Gamma Ray - Land of the Free (1995)
The European brand of power metal & I have had a particularly rocky relationship over the years. There are elements of most of the classic releases that I find appealing but (with the exception of one or two bands) they’re generally squashed by a whole crap-tonne of cheese. However since the Metal Academy podcast reached the 1985 period three or four years ago I’ve been making a lot more of an effort to give the more highly regarded power metal records a bit more time & attention in the hope that I’ll finally be converted & I have to admit that, even though I’ve had mixed results to date, I’ve been pleasantly surprised to find that I can actually stomach a lot more releases than I would have previously thought. One of those releases was our December feature release for The Guardians clan in Gamma Ray’s 2000 “Blast From The Past” double album which offered enough appeal to me to overcome some of the more dairy rich content. I was particularly keen on the material that took more of a traditional heavy metal approach as the band really managed to pull off a few stellar Judas Priest imitations. So this left me thinking… is it time to revisit Gamma Ray’s classic 1995 album “Land Of The Free” to see if I’d been too harsh on it in the past? Or perhaps my taste has now broadened enough to cope with the elements that were previously deal breakers for me? Time would tell but it’s worth noting that I started with a 2.5 star rating from way back in the day.
The first thing I noticed when revisiting “Land Of The Free” was the excellent production & musicianship on display. I mean Gamma Ray were clearly a well qualified & established group of musicians by that stage & you can hear it pretty easily here. The dual guitar attack were particularly impressive & their lead solos represent many of the highlight moments across the tracklisting. It’s also worth noting that front man Kai Hansen’s vocal delivery had improved remarkably since his time in Helloween & I especially enjoy the parts where he draws his inspiration from Judas Priest front man Rob Halford. No doubt he’d get better at that over the coming years too.
It has to be said that Gamma Ray’s sound was metal as fuck on this record. In fact, “Land Of The Free” really is a glorification of everything it means to be metal. Much like “Blast From The Past”, there are a few tracks that crossover into your more traditional heavy metal territory & there was a sense of inevitability about the fact that my favourite numbers generally line up with the moments when the power metal-ometer displays its lower readings. Given my strong penchant for the more extreme end of metal, I’ve always found the European power metal that’s built around a speed metal backbone to be less appealing than that which leans more towards your Priests & Maidens. I think it’s got to do with the simplicity of the faster tremolo-picked backing & the noticeable lack of riffs to an extent but those sort of tracks also tend to favour your more uplifting & cheesy choruses which are really the big elephant in the room whenever I’m sitting down for a power metal session.
“Land Of The Free” opens & closes with its strongest material in my opinion with the epic nine minute opener “Rebellion In Dreamland” seeing Gamma Ray kicking off with their biggest gun. Unfortunately though, that early promise doesn’t lead to an album of consistent merit (at least not for me personally) & I was disappointed to find that my improved tolerance for power metal hasn’t in turn seen me finding this record to be much less of a struggle than I found it to be previously. The faster speed metal driven tracks fit very comfortably under the description in the last paragraph & I almost invariably find their choruses to be pretty hard going. The chorus from “Time To break Free” sounds like it was stolen from a poppy country & western hit for God’s sakes while the ballad “Farewell” lays the cheese on in thick slices that see my stomach struggling with lactose intolerance. “All Of The Damned” is a pretty decent number & so is the thirty-nine seconds of “The Saviour” however there wasn’t really much else here to interest me besides the two bookends, despite there not being any real garbage on offer.
Ultimately it just comes down to taste though to be honest. I can easily see why power metal fans hold “Land Of The Free” in such high regard as it’s extremely well written & executed but I can’t see a time when I’ll be able to accept some of the elements at play here. There’s merit in most of this material however too much of it is tainted by obvious attempts to sound epic or simplistic gang-vocal led melodic chorus hooks. I did quite like the “Blast From The Past” double album though so perhaps all is not lost with Gamma Ray yet & a little persistence may see me being rewarded in other parts of their back catalogue.
For fans of Helloween, Blind Guardian & Judas Priest.
"Oh say does that star-spangled banner yet wave, over the LAND OF THE FREE and the home of the brave?" Waving that star-spangled banner is Kai Hansen, who left his former band Helloween and formed his own band Gamma Ray! Well of course he's German, but think of this album Land of the Free as a metaphor of independence. The problem with the first 3 Gamma Ray albums was the vocalist Ralf Scheepers. Nothing bad about himself, but his vocals and occasional lyrical contributions didn't help avenge the band Kai Hansen departed from. Scheepers left the band to audition for Judas Priest but instead formed his own band Primal Fear. With Ralf gone, Kai gained more freedom to return to his Helloween roots and took over the mic for the first time in almost a decade. The compositions became not just a tribute but a full return.
Kai Hansen and co. didn't just write this old-school-esque power metal album for the sake of the money. Hansen is never one to sell out! Back in the mid-90s, power metal was hitting an all time low in popularity and wouldn't start climbing back up for another few years. For Hansen, it's all about writing from the heart and soul. He wants to write what's best for their audience and not what's "hot on the market" those days, and that's good! He can have his fun writing and performing, and their fans can have their fun listening. But is the actual album really good? Yes, it was great during my younger power metal days! Almost every song is excellent, though they're not without a few flaws.
"Rebellion in Dreamland" is an epic dynamic opener. This is a marvelous instant classic for Gamma Ray! And that's only my second-favorite song here. My actual favorite Gamma Ray song is "Man on a Mission". It is the song listener of Helloween's Wall of Jericho almost a decade for. It is heavier and faster than Jericho, more melodic than Keepers of the Seven Keys Parts 1 & 2, and has beaten the first 3 Gamma Ray albums to oblivion. This is beyond divine! The best song by Gamma Ray and one of the best ever in power metal to this day. "Fairytale" is also brilliant, but it only comes out as a short interlude. That's more of an outro for "..."Mission". Next song "All of the Damned" has Eastern-influence guitar lead tone. Then it abruptly switches to its piano/synth outro "Rising of the Damned".
Up next is another speedy power metal highlight "Gods Of Deliverance". This is followed by ballad "Farewell", one of two songs in memory of former Helloween drummer Ingo Schwichtenberg who left that band due to mental/drug issues and musical differences, then later committed suicide by jumping into the path of a moving train. A generic cheesy ballad in tribute to a tragic loss. Also, Blind Guardian vocalist Hansi Kürsch does guest vocals in that song. "Salvation's Calling" is not as good as the first two songs but still a fast, melodic, catchy one. Another true highlight is the title track, a real power metal anthem with guest vocals by former Helloween member Michael Kiske.
"The Saviour" is a brilliant interlude that leads to another excellent highlight. "Abyss of the Void" continues the epic journey in the classic power metal pace Kai Hansen wants the band to be about. "Time to Break Free" is way too happy, with the atmospheres of the early-90s eras of Gamma Ray and Helloween. And guess who does all the vocals here? None other than Michael Kiske! That song is less epic or heavy, but still enjoyable. "Afterlife", the second song in memory of Ingo Schwichtenberg, is a decent closer.
So there you have it, a nearly perfect power metal album proving that the Helloween influences are still around in Gamma Ray. There's almost nothing to skip here. Ladies and gentlemen, Kai Hansen is still in the power metal game!
Favorites: "Rebellion in Dreamland", "Man on a Mission", "Gods of Deliverance", "Land of the Free", "Abyss of the Void", "Time to Break Free"