Some bands are just like finest wines, only getting better with every year passing by. You know they’re going to deliver some great material again, and you’re buying their albums without second thought, and these bands never disappoint. Coming up with the new ideas and breathing life into the old ones, they create another solid work one after another, never trying to make a complete 180º turnaround, and that’s why they’re loved, isn’t it? You can always expect something so familiar from them, and at the same time so impressive. Gamma Ray is, without doubt, one of these bands. While there are no groundbreaking deviations from their usual style in Empire of the Undead, the new full-length album from German metal beasts, the songs are shining with talent, passion and inspiration there, making the ride down this metal road incredibly enjoyable.
While Gamma Ray is a worldwide-known band and is rocking the scene for 25 years now, it never hurts to recite their history and introduce it to those readers that had never heard of it. The band was formed in 1989 by Kai Hansen, who was originally only playing guitar, but took the role of vocalist too in 1995 after the departure of Ralf Scheepers. With Scheepers, Gamma Ray released three studio albums, and since Kai became the band’s frontman, the guys put out another eight albums, including famous Land of the Free, New World Order and this one. Another lead guitarist, who is also contributing on the keyboards, is Henjo Richter, joined the band in 1997. There is another long-time member, Dirk Schlächter, who played guitar first, but switched to bass along the way. Finally, the drumming on the record was done by Michael Ehré, who recently replaced Daniel Zimmerman after 15 years of band activity.
The first and biggest surprise Empire of the Undead has up its sleeve will be dropped on the listener right after he hits “Play” button. Offering us nine minutes of pure glorious metal, Avalon opens the record with tremendous amount of sheer energy. Calm, acoustic intro enriches the composition, also giving the audience time to embrace the concert atmosphere in a live setting. It reminds me of Empathy intro from the band previous album, To the Metal. The song develops in a predictable way, going through few verses and choruses, into a bridge and to the long string of solos by both Kai and Henjo, and all this is honed to perfection. The way acoustic parts flow into head-banging, epic sections in a blink of an eye is admirable, and the usage of backing vocals on the chorus while Kai makes his entrance only at the last lines is cleverly done and indeed important for the whole build-up. At the last minute, though, Kai sings all the lines and it’s the most impressive thing I’ve heard of him in years. Honestly, this ending slays. Avalon isn’t just a nice opener; it raises the expectations bar for the album up to the skies.
Putting such a song in the beginning of the record is associated with the risk of other songs isn’t quite living up to its level. The proper follow up needed to be written and the band has successfully accomplished this task too. A Judas Priest-like anthem praising metal, Hellbent could be compared with a train going forward at full speed: a sweeping tune, engaging and musically aggressive. On the other hand, Pale Rider is bit calmer, with more rockish vibe to it. The style of singing can put you off here, compared to Avalon with its soaring vocals, this one is more muddy and strained. The song is also much more aggressive lyrically, which is probably one of the reasons it works live so well. I mean, who doesn’t want to scream “Burn, motherfucker, feel the flame!” at the top of their lungs on a metal concert? Sometimes I want to do that in the office at work. Alright, moving on.
Hellbent, if I recall correctly, was the first single from the album released, but there were also two songs fans were already familiar with, thanks to EP came out a year ago. I’m speaking of Master of Confusion and the title track, Empire of the Undead. The former feels like a distant sibling of Send Me a Sign and Helloween’s I Want Out. The humorous aspect of Gamma Ray prevails here; Kai jokingly pictures their relationship with their label and how they always miss all the deadlines, explaining it with such nonsense as “unexpected ghost in the machinery”. The ironic thing is the song was written and released before the band’s recording studio perished in a massive fire. The track is catchy as hell and you’ll have this chorus stuck in your head for a long time. The tune purposefully sounds fun and lighthearted, while the latter, title track, is a polar opposite to it. It has something from Judas Priest’s Exciter, and it has that distinctive thrashy feel, which perhaps is determined by the subject it’s about. Such an exhausting song to listen should definitely be followed by a ballad, and here’s Time to Deliverance to settle that matter. This beautiful piece about angels is basically Gamma Ray’s ballad by numbers, and that’s probably why I’m in love with it so much. Clean guitars, incentive vocal melodies and forceful singing by Kai seal the deal. At the live performances it gives the audience a long-awaited and welcome chance to take a breath before the band begins to shatter the venue again.
The ending sequence is weaker than the opening one, yet I can’t say it’s underwhelming. Let’s see: Demonseed features a jarring spoken intro, and then goes on for six minutes of standard Gamma Ray metal. The verses aren’t quite memorable, but the main riff, well-constructed chorus and the transition from quiet middle part to the heaviness again are making the song worth it. Seven features almost note-to-note the same riff as Master of Confusion. The verse has that song written all over it. That’s either a nice callback or lack of ideas, and as a fan I tend to think it’s the former. The chorus, though, is much alike the one from Iron Maiden’s Rainmaker, only with a faster pace. In the same vein, I Will Return opens with the Helloween’s March of Time-ish intro, and then suddenly old good vocal melodies from Dethrone Tyranny appear out of nowhere. Seriously, the similarity of those too can’t be denied even by the most avid fans out there.
Before I’ll make any statements about the record’s quality, I would like to say I don’t listen to Rays for their unique songwriting. I just want to get my dose of kick-ass metal, sometimes dark, sometimes melodic and sometimes funny, and this album provides it in full. Of course some fans will keep finding quarrels in a straw, but I was a fan of Rays for long and I’ve got used to that. Empire of the Undead is a hell lot energetic than To the Metal, it’s more fascinating and interesting, and if you dared to give up on them after it, give this one a try. I’m incredibly satisfied with this record and almost couldn’t wish for more. The guys did it again.