GAMMA RAY’S lengthy career, which has now spanned 10 full length albums, can essentially be divided into 3 distinct eras. The first of these saw the band with Rob Halford oriented vocal impresario Ralph Scheepers at the helm, culminating in a trilogy of albums that stuck fairly close to the formula established by Kiske-era HELLOWEEN, albeit morphing from a good offshoot of the “Keepers” albums to something a good bit closer to “Chameleon”. After the exodus of Scheepers to form his own band with members of the 80s Metal outfit SINNER dubbed PRIMAL FEAR, Kai Hansen took over lead vocal duties and what followed was a series of versatile, though much more stylistically centered albums that brought out more of a Speed Metal variant on their sound, in line with “Walls Of Jericho”. After the release of what some consider to be their magnum opus “No World Order”, the third era began, and consisted largely of the band taking on a sort of Metal tribute band persona, drawing heavily from bands such as MANOWAR, ACCEPT and early 80s JUDAS PRIEST.
“To The Metal’ can be seen as the band’s full embracement of their new status as Heavy Metal historians, and the results are generally strong. The songwriting on here is quite streamlined, lacking the elaborate epics and drawn out interludes common to the band’s high era in the later 90s. Straightforward homage work to the heroes of the early 80s such as “Empathy” and “Mother Angel” definitely hearken back to the driving riff mode common to ACCEPT, though Henjo Richter has elected to play up the Ritchie Blackmore influences in his playing significantly, and all but completely quotes part of the solo of “Stargazer” on “Empathy”. The title song also ventures pretty close to blatant 80s worship with a striking similarity to JUDAS PRIEST’S famed anthem “Metal Gods”, though with a chorus and a slow middle section that tends towards “Balls To The Wall”. Further reaching back to better days for Heavy Metal can be heard the “I Want Out” recap “Time To Live”, and the “Painkiller” inspired yet familiarly melodic and catchy “Deadlands”.
Thankfully, unlike the band’s lackluster 8th studio effort “Majestic”, this isn’t a complete collection of clichés and occasionally gets a little adventurous. For the most part, these ventures result in well put together songs, such as the bass happy speed song “Shine Forever”. In fact, a close listen to this album reveals Dirk Schlächter to be a formidable force on the bass, invoking images of Steve Harris and Markus Grosskopf, with an occasional nod to Geddy Lee here and there. “Chasing Shadows” sees Richter reprising his masterful invocations of Malmsteen vs. Johannsen in the lead department, while the general riff set and keyboard work shows an inventiveness that has been absent from much of what the band has done in the past 8 years. “Rise” and “All You Need To Know” don’t come off as being quite as original, but nonetheless are loaded with some solid riffs and memorable moments, particularly the chorus of the latter song, courtesy of the now reluctant vocal hero with a hundred guest slots to his name and former HELLOWEEN front man Michael Kiske.
The only place where things really fall apart musically is the closing song “No Need to Cry”, which tries to recapture that epic Metal meets 70s Rock aura first heard on “The Silence”, but this time with an acoustic section straight out of THE WHO’S playbook, and with several musical quotations of QUEEN and KANSAS. Suffice to say, it clashes with everything else on here, lacks the coherence of any of this band’s previous ballad experiments, and is so lyrically cliché by even the standards of Power Metal and Hard Rock that it becomes overtly awkward. Probably the only positive that can really be drawn from this confused little song is a pretty solid impersonation of both Pete Townsend’s guitar playing and Roger Daltrey’s gravely shouts, which although completely out of place, is fairly impressive.
Basically, anyone who enjoyed the previous 2 albums before this one will gravitate towards this, with maybe the exception of those who think consistently releasing the same album format 3 times is a bit much and are looking for something a little different. Don’t expect any groundbreaking songs that redefine the genre, but instead a restatement of the same classic definition of German Power Metal that Kai and several others pioneered over 2 decades ago. I’d personally put slightly more priority over picking up “Land Of The Free 2”, but this is almost as good, and definitely a consistent continuation of the band’s recent incarnation.
(Online April 15, 2010)