums. These opinions are strictly my own and do not reflect the views of anyone else at Limelight Magazine.
HELLOWEEN – KEEPER OF THE SEVEN KEYS: PART 1 (1987)
According to Loudwire, Helloween’s Keeper of the Seven Keys: Part 1 is “perhaps the first genuine power metal album.”
Now, I don’t know if that is true or not, but it sure would be hard to argue with their assessment of the album being one of the Top 25 Power Metal Albums of All Time.
The 2nd full-length studio album from the German metal band took a pretty big leap forward from their debut release Walls of Jericho. Not that the first album is bad, but with the addition of singer Michael Kiske (taking over the vocal duties from guitarist Kai Hansen, who had been the singer beforehand), the band really hit their stride here.
I don’t remember exactly how I discovered Helloween but it was likely through Headbanger’s Ball. It didn’t take me long to get the album in my hands after first hearing the band’s music and what an incredible ride I was in for when I first popped Keeper of the Seven Keys: Part 1 in my cassette player. (Side Note: The cassette I listened to for this article is the one I bought way back then.)
The album opens up with the instrumental overture track “Initiation” and it is a well-named song. Because it serves not only the purpose of setting the table for the rest of the album to come but it immediately ups the dramatic expectations you might’ve had going into that first listen.
There’s no real break in between that opening number and the song “I’m Alive” and Helloween wastes zero time in unleashing a full bore sonic attack. Between the striking and soaring vocal turn from Michael Kiske, the six string blitzkrieg and the insistent and ever relentless drumming from Ingo Schwichtenberg, the song will not only kick your butt from start to finish but even all these years later, remains a track that will resonate with you each and every time you hear it.
While still moving a pretty speedy tempo, the song “A Little Time” is a demonstrably slower track compared to “I’m Alive”. It gives you a chance to catch your breath. But only just. There’s a bit of a sense of the theatrical at the midpoint of the song and then Helloween seems to catch fire towards the end. Overall, a damn solid track.
Of course, then comes the song “Twilight of the Gods” which just explodes from the speakers musically. The song’s tempo feels like the band is playing like they are in a race for their lives or something. But that sense of urgency ends up transferring over to you and there you are figuratively by their side for another amped up killer track.
The first side of the album closes out with the song “A Tale That Wasn’t Right”, which again feels like a perfectly apt song title because the song does indeed feel like a story being told. The music starts out moody and contemplative with Michael Kiske’s vocals serving as a drama-filled yet calming presence to start. The band kicks in after the first lyrical verse but in a restrained manner. It’s only as the song moves towards its conclusion that things begin to take on a more grandiose feel as both the music and vocal performances take on the kind of presentation you’d tend to find more on a theater stage than a metal concert. I’ve always liked the song both because of the title and the way it is constructed.
The second side of Keeper of the Seven Keys: Part 1 features just three songs but two of them are still in the band’s setlist even now. This shouldn’t be much of a surprise because “Future World” was the album’s single and the more than thirteen minute epic “Halloween” continues to be a standard bearer track for Helloween.
I can still remember how I immediately took to “Future World” based off of simply how the song starts. That riff that opens the track is an immediate ear grabber and then you fly off on a soaring musical take as Hansen, guitarist Michael Weikath, bassist Markus Grosskopf and Schwichtenberg give life to that proposed future world that Kiske sings to you about.
And then you get to “Halloween”. And all I can remember when I first heard the full-length track was my reaction to the song being “Wow!”. From the song overture leading into an explosively paced first “act”, you can’t help but be glued to the speakers. You didn’t know where they were going to take you next but you knew you didn’t want to miss a second of the audio version of a cinematic experience.
The song “Follow The Sign” closes out the album but I’m not sure “song” is the right description for the track. It plays more of a performance piece set to a bit of a musical soundtrack. I’ve always felt the track served to put a fine point to the “Halloween” track. I’m not sure if that is an accurate assessment on my part but it is the impression I had the first time I heard the track and it has always stuck with me that way.
It’s been almost exactly 40 years since Helloween released Keeper of the Seven Keys: Part 1 and in the ensuing four decades the power of this album has never diminished for me. It launched the band’s fortunes higher than ever and they’ve kept right on through to this very day providing metal fans with any number of incredible albums and songs with each successive release. If you are a power metal fan, Helloween is a band that should occupy a big spot in your collection and Keeper of the Seven Keys is a must-have release, period.
NOTES OF INTEREST: While he stepped back from singing the lead vocals for the album, Kai Hansen still wrote the majority of the songs. He wrote six of the eight tracks on his own and co-wrote another with guitarist Michael Weikath (who wrote another track on his own). Michael Kiske wrote the song “A Little Time”.
Keeper of the Seven Keys: Part 1 has been reissued at least twice over the years. The first reissue was an expanded edition that added 5 bonus tracks. In 1993, the album was combined with Keeper of the Seven Keys: Part 2 which kept those 5 bonus tracks and added two additional tracks as well.
The song “Future World” was released as a single and had an accompanying video. Helloween also had a video made for the song “Halloween” but it cut somewhere around eight minutes from the song’s running time.
I’ve seen Helloween in concert twice over the years. The first time was when they were the middle act on the Headbanger’s Ball tour with headliners Anthrax. Exodus was the opening act on that bill. And then about 4 1/2 years ago, they played Worcester, MA without an opening act on the Pumpkins United tour. The band returns to Worcester on Sunday May 21st, 2023 with Hammerfall as the opening act and I hope to be in attendance once more!