Largely treated as either an all out mistake or an ill-conceived interlude to get themselves off the hook with Raw Power records so they could sign with Nuclear Blast, “Metal Jukebox” had the unique situation of being a HELLOWEEN release that I avoided getting for more than 10 years based on a lot of bad press. The lesson that I proceeded to learn upon hearing this is that basing your purchasing decisions on what others say is not a good idea, as a band that has a pretty consistent record tends not to deviate from it, even if playing a set of covers in a style pretty far removed from what they were meant for. Suffice to say, from the perspective of someone who is familiar with just about all of these songs, this band delivers the good here and successfully breathes life into several songs that have been killed by repeated play on Rock radio.
There are usually two problems that occur with cover albums that generally cause me to shy away from them, even when one of my favorite bands is the one involved in the undertaking. The first is that the band changes their own sound to perfectly fit the style and original character of the songs and essentially creates near exact carbon copies of the songs, which completely defeats the purpose of rerecording the songs and was my primary problem with DEF LEPPARD’S “Yeah”. The other is that the band morphs the songs into something so utterly unrecognizable that they might as well be an original song minus the vocal melody, which usually occurs when Dance/Techno groups remake songs. A successful cover, like a tight rope act, really needs to walk a fine line between being different yet remaining the same, and in this respect HELLOWEEN is successful at basically every juncture.
Although there aren’t a lot of really overt note additives, many of these songs sound pretty far removed from their original versions. For example, although still basically an acoustic song, “Space Oddity” has had its entire atmosphere revamped to something much more spacey sounding. The quirky keyboard and string sounds of the original don’t quite have that corny, 1960s take on futuristic imagery to them. Deris’ vocal interpretation is a bit smoother and flowing, and the acoustic guitar isn’t quite as high in the mix. Similarly, the FAITH NO MORE cover “From Out Of Nowhere” sounds about 10 times better because Deris can actually sing the melody without his voice constantly cracking like a 12 year old boy with a baritone voice (aka Mike Patton). It’s one of those songs that wasn’t terribly bad to begin with, but is so simplistic that a bad vocal performance makes the difference between it being enjoyable versus sucking something awful.
The song selection is very well in line with the earlier influences that have shaped HELLOWEEN’s unique brand of Power Metal. Early pioneering Speed Metal song by the SCORPIONS, “He’s A Woman, She’s A Man”, showcases the band updating the Rock oriented guitar and production sound towards something much heavier, almost to the point of matching the aggression heard on “Better Than Raw”. Roland’s love for Uli Jon Roth shows through as he offers up a late 90s version of the radically wild shredding that Roth helped bring to the table in the 70s. The band also incorporates a later Speed Metal song ala Canadian Hard Rocker Frank Marino and his band MAHOGANY RUSH in “Juggernaut”, which comes off as even more aggressive, but this is to be expected as the original version of that song was pretty close to MANOWAR territory, while the SCORPIONS song was still leaning towards a DEEP PURPLE character.
Naturally there are a few off kilter selections on here that could only qualify as influential to this band if you look at their early 90s releases with Michael Kiske. The FOCUS and ALEX HARVEY covers definitely tilt towards a Progressive Rock character, the former really coming off weird during those yodeling vocal sections. Nonetheless, it gives a tiny bit of insight into where bands that influenced the likes of DREAM THEATER could be incorporated into the Power Metal style, which fits in with the later rise of Power Progressive outfits like COMMUNIC, particularly the long and multiple guitar soloing sections and untraditional song structures. Things go even further out of the realm of normalcy with two really old Rock songs in “All My Loving” and “White Room”, both of which have had their principle guitar parts tweaked with a lot of elaborate Metal additives. The latter is the best song on here and listens pretty close to how MASTERPLAN’s remake of “Black Dog” would sound 3 years after this.
Ironically enough, the most interesting thing about this album isn’t the song selection, but the drastic change in the band’s sound. Despite being loaded with Classic Rock songs, the guitar tone and production on here is even darker and heavier than “Better Than Raw”, almost as if the band is foreshadowing their own evolution before signing with Nuclear Blast. Though it probably doesn’t carry the same musical appeal as the 2 studio albums that came before it and the one that immediately followed it due to its eclectic nature, it falls into the category of essential listening for any fan of the band, and could serve to broaden the musical horizons of most Power and Speed Metal fans who aren’t really in touch with the 70s Rock roots of the style. Of all the cover albums I’ve heard in recent years, this is one of the better ones, and definitely should not be shelved as a mere afterthought following the brilliance of “Better Than Raw”.
(Online April 6, 2009)