There should be a constant reminder as to what Germans Helloween have brought to metal. With their beginnings as a speed metal Iron Maiden gallop and complete with Kai Hansen’s raspy vocals, the band made an auspicious start but it was when Kai felt that he was better suited to just playing the guitar and the band brought in 18 year old Michael Kiske on vocals.
With one hell of a pair of lungs, the youngster’s debut with Helloween – Keeper Of The Seven Keys Part 1 in 1987 not only contributed to catapulting the band into the metallic stratosphere but at the same time laid down the blue print for what became known as “power metal”.
It was an unbeatable record, Keeper Pt 1 was – IS – pure majesty for it has not aged a day, 32 years on, magic pours from every song. A year later Keeper Of The Seven Keys Part 2 arrived, no less powerful and even added a dose of humour, arguments still rage as to which is the best but as two albums they are bewitching and legendary pieces of work. And then it all went horribly wrong. Kai Hansen sent in his resignation ‘letter’ in (ironically) hit song I Want Out before leaving the band and being replaced by Roland Grapow. Problems with their label at the time Noise International prevented Helloween from releasing new material which when it did eventually appear in the form of 1991’s Pink Bubbles Go Ape it critically and commercially bombed increasing tensions in the band. By the time of 1993’s Chameleon and the introduction of horns and pop choruses, it was almost like the band had totally lost the plot all together. With escalating conflicts, the band members took sides with Kiske and drummer Ingo Switchtenberg eventually being fired.
Kiske’s replacement was former Pink Cream 69 vocalist Andi Deris, Uli Kusch on drums and a new label, Helloween regrouped for 1994s Master Of The Rings and from that point took an entirely new journey. Metal may have fallen out of favour in the 1990s and for sure, Helloween stuck to their guns going further and taking risks with more experimental pieces such as 2000’s The Dark Ride, tinkered with acoustic reworkings of past songs and even dared to record a third Keeper album called The Legacy whilst still negotiating the chicane of line up changes, Helloween moved forward on, were a success in a new age and very much on their own terms.
And still plenty of fans looked to the past and those two magical Keeper albums featuring Michael Kiske and with reunions happening in the metal world, why not Helloween?
The reality is that bad blood between Kiske and guitarist Michael Weikath persisted for years, Kiske made his own path, distanced himself from metal and it looked unlikely that these two sparring partners would ever be on the same page….until in 2016 it was announced that the impossible had happened, the past forgiven and that under the banner of Pumpkins United, Michael Kiske and Kai Hansen would join their former bandmates along with current vocalist Andi Deris – all on vocals – for a world tour. With a new song- also called Pumpkins United – with all three vocalists released In October 2017, the stage was truly set.
United Alive In Madrid is the album recorded on that tour. Released in a multitude of formats, this is as much a visual release as it is audio and the full performance is available on DVD/Blu-Ray and a stunning “ear book” the size of a 10” album. Unfortunately, the visual was not available for review but your scribe witnessed the London Brixton Academy show in November 2017 and there is no denying – there was magic in the air that night. It would be easy to get swept up in all that has happened in Helloween’s career, to focus on a reunion and the weight of history bearing down to get to this point but United Alive In Madrid is a remarkable album and an exclamation mark over a remarkable event but far less if the album did not capture that event perfectly.
The tour could have been a set split into three with each vocalist taking their era and walking stage left and while there would be some purity in that and after so many years having Kiske performing the material with his former band, the real joy is the sharing of the vocal duties and hearing Kiske and Deris duetting on the Keeper 1 and 2 material and the interplay between the two is undeniably strong. Each does get their own spot and a time to shine and Kai Hansen’s performance is unique within the concept of Pumkins United being handed a medley of his time in front of the mic with Ride The Sky and Starlight being particular highlights. The Deris era is somewhat curious as – with the exception of two newer songs – it would appear that there is a focus on songs before 2000. If there are not enough reasons to pick up the DVD/Blu-Ray, the drum solo which in itself is a duo with a video of no other than original sticksman Ingo Schwichtenberg who sadly committed suicide in 1995. The presentation is something otherworldly and credit to the Pumpkins for making it happen.
Live albums can be a great collection completer but dust collectors too but United Alive In Madrid really is something special to commemorate a massive and historical tour and as a result feels like a real event. With such an extravaganza under their belts and a studio album touted, the pressure could be on but on the back of United Alive In Madrid – the world could belong to the pumpkin.