Saturday, March 29, 2014

Gamma Ray – Empire of the Undead

While it’s been 4 long years since the last Gamma Ray album, taking things a bit slower is often a good idea. Unlike many other power metal bands who are constantly pumping out worse and worse albums, Gamma Ray seems to have re-energized themselves by taking their time. “Empire of the Undead” is the band’s 11th album, and is their best in over a decade. Things kick off with the 1-2 punch of “Avalon” and “Hellbent”, which immediately recall a similar combo of “Rebellion In Dreamland” and “Man On A Mission” from “Land of the Free”. “Avalon” is without a doubt the band’s most inspired song in a long time. It opens with some clean guitars, followed by Kai Hansen showing off some of his softer range, but it isn’t long before it explodes into a heavy, mid-paced stomper. The song alternates between these two sounds until it becomes a much faster, energetic track driven by guitar solos. The most impressive part of this song is Kai’s vocal performance. As mentioned, he shows some real singing skill, but he also displays some more aggressive, harsher vocals. Kai displays an unbelievable amount of emotion in this song that I don’t think he’s ever matched on any other Gamma Ray song.

After “Avalon”, Gamma Ray soldiers on with another winner: “Hellbent”. This song begins in an incredibly thrashy manner, and as it goes on, there is a clear nod to “Man On A Mission” with the interplay of backing vocals and Kai’s singing. “Hellbent” is another one of Gamma Ray’s odes to metal, but this one’s lyrics are pretty bearable. Another highlight (and metal anthem) is “Master of Confusion”. This song is much in the vein of “I Want Out” and “Send Me A Sign”; it has an incredibly catchy lead that drives the song, wicked chorus, and great guitar harmony after a fantastic solo. This track also showcases the impressive bass playing of Dirk Schlächter. There are quite a few breaks in the verses where he sticks out, although he actually is very prominent even when the guitars are playing. This is definitely the strongest Gamma Ray album in terms of how well the bass cuts through the mix.

Nearly every song on this album is worth mentioning because the songs are very eclectic. Every track sounds like Gamma Ray, but is still distinct. “Time For Deliverance” is the sole ballad, and will recall the song “Farewell”, as there is some fantastic piano work alongside Kai’s vocals. Things slow down a bit with “Demonseed” and “Seven”; the former because of the strange sample at the beginning, and the latter because it is the only somewhat weak track on the album. Just as you might be tiring of this record, however, Gamma Ray comes back with “I Will Return”, which is another power metal rager featuring plenty of guitar acrobatics. 

If there is one common criticism I have of recent Gamma Ray albums, it’s that they have sometimes ridden a fine line between riff plagiarism and worship, but on “Empire of the Undead” the band shows quite a few nods to some other great bands. “Hellbent” brings back memories of the heaviest riff in existence: the breakdown of Judas Priest’s “Metal Meltdown”. Meanwhile, “Pale Rider” has a section in the verse that is very reminiscent of some of the vocal lines on the first Manowar record. Yet another reference comes in the form of “Empire of the Undead”, where the first couple of vocal lines have an Anvil feel to them, particularly because of the hi-hat abuse in this section of the verse. Unlike on those other Gamma Ray albums, however, these situations seem more like friendly references than being unoriginal. Overall, it’s hard to deny that “Empire of the Undead” shows a revitalized band that is making a strong case for power metal album of the year.

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"Master of Confusion"
"I Will Return"

Final Rating
4.6/5 or 92%. 

Written by Scott