German power metal was in resurgence in 1996, and its founding band resurged along with it. If Master of the Rings was an uncertain but interesting trial balloon for a new lineup, The Time of the Oath marks the point where they fully recovered. Helloween is back. No caveats, no qualifiers. They are back.
A concept album supposedly inspired by Nostradamus (particularly Quatrain 634: “many metal bands shall blatantly lie about being inspired by Nostradamus”), it was their longest studio album up to this point, aside from Chameleon. It definitely feels very long, and arguably moves with too slow a step. The final three songs are all epics, running 20 minutes in total. At times it’s exhausting, like listening to latter-day Iron Maiden.
But it’s music of grandeur, music of the ages. It feels weighty and massive, ringing out like a huge bronze bell. Obviously the two Keeper albums are holy classics, but the goddamn things end as soon as you put it on. By contrast, Time of the Oath is a deep pool you can sink into like a stone. It has humor and lightness and deftness: the large number of songs allows them to explore many tones and moods. Not all of these work, but in online forums I’ve often found myself defending its flaws, which I’ve grown to like.
“We Burn” is a scorching fireball of an opener, and “Steel Tormentor” is scarcely any slower. Deris drives these songs with his trademark verve and attitude, snarling around the microphone like a wolf. “Wake up the Mountain” opens with a Niagara-like torrent of notes from Roland Grapow. Time of the Oath marks the last time he tried to be Yngwie Malmsteen on guitar, before settling into a more blues-influenced style. The rest of the song is a stately midtempo rocker that reminds me of Rainbow.
Andi Deris dominates the songwriting here, composing two of the three best songs, “We Burn” and “Before the War”. The latter is a raging power-metal track that rolls the clock back to 1985, when Walls of Jericho came out. Kai Hansen would be proud to have written this (although he already had much to be proud of—Gamma Ray really hits its stride around 1996, too).
The album gets a bit weak in the middle. “Kings Will Be Kings” and “Power” have never especially grabbed me, and “Anything My Mama Don’t Like” is a pointless Deris-written hard rock song. Michael Weikath’s “Mission Motherland” is a lyrically and musically ambitious ode to panspermia: at nine minutes, it has its moments (some tempo changes keep things varied), but if you find the end of the album too much work, this is the one to skip. Weikath’s best song here might be the bluesy ballad “If I Knew”.
But then we get to the greatest thing album has to offer, Roland Grapow’s “Time of the Oath”. It has a grinding Zeppelin-esque set of riffs, a fantastically dense atmosphere, some spine-tingling choirs, and an electrifying vocal performance from Deris. “My sweetest memories…die in the cold!” Here’s where he conclusively demonstrates that he’s not just a spare tire until Michael Kiske 2.0 shows up, but Helloween’s new singer.
Helloween, for me, is not a band about speed and heaviness but about charm, and Time of the Oath ranks as one of their more charming releases. The songwriting, backed by Grapow and Weikath’s brittle Marshall crunch and Uli Kusch’s raw-sounding drums, has a deliberately and defiantly old-school flavor. The apocalypse described in the lyrics was sweeping over the industry like death, and here was Helloween, having the last laugh. The 90s were half-over, grunge was collapsing, and this defiantly 80s band was still here, playing power metal for all who wanted to hear it.$i;?>
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