Skeletons In The Closet (Metal-Is Records)
By: Vinnie Apicella
Not that I'm wavering by any means, but it's albums like this, before they're even opened, there's a monstrous undertaking of sight and sound that serves my argument against music files replacing the tangible quality of the actual product. And here, a two-disc digipak no less -- difficult to come by domestically -- that's, granted, lagging about a year behind the rest of the world, but then, all things considered, all that's missing from this package is the actual band member sweat and stage mist from having our butts planted right there in the midst of it all.
The idea behind Gamma Ray's second live album, "Alive '95" being their first, was, as the name suggests, dig up the old bones from their distant past as well as to spotlight the newer tunes that never quite "hit" the first time. In fact the tracks were voted on and selected by fans from the GR website with the resulting 100-plus minutes of old faves and long forgottens. Considering the band has enjoyed a lengthy career as one of the world's premiere Power Metal players and the fact they weren't supporting a new record, the idea behind this was as much to shake out the cobwebs and let the light shine on otherwise buried selections for the fun of it. After thirteen years and going the usual route of highlighting the latest and expected encore call outs, what's left to do but entertain yourselves and the fans by revisiting a past that few might've witnessed in the first place!
First thing that jumps out is the smoothness of execution in playing and production quality as dusty and undiscovered tracks like the opening instrumental, "Welcome" going all the way "back" to the "Heading For Tomorrow" release in '89, leading into and leaping forward ten years on "Gardens Of The Sinner" from "Powerplant," later jumping back again to "Rich And Famous" from '91s "Sigh No More." The performance is a veritable leap through time for band and fans alike as GR goes from primacy in one moment to later land in the lap of the present with a vibrancy and occasioned velocity in another. Half the fun is uncovering or rediscovering these hidden gems by simply plugging in and powering out without glossing over song selections and so forth. In fact it would be a good time to begin flipping through the 32-page booklet that's included with the jewel box set, problem is, what they make up for in photo footage, which covers the band from every conceivable action sequence, angle and shade, yes, in fact, like being there, there's not much in the way of written text save for Kai's opening thoughts. To that end, "Skeletons" is a documentary of sorts in spotlighting the underside of the bands' music if not a full career spanning retrospective. That's something that will likely come in time.
"All Of The Damned" is a good example of a reasonably recent track uncovered from the "Land Of The Free" album where fans may remember it as being among the quicker, catchier numbers, but not one that might figure into future prominence; Why not? Who can answer why anything even remotely "Metal" could be considered a "hit" even overseas? Suffice to say, there are quite a few instrumentally superior and progressively penned tunes that are more the 'Rays forte. "Armageddon" from the "Powerplant" release however, is a nine minute epic that recalls the grandeur of Kai's pre-GR glories with the original Helloween in a very "Keepers Of The Seven Keys" fashion, featuring both blazing speed and tempered progression. "Heavy Metal Universe" is an anthemic classic right out of the Manowar anthology, bent upon taut riffing and stout shouts of the Teutonic variety, including audience participation and then followed by another equally unifying blast from the past in "One With The World."
Disc two features another nine tracks, runs slightly longer in length, and clips a classic Helloween tune, met with instant audience approval, that in itself is a rare occurrence for the band some ten albums and seven singles into their career. "Razorblade Sigh," another from '99s "Powerplant release, sounds magnificent and it should be noted this is the first live disc from the current GR formation now eight years strong and never sounding better! Kudos to Kai for hitting the highs of his and one Ralf Scheepers before him, as well as the "sighs" -- both equally weighted here. "Heart Of The Unicorn" is among the newest material from their last "New World Order" studio release in 2001, and another that might not inspire much recognition until only after it begins playing with its Priest style "Painkiller" construct pumping and Hansen's piercing scream that one realizes it definitely should; and don't be surprised to hear some of these recent recollections recast in future shows. "Heaven And Hell" shares a kinship with disc one's "All Of The Damned" and if audience participation is any indication, this one doesn't deserve to be here. There are very few that catch the audience off guard -- it's like having a thousand strong labor union rallying cry backing a band of five, or four if we leave the drummer to his own double-bass devices.
Overall, "Skeletons In The Closet" must have been an amazing experience for those fans in Barcelona or Strasbourg who had the honor of laying the foundation for these few select shows. Gamma Ray remains well respected in the annals of Euro Metal and to follow these many obscure or less disposed live feeds enter the fray for this rare occurrence is resounding and remarkable. Finally, after all this time, the band's coming out of the closet and you'll be more than obliged to join them on this boldly conceived journey into the previously unknown!